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Mom creates customized care packages

When Trish Norman-Figueiredo registered her oldest son, Peter, for college in Orlando a few years ago, his orientation packet included information on a company that made student care packages. The Plantation mom used the service twice to send treats to her son, but wasn’t happy with the result.

The packages her son received didn’t include all the advertised items, she said.  “So I starting putting my own together,” Norman-Figueiredo said.

By the time her youngest, Kenneth, went away to college, Norman-Figueiredo had gotten into a routine of sending special boxes to the boys during exams or when they were sick. “Then I started sending them to my sons’ friends, because the parents knew I was good at it,” Norman-Figueiredo said.

The mom saw a business opportunity. Today she runs CuddleCube.com, which offers specialty gift boxes. Here is how she did it.

Big idea

CuddleCube is a customizable care package that can be sent to college students or exchange students who may not have a way to get basic necessities when they need them. Themes range from “Brain Food” to “Time to Cram!” to “A Little TLC,” which includes chicken soup, crackers, cough drops and tissues. Specialized theme baskets for other occasions, such as a new baby, also are available. Standard boxes range from $29.99 to $69.99.

Background

Born in New York and raised in California, Norman-Figueiredo met her husband, Pedro, a civil engineer, in Brazil. Together they own three small businesses. They have EngCo, an engineering firm; PK Drafting and More, a small business consulting firm; and CuddleCube.com.

“I’ve also worked in a bank and as a retail manager,” Norman-Figueiredo said. “I’m kind of a jack-of-all-trades.”

Sons Peter, 23, and Kenneth, 20, attend the University of Central Florida in Orlando.

Research

Norman-Figueiredo said she used her own experience to guide her in many ways. “I had kids in college, and I had been looking for someone who does what I’m doing,” she said. Through Internet searches and information from college campuses, she found only large companies that ship pre-assembled boxes, or that used different items than advertised.

“This is not a new idea. It’s actually a pretty big business,” Norman-Figueiredo said. But she said she thought she could improve upon the basic idea by adding personalization and customization. Norman-Figueiredo used trial and error to decide what to put in her boxes, and quizzed college kids and parents on their likes and dislikes.

She found wholesalers to supply items like highlighters and notebooks, and buys food items from warehouse stores as she needs them, so they are fresh.

Product development

CuddleCube.com was launched in March 2013, with seven package themes, including studying, get well soon, first aid and laundry day. Norman-Figueiredo does all of the shopping, packaging and shipping. She started by placing the items straight into a box cushioned with Styrofoam peanuts, but found some items got “lost.” So she started placing items in a decorative gift bag before dropping it into the box.

Norman-Figueiredo expanded her product line to accommodate parent requests. She added gluten-free and organic baskets, and had “taste parties” with her sons to determine what products to put in them. She began expanding her list of add-ons, such as a hand steamer or lingerie bag for her laundry day box or a reusable bowl for the TLC box.

Norman-Figueiredo got requests from Brazilian friends to send care packages with items from Brazil to homesick students attending school in the states. She expanded her line to include specialty boxes with themes like gardening, spa and new baby.

“I love giving gifts and going out shopping for gifts that fit someone’s personality,” Norman-Figueiredo said. “My friends even gave me a nickname -- ‘The Gifted Giver.’”

Marketing

CuddleCube has an eCommerce website, and Norman-Figueiredo uses Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and LinkedIn to share photos, quotes and thoughts. She started a blog called “The Gifted Giver” in July and manages three Facebook pages: one for her business, one for her blog, and a personal page.

"When I started to intermix the Facebook pages, I got more traffic,” Norman-Figueiredo said. “I think it’s because people started associating the business with me personally. They are getting to know me and think, ‘She’s just a mom like me.’ ”

She had promotional cards printed to give out and has sponsored charity events. In October, she will have a table at the South Florida Women’s Expo, which highlights businesses for women.

Norman-Figueiredo contacted two college campuses to see how she could promote her business. When she moved Kenneth to UCF in early August, she handed out cards to other parents moving their kids in.

“I haven’t focused on marketing too much, because I’m still trying to get up and running,” Norman-Figueiredo said.

Initial capital outlay

About $6,000 has been spent on website development, initial inventory, packaging, supplies and promotion. The majority was spent on web development, so the site can grow with the business and be portable to another server, if needed. “A lot of do-it-yourself sites have to start over if the host fails,” she said.

CuddleCube.com sells about 15 units a month and is not yet profitable.

Challenge

Online visibility, Norman-Figueiredo said. “Having an online presence is so different from running a brick-and-mortar store,” she said. “I had not done any SEO (search engine optimization) homework.”

Next step

Norman-Figueiredo has hired an SEO specialist to help increase her online visibility. “I thought I could do it on my own, but it’s much more complex than I thought,” she said.

She would like to increase orders to 50-60 a month so she can hire part-time help.

Typical day

Norman-Figueiredo rises about 6:30 a.m., works out, spruces up the house, and starts work about 9 a.m. Since CuddleCube.com is home based, she answers emails, phone calls, packs and ships orders for the day. Then she heads to the offsite engineering office, to put in about two hours in the other family businesses.

She arrives home about 2 p.m., and handles website issues, blogging, social media and phone calls.

“Both kids are away, so my time is flexible, but they call me all day long,” Norman-Figueiredo said. “People think when their kids get out of the house, they’re done, but they still depend on us … It’s a different kind of busy.”

After spending the evening with husband, Pedro, Norman-Figueiredo heads to the computer about 10:30 p.m. and prepares for the next day. She goes to bed about 1 a.m.

Advice

“If you’re venturing into the online world, really research the complexity,” Norman-Figueiredo said. “That’s where I’m struggling.”

If you want to start a business, don’t overthink it, she said. “You will get overwhelmed.”

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