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Banking on KC – Laura Schmidt of Notes to Self

 

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Laura Schmidt of Notes to Self: Words Make All the Difference

Kelly Scanlon:

Welcome to Banking on KC. I'm your host, Kelly Scanlon. Thank you for joining us. With us on this episode is Laura Schmidt, the founder and chief positive person at notes to self. Welcome, Laura.

Laura Schmidt:

Thank you, Kelly. So excited to be here.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've been leveraging the power of positive thinking ever since you were in grade school, so as a child you learned, you understood inherently that the words that we say to ourselves really do matter. At what point were you inspired to actually turn your belief in that power of positivity into a company and why did you choose socks to carry that message?

Laura Schmidt:

Well, Kelly, my whole life I've used positive affirmations like "I am confident" to help me with my confidence and I've learned everything I could about positive thinking and positive affirmations. It actually, this specific idea came to me on January 1st, 2011, and I was on a road trip with my family, headed to Western Kansas on New Year's Day, and my husband Garrett was driving. Our three teenagers at the time were in the backseat and I had kicked off my tennis shoes and just had running socks on and I happened to be reading a book about positive thinking and I read that the subconscious mind is most open early in the morning and late at night in that half-awake, half-asleep time when the conscious filters aren't quite up yet.

Laura Schmidt:

It hit me, what if I put the positive affirmations on the toes of socks, then twice a day, you'd be training your mind to think better thoughts without even trying, and then I thought, "What if kids too young to read had 'I am smart' on their toes and what if they really believed that? How might that make a difference in their entire future? What if we could get those words and socks to underprivileged kids that maybe don't hear those type of positive things enough, how might that change our world?" That's kind of where the idea was born.

Kelly Scanlon:

You had the idea, you're going to put these positive messages on socks, but that positive phrase then throughout the day is influencing their thoughts, it's influencing their actions. This is the concept that you had. As any business owner knows an idea is one thing, but it's actually another thing to turn it into a viable business concept, and in this case, it made perfect sense to you, but how did you figure out whether or not people actually buy this? What did you do to test the viability of the idea and commercialize it?

Laura Schmidt:

I just started talking to people that were close to me about the idea and got initial positive response about it. One point I like to make is that when that idea came to me, I turned to my husband, Garrett, like I often do with an idea, and I have lots of them, and I told him the idea. I don't remember specifically what he said, but he said something neutral or positive, and I think that is so significant because when ideas are young, they can either continue to go and grow, or they can be squashed, so I feel really lucky that the people around me encouraged me with my idea early on because it gave me the confidence to keep going. That goes right in line with like what I think our socks are about, just breathing belief into people, encouraging them, recognizing how awesome they are.

Laura Schmidt:

Reached out, I started doing research about how socks are made, and reached out to manufacturers. I knew I wanted them made in the USA, got samples, learned that there's different ways to put words on socks. Some people screenprint them, some people embroider them, but the way that I chose was the highest quality way where the words are knitted in when the socks are made. I got an order in and I remember talking to my friend Susan about it that was in a direct sales company and she bought like 25 pairs for her team initially. That seemed like the biggest order early on, but that was an example of me telling people about it, and them buying them.

Kelly Scanlon:

Speaking of teams, I think that your daughter also introduced them to her volleyball team, right?

Laura Schmidt:

She did, she did. Elaine was playing high school volleyball competitively in club also at that time. "I am confident" was the affirmation that she chose to wear for every match. One of the moms actually bought them for the entire volleyball team. That was definitely proof for us that people were interested in this product.

Kelly Scanlon:

Right, so it validated the idea, it validated the initial concept. You got your prototypes out there, your daughter was wearing them, a friend bought some for her team, and then you went from this word of mouth business to now last I saw the numbers were millions of people around the world are wearing notes to self socks. How do you scale from an idea to referral-based to people around the world are wearing these?

Laura Schmidt:

It happened gradually but fast in a way that first year. I wanted to mention this, too, Kelly, I remember going to the Women's Business Center for a class on how to do Twitter or whatever for business and people would ask me about what I was doing and I'd tell them the idea and they'd say, "Do you have any socks with you?" and they'd follow me out to the car and exchange cash for socks, so it started that way.

Kelly Scanlon:

Selling them out of your trunk, huh?

Laura Schmidt:

Totally. Then it would be, I would call on local stores, like there was a Life is Good store in Prairie Village and I called on them and they started selling the socks and sold out within the first week. I called on Children's Mercy Hospital, and they were hesitant at first, but I said, "Just what if you try this basket of socks, you put it near the checkout, and just tell me how it goes," and within a week, they had sold almost half of the socks.

