It started with a lost cell phone.
Angela Lee had gone to a tailgate party before a Nebraska football game. She hadn't wanted to lug a purse around, so she put her phone in her pocket. At some point, it was gone.
The lost phone was annoying, but it spurred Lee to come up with a fix.
Enter the Sholdit — a handbag/scarf hybrid that hit stores this summer. Lee introduced Husker- and Creighton-themed Sholdits earlier this month, just in time for other sports fans who aren't keen on toting handbags to games.
The Sholdit is a circle scarf with two hidden pockets — one for a cell phone and a larger one for cash, credit cards and other lightweight items. The entire scarf can be tucked into the larger pocket, converting the garment to a small clutch handbag.
The bag is available at Scheels, Husker Hounds and SKYZ Boutique, among other local retailers. It's also available in several casinos, as well as online at Sholdit.com. And Lee spent two weeks in August at trade shows in New York and Las Vegas in hopes of spurring wider distribution.
“You don't need everything that's in your purse,” said Lee, who hasn't carried a purse since receiving the first prototypes last winter.
Lee, 30, is the former owner and publisher of the Omaha magazine Strictly Business. Through the magazine, she met a contractor whose office happened to be full of bags. When Lee asked him what the bags were for, he said they belonged to his wife, who has her own business importing athletic bags, including licensed ones for the NFL. At that point, Lee had come up with the idea for the Sholdit, but she didn't know how to turn her idea into a tangible product. Lee explained her idea to the contractor, who gave her his wife's number.
So Lee called and pitched her idea.
That was last summer, said Omahan Pam Finn, the contractor's wife and founder and CEO of Creative Enterprises Hong Kong Limited and now a close adviser to Lee.
Finn loves handbags. She particularly loves large, expensive handbags. Regardless, when Lee explained her idea, she was intrigued.
“I told her I'd meet her and take a look at it,” Finn said.
At that point, a physical Sholdit did not exist. Lee bought a sewing machine and made a prototype herself. Finn was impressed with the product, but she was also impressed with Lee's drive. So she offered to help.
Finn invited Lee and her mother to Hong Kong, where she has an office. There, the women worked on the product's design, selected material for prototypes and made samples in Finn's sample room.
“Part of it is that I really like the product,” Finn said. “But I see in Angela a spirit that I had 25 years ago when I started my business.”
Finn and Lee still meet weekly. Finn advises Lee on matters like trade shows to attend, potential buyers to approach and ways to make the product more marketable. Recently, they came up with packaging for the Sholdit — a clear plastic case printed with instructions on how to wear and style it, how to use the pockets and how to convert the product into a clutch. She also urged Lee to apply for a patent and has helped her with her website and marketing.
Lee has drawn on the wisdom of other Omaha business owners she met during her magazine days, as well, assembling an advisory board to help her with legal and financial issues and other business matters.
Now that the product is in stores locally, Lee is working to get the word out beyond Nebraska. She's also trying to grow recognition of the product so she doesn't need to explain how it works.
And while the process of inventing a product and starting a company has been scary, Lee said she feels lucky to be in the position she's in.
“You don't get opportunities like this very often,” she said.
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