Kathy Steck – Owner and Creator of DinerWear

[quote style=”boxed”]I believe the path we follow is always the path we had to take to get us where we are.[/quote]

Kathy Steck is a “mompreneur,” “solopreneur,” “inventor,” “owner,” and…well…pick a title. She started DinerWear® with a chic product that helps people Dine with Dignity. The Cravaat™ is an elegant dining scarf that puts fashion into function. By re-inventing an age-old product, she turned the “adult bib” into a fashion statement. Now she is serving a market who has been eager for change, and by making it fashionable she’s expanded the market to a new customer base.

Kathy is a degreed Industrial Engineer who was a production / plant manager during her twenty-one year career before she took time to raise her family. When she decided to start a business, she turned to her sewing skills and her passion for design. Now she is combining her design skills with her manufacturing experience to grow her business and hopefully put an end to adult bibs , all while still raising her family.

In her limited spare time, she is working on an adult novel about her experience during a violent strike in New York where she was the first female production manager. She is also working on getting her children’s picture book published.

What are you working on right now?

I am currently focusing on building a presence in the senior living market through direct marketing. At the same time, I am working design features for our products.

Where did the idea for DinerWear® come from?

I got the idea when a friend said, “Adults don’t want to wear bibs.” But she knew many adults succumbed to them. Her grandmother wore a lamiae one, but for as fancy as it may have been, it was still a bib. So I tapped into her creative juices and came up with a solution that looked nothing like those over-sized child products. I love to wear scarves, and realized they covered just where you need it. But it had to be made with the right fabric in order to still be elegant while also being stain resistant and machine washable. When I found the suede-like microfiber she’s currently using she knew she found the ideal solution.

How do you make money?

DinerWear®’s revenue comes from online sales through our own website, as well as through Amazon and ebay. We also wholesale to a few retailers and sell directly to senior living communities.

What does your typical day look like?

My first order of business when I start my day is to fill orders. Then, after following up on emails, my days vary between updating our catalog, working on product designs, and conducting sales and marketing activities. As a soloprenuer, I also spend time on my financials, reconciling the books at month end, paying bills, and following up on outstanding invoices. In addition to all that, I also manage the inventory: ordering, receiving, and stocking. If there is something that needs to be done for the business, I do it. But the most important thing I’ve learned is that keeping a To Do list helps me manage my time.

How do you bring ideas to life?

When I it comes to product design, I start with prototypes, creating the pattern and tweaking according to how the product fits me as well as how it fits my husband, who is larger than me. I search for sources for materials, which is why I attend the textile shows in Chicago and New York. I then have my cut and sew contractor make a sample, then I ask a customer to test out the product. This process is also followed for modifications for my existing designs. For the closures, I make samples and send to customers to get their first hand feedback. It’s important to remember that the users are the best source for knowing how the product is working out. I then need to find ways to solve conflicting issues.

What’s one trend that really excites you?

For someone who is in the business of dignity, I am excited when I hear that there is culture change in senior living communities that addresses dignity. This culture change has turned “nursing homes” into senior care communities and memory care communities. This means that undignified, child-like bibs are no longer going to be the norm for elders.

What was the worst job you ever had and what did you learn from it?

The worst job I ever had was as a second shift supervisor of a small production line at a small glass company on the edge of the Cabrini Green projects in Chicago. I had virtually no responsibility except to make sure the work was getting done. I had already been a plant manager at a mid-sized candy company, so this job was a step backwards. I learned how important it was for me to be part of a team and to be involved in making decisions and improving productivity.

If you were to start again, what would you do differently?

I believe the path we follow is always the path we had to take to get us where we are. I also am the type who always wishes I had ten years of experience in one. In the case of my business, I wish I knew how important search engine optimization was for an online business from the first moment I created my website. If I had implemented SEO tools on my website from the start I would have achieved higher sales much earlier.

Instead I struggled for more than a year trying to be found in the massive world of the internet.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

I regularly review my product designs and look for ways to improve them and add to our options.