Laura Schmidt:

The getting it into stores early on, it was in the first year, and getting great success that I could then share with other stores really was a key to expanding in stores, and two specific stores in the fourth quarter of the first year put our socks on a little display in their stores. It was Naomi's Hallmark in Shawnee and in Overland Park and between Thanksgiving and Christmas, each store sold more than 140 pairs, so that was really a track run on. Then I expanded into other Hallmark stores that next year, hundreds of stores, and then the following year, it really took off through the stores. We were still a small business and we were spending a lot of our time taking good care of the stores and then we had our website that was kind of on the side that was also growing just by word of mouth and slowly, and actually, when the pandemic hit, the stores stopped selling, of course, during that time, and the online business really took off.

Kelly Scanlon:

Another one of your channels that has been very successful for you is your corporate channel corporations. Tell us about how that works.

Laura Schmidt:

It's just kind of developed by word of mouth as well, but it's very common for either corporations to buy hundreds of pairs for their organization, for an event, or as a thank you gift. But also during the pandemic, some of them asked if they could send us Excel spreadsheets of their employees' home addresses and we sent little gift packs of socks with a little gift tag that we tied on with a ribbon with a specific message for all the employees from the CEO, so that's been a neat aspect, the corporate gifting aspect.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. What a great way during the pandemic to let employees know that upper management and executive-level ownership was thinking about them, and to have these positive messages, we can get through this together.

Kelly Scanlon:

Let's go back to your growth. You have corporate channels, you have web channels, you have the retail, the stores that are carrying these socks, all part of the growth, all part of the expansion. What resources did you rely on as a new business owner to manage that growth, to help guide that growth? Did you have any other entrepreneurial experience prior to this that you could draw on? Did you turn to resources in the community?

Laura Schmidt:

My entrepreneurial experience was from direct sales. I had two decades of experience in direct sales and built a large organization with Mary Kay Inc. and did that from the time our children were little until the time I started this business very full-time, so I had a lot of sales experience with that, and prior to that, I spent eight years at AT&T. I was a systems analyst, a systems engineer, and I did outside sales for them.

Kelly Scanlon:

But you also knew about processes, too, from that.

Laura Schmidt:

I did, it has helped a lot.

Kelly Scanlon:

Did you use any resources within the Kansas City community?

Laura Schmidt:

Oh, so many, so many. The one that was probably with me the longest was the Kansas Small Business Development Center. If anyone's not familiar with the SBDC, the Small Business Development Center, they're a free resource. I went there and met with a coach once a month. I always explained that I felt like what they did for me is I would come there with a challenge and I would not know whether I should turn left or right and they would either help me decide or give me a list of resources that I could reach out to help decide. I really would not be where I am today if I didn't have their guidance all along the way. I also went through the UMKCE Scholars program and I went through the Helzberg Entrepreneurial Mentoring Program, the three-year program, and I had a advisor, a mentor, Lee Harris, who's a CEO of Cohen-Esrey Real Estate here in town.

Kelly Scanlon:

Oh, yes. He's been on our podcast, yes.

Laura Schmidt:

He's awesome, and he believes in the power of positive affirmation like I do, so it was really fun to work with him on our business. I learned so much from him and he still is an advisor for me today, even though our official mentoring time has passed.

Kelly Scanlon:

The reason I ask that, not only because I was interested in hearing how you scaled so quickly, because a lot of times people think they get through the startup stage and they have it made, or at least they can let their guard down a bit. But it's when you get into those high-growth scaling periods that a lot of entrepreneurs get themselves in trouble, and obviously, you have been able to make it through that, so I wanted to hear how you did it, but also because Kansas City is just so full of resources that help entrepreneurs, and I never want to miss an opportunity to make sure that people know they're out there because they're still one of Kansas City's best-kept secrets. You can go to the SourceLink website and you can find all of them.

Laura Schmidt:

Absolutely. The Kauffman Foundation, I was part of an entrepreneurial boardroom with them years ago. For sure, I wanted to mention, I took FastTrac New Venture, FastTrac Growth Venture. In fact, I was in Growth Venture when I had this idea, and I started FastTrac Growth Venture with my direct sales business thinking I was going to go through that program and find a new way to do that. Halfway through the program, I switched gears, and finished with this idea

Kelly Scanlon:

For any of the entrepreneurs out there who say, "Oh, my gosh, how did you have time to go through all those programs and run your business at the same time?", really, you have to look at it as an investment in yourself as an entrepreneur and as an investment in your business.

