In the beginning, if you listened closely you could hear Karen Burkes sewing machine humming at all hours of the night. Stitch after stitch, pillow after pillow, the president and founder of Kare Products, sewed untiringly to complete her first line of ergonomic pillows.
Karen started her business, then-called Kare Pillows, as the result of an on-the-job personal injury. Let it be known that the workers compensation pay and most importantly waiting for payment does not support the ability to heal or move on with ones life. Aware of Karens business endeavors, her doctor encouraged her to design a small pillow that would provide support to the natural curve of the neck. He said, "If you come up with a good design, Ill take 60!" and that was enough incentive to fuel Karens determination to create new designs and then learn to sew!
"In those days, we practiced just in time manufacturing," says Karen. "Id get an order and payment on the spot to buy raw materials, make the product, then deliver it. With little capital investment, I had to cut expenses where I could so as part of our Wednesday date night, my business partner, Craig Stewart, would help me cruise alleys for recycled boxes to package products." Karen developed her business by meeting the needs of local chiropractors and physical therapists specializing in design and gearing products to different body sizes.
Almost 18 years later, the one-woman show operating out of a backyard shed now exceeds $1.2 million in sales conducting business in a 6,000-square-foot facility in Boulder, Colorado, featuring an ergonomic classroom environment, hands-on play stations and over 1,500 products. Offering sit-stand electric desks, desking systems, chairs, support pillows, exercise rolls and so much more, Kare Products thoughtfully designs products to provide relief, energy and comfort safely.
The turning point
After being home-based for many years, Kare Products landed a milestone in 1987 when Craig, vice president of technical services, joined as a co-owner and expanded the company by more than 450 percent. Craigs professional expertise in marketing and systems set the companys next stage of growth. With a certification from the National Safety Congress, Craig had specialized in helping customers identify ergonomic solutions that protected workers within a companys budget. Together, Craig and Karen designed ergonomic programs for Fortune 500 companies and provided on-site ergonomic evaluations for both office and industrial settings.
"Theres no question the company wouldnt be what it is today without Craig," Karen states. "Weve gone the distance, stayed the vision and taken turns inspiring each other." Since 1987, Kare has grown notably every year.
Karen and Craig also agree health care providers have been a tremendous resource to the growth of the company providing important feedback and referrals since its inception. "Their input during research and development phases has continued to provide us with a high-quality product line. Our products are used and tested in clinics for effectiveness by physical therapists, occupational therapists, doctors and safety professionals."
In 1996, the company incorporated and changed its name from Kare Pillows to Kare Products to reflect the shift in the product offering from just pillows to an expanding ergonomic product line.
In 1998, Kare Products reached another landmark in the companys history as it was awarded the winner of the Boulder Chambers Small Business in the category of light manufacturer. This level of achievement was a direct result of the dedication and hard work of the Kare team and input from federal and state organizations, including Lockheed Martin and the General Services Administration and locally by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and the University of Colorado.
Perseverance pays off
Along with support from health care and corporate professionals, Karens vision, creativity, hard work and determination proved to be key components to making Kare successful. Despite the fact she doesnt have a college degree, Karens innate business sense and strong will to succeed was put to the test. "At first, I built the business inch by inch initially making a lot of cold calls and paying for most expenses with a credit card," she says. "The first computer we purchased cost $10,000 because of the interest rate!
"I was willing to take risks because I had nothing to loose and it was exciting to see my visionary dreams of a successful business become a reality," Karen adds. "If youre reaping, sewing and harvesting all the time, youll keep the cycle going
you have to in order to sustain a business for 18 years. Realize that as a business grows, challenges change so you must always be creating new visions and know where youre headed.
"Initially, the business was built one brick at a time and 18 years later, were still building it one brick at a time and able to move mountains," she continues. "Were small enough to ensure we provide top-notch service every customer is important to us. Our excellent service record has enabled us to build many long-lasting relationships with individual buyers and Fortune 500 companies."
Can you hear the hum yet?
Eighteen years ago, the goal was to complete 60 back pillows for a doctor. Fast-forwarding the clock to today, what is the primary goal of Kare Products? Karen says to continue developing products that support people and make them more comfortable in a fun and healthy manner and to reach out to new customers through Kares educational and product-driven Web site. "And it would be nice to double our business this year!" she adds.
Nowadays as it has been for many years Karen utilizes the services of stay-at-home seamstress Moms to sew their exclusive line of pillows. And if you listen closely, you can still hear a quiet hum echoing through the offices of Kare Products. But this time its not the sewing machine you hear, but the delightful hum of Karen and Craig singing to the tune of success as they continue to build their business one brick at a time.