I also continually look for new ways to promote my business. I regularly look for PR opportunities, as well as new ways to advertise and market the business.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

Early on, I spent a large amount of money to participate in a large women’s show with the expectation that an audience of 30,000 women would generate enough sales and exposure to pay for itself and get my business off to a strong start. Unfortunately, while the response to my product was stellar, sales were disappointing. It taught me that I have a perception hurdle to get over. While people loved my fashionable dining scarf because it didn’t look anything like a bib, they still didn’t want to buy it because it was a bib. I learned to focus on my primary market – senior living communities. This market is actually looking for products like mine. They need adult bibs for their residents and want something more dignified. A bib that doesn’t look like a bib is just the thing. DinerWear®’s Cravaat™ gives them the perfect solution, making it a much easier sell.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

This was a business idea I had at the same time I was working on starting DinerWear® – making a spice blend for coffee. I add spices to my coffee because they are healthy and it tastes good. It’s sort of like a coffee version of Chai. I considered packaging my spice blend to be sold side by side with coffee, which is a sixty billion dollar industry.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be and how would you go about it?

I always wanted to make a difference in this world by making life better for people. Someone once told me I did by making a difference in the lives of the people who worked for me when I was a plant manager.

I wish more people would operate with others in mind – to act in the best interest of the whole as opposed to the self.

Tell us something about you that very few people know?

I have dreamed of being a fashion designer. I long to design not only clothes, but shoes and purses too.

What are your three favorite online tools or resources and what do you love about them?

USPS – I use the United States Postal Service for all my shipping. Not only have they proven to be cheaper than the other services, I know they will be coming to my door every day. I like supporting them because I think too many people take this service for granted. And they are very easy to use.

Other than that, I have no specific sources that I go to regularly.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

For anyone eager to have an online presence, Search Engine Optimization: An Hour a Day by Jennifer Grappone and Gradiva Couzin is a great tool for improving your SEO.

After realizing that my website had no search engine optimization tools included on it, I immediately implemented many of the suggestions in the book. Within a few weeks, DinerWear® was finally showing up on searches, and with time DinerWear® is now on the first page. I highly recommend this book because it was very easy to follow and very straight forward. Jennifer Grappone and Gradiva Couzin also provide relatively inexpensive reviews and suggestions for small businesses like mine to help improve SEO even further.

When was the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?

Big Bang Theory & Frasier make me laugh every time I watch them — and re-watch them.

But, although it didn’t happen recently, my favorite thing that made me laugh was the day my daughter walked up to me, lifted my arms straight out to my sides, then looked at me and said, “If you insist,” as she gave me a big hug. She always knows how to pull me out of my intensity and make life a little lighter and more joyful.

Who is your hero, and why?

I haven’t grown up with heroes because I was never taught to put people on pedestals, but as I grew up I realized that my parents were my heroes. They both have a great amount of integrity, extend themselves to others, and are strong, good and honorable people. They taught me integrity – which I have defined to my own children as doing what is best for everyone over what is best for you.

Based on those classifications, I love Tim Gunn because he acts like I wish more people in the media would act – with class. He is the example that more people need to follow. He is the type of person we need to celebrate.

What is a marketing plan?

When I first started my business, many people talked about a marketing plan. It sounded so official and complicated. I came to learn that a marketing plan can be as simple as identifying who you want to sell to and how you are going to communicate with them. A simple table, listing categories and sources is all you need. And then, of course, it’s all about implementation. Don’t spend too much time planning, but plan and implement, then re-plan. It’s a cycle with no magic to it.

How can you find happiness?

Happiness isn’t something you are going to find in the future when life becomes perfect. Happiness has to be found in today. I try to put connections with people as a priority because the work will always be there. I used to think that I could hurry and get everything done and then have time to relax and enjoy some peace. But after years of chasing an empty To Do list, I’ve learned that the To Do list will never be completed, so I need to let go a little and find moments of happiness in every day.


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