Frustrated with seeing a generation of kids growing up shallow and materialistic, Andrea Nachtigall, a Key Biscayne mom of two, decided to do something about it. In May 2010 she began brainstorming about making youth T-shirts with character-building messages.
"I saw a lot of poor kids growing up in Colombia. I have a different perspective," she said. "Our kids today have no idea what the real world is."
Nachtigall teamed up with two other moms, Lorenza Gonzalez of Coconut Grove and Maria Smith of Key Biscayne, to create Cloud 9 World, which markets products containing messages to enhance self-esteem and self-worth.
The big idea
Cloud 9 World matches animal illustrations with a positive character trait, such as integrity, compassion or courage, to help kids age 4 to 11 feel good about themselves. The line markets T-shirts ($20), caps ($13), placemats ($7), journals ($16) and other gift items.
The three Colombian-born women each bring something to the business. Nachtigall ran a handbag importing business for 20 years until her kids, Olivia, 9, and Phillip, 7, were born. Gonzalez, a mom of three daughters, ages 27, 24 and 18, is a graphic designer. Smith, a mom of three daughters, ages 22, 18 and 16, is a former actress and model who ran a film production company with her husband, Norman Smith, an illustrator.
Gonzalez came up with the idea of pairing animals with character virtues, and Norman Smith drew the illustrations. Nachtigall found a copywriter in Atlanta to help develop inspirational messages to print on their products. They decided to market to the gift industry.
"We didn’t want to be an apparel company, we wanted to be a gift company, because they have a lot more distributors," Nachtigall said.
They began looking for innovative packaging for their T-shirts to make them stand out in the gift industry, and settled on a can-shaped holder with a handle. A website was developed, not as an e-commerce site, but as a reference for retailers.
"We wanted to brand it before word got out too quickly," Nachtigall said.
The Cloud 9 team consulted a child psychologist to discuss what age groups to target, to learn parents’ biggest concerns, what virtues were themost important and what animals to incorporate into the design. After a test run of 2,500 shirts, (100 each of 25 different virtues), Cloud 9 began conducting focus group studies. They met with parents and children separately to get feedback. They decided to do a line of several products, "so the child is constantly reminded of the virtues," Nachtigall said.
The initial capital investment was about $150,000 for the May to December 2010 research studies, product development, samples, illustrations, copy and packaging. It also included point-of-purchase displays, signage for showrooms, website development, photography, advertising and catalogs.
Nachtigall relied on her experience with marketing her handbag line to find distributors. She knew the secret was preparation. Distributors like to work with reliable companies that have a unique product.
"I told [Maria and Lorenza] there was no room for error, we had to be perfect when we were ready for distribution," Nachtigall said.
In January 2011 Nachtigall and Gonzalez traveled to Atlanta for the largest spring gift market in the country. They now have 75 sales reps that travel throughout the country visiting retailers. Their merchandise is in about 300 stores, locally at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden and Books and Books, both in Coral Gables. Their website lists retailers by state.
In June, Cloud 9 World expanded its line with a release of softcover books ($4.99 each) that illustrate each of 12 character traits.
The entire line sells 15,000 to 20,000 pieces a month, but it is not yet profitable, and the partners do not yet draw a salary. They have hired two employees, however, to help warehouse and fill their own orders.
Cloud 9 World advertises to potential retail buyers at markets, through everything from elevator door ads to trade publications.
"We don’t want to advertise to consumers until we have products in more stores," Nachtigall said.
The partners are developing a line of back-to-school supplies that are being produced in China for the fall. They also would like to expand to home goods and to infant, toddler and adult sizes.
"The secret to success in the industry is to keep it fresh for buyers," Nachtigall said. "Every time they see us, we should have something new."
Balancing work and family. Protecting their idea – though they did hire a trademark attorney and registered all of their virtue and animal pairings for about $2,000. Lining up capital sources, including investors and lines of credit, for future growth.
Nachtigall rises about 6 a.m., and gets her kids up about 6:30 a.m. They are dropped off by 7:15 a.m., and she is Cloud 9’s office in downtown Miami at 8:20 a.m. Nachtigall spends the day calling reps, checking samples and reviewing product orders. She leaves the office at 4:30 p.m. for family activities, homework and dinner. The kids go to bed at 8:30 p.m., then Nachtigall jumps on the computer until about 1 or 1:30 a.m. Sometimes she and her partners work weekends.
"For a business to get started, you have to put the work into it to be successful," she said.
Advice for other moms
"Be persistent. We’re all full of such wonderful ideas, but one gives up so quickly," Maria Smith said. "Keep going, keep working on your ideas, even if things don’t happen easily. If you keep going, it will happen eventually."