Laura Schmidt:

Totally.

Kelly Scanlon:

Why do you think that these socks, the messages on these socks resonate so much?

Laura Schmidt:

I think that there are so many of us that have people around us that are going through challenging times, and I think that when you learn that a friend has cancer, for instance, it's like I think a normal reaction is, "Oh, my gosh, what can I do to help? Is there anything I can do to help?" So many people tell us that they give our socks as gifts when someone's going through a challenging time, or they wear them when they're sitting there for their chemotherapy appointments, or they're getting ready to take a big test, whether it's grade school, or graduate school, so I really think it's about human beings reaching out to other human beings with words breathing belief and love into them.

Kelly Scanlon:

You've expanded your offerings beyond socks. Tell us about that.

Laura Schmidt:

Yes. Socks are still the majority of what we do. What we do is create tools through these words, but some of the other products that we've put the words on are pillowcases. They were the second thing we did for the same reason, that in the morning and night, you'd see the words.

Laura Schmidt:

Then our baby clothes line is really popular. We have a line that says, "I am a blessing" and we have one piece outfits and hats, and of course, baby socks and baby bibs. What I thought about that was just that babies are such a blessing and being a new mom or dad is a challenging time also. It would be a neat thing for them to look down, and if the baby's crying, to still see those words, "I am a blessing."

Laura Schmidt:

Some of our other products, during the pandemic, we added face covers, and they say, "I am smiling." It's funny, I still wear those. I went on a trip recently and still had a face mask on and had those. It's like I forget, I get more attention with that on because people are just kind of smiling. Gosh, we have so many other products.

Kelly Scanlon:

Being an entrepreneur means that you have the opportunity to affect people in a meaningful way. You have the ability to influence. Besides bolstering self-confidence in the people who wear your socks or the people to whom socks have been gifted, in what other ways, Laura, are you making an impact as an entrepreneur?

Laura Schmidt:

Well, Kelly, one of the things that was important to us from the beginning is that we gave back. Donating socks to homeless shelters, women's shelters, and children in great need has been our focus. So far, we have donated over 110,000 pairs. We've received stories from some of the recipients of those socks. One of them is over at SWT Parkway Health Services. They have a mobile medical unit there and they go out into the community and give first aid to the homeless neighbors and sometimes they'll schedule appointments for them back at their main facility for dental care or whatever care they need and they shared with me that sometimes their customers, the homeless neighbors were hesitant to come up to the van, that once they were there, they would give them a pair of our socks, and then the next time they were in that neighborhood, people would come back up and say, "Hey, do you have those socks?"

Kelly Scanlon:

Ah, the word had spread.

Laura Schmidt:

Yeah, so it was a neat thing where it increased their level of comfort just because of that.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah. You mentioned earlier, too, that one of your core desires was to have these socks made in the US.

Laura Schmidt:

Yes. That's been very important to us from the beginning. That really was based on being able to contribute to US jobs. We've worked really hard to keep them made in the US. There's benefits in that as well because we have a close relationship with the manufacturers. I travel to the different locations and I think it helps with quality control and just making sure that we're providing the best product there is.

Kelly Scanlon:

At the end of the day, do you think notes to self socks can change the world?

Laura Schmidt:

Kelly, I think words can change the world. Gosh, sometimes a little encouragement can mean the world to someone else. I think that sometimes people don't have the confidence or background or experience of using words to express how they really feel, but they definitely want their loved ones to know how much they care about them, and sometimes I think a simple phrase could make the difference for someone, and the right phrase at the right time could make a huge difference in someone's life.

Laura Schmidt:

I do think as an example, we have socks that say, "I am a great mom," and people have told me that their mom has gifted them those socks when they had their first baby and how meaningful that was to them. Gretchen Ruben, she's a writer from Kansas City and she's got a lot of books about happiness, but one of her quotes is "The days are long, but the years are short." Here's my thought, that while we're here, if we can breathe belief into other people that can be the most meaningful thing we can do while we're here. Maybe it's just one person. It's not like we have to do that with the masses, but if there's someone in our life that we can be that person for, that we're always in their corner and reminding them how awesome they are, it can change their entire life.

Kelly Scanlon:

Yeah, it can make all the difference. That's very true. Laura, if people are interested in finding out more about your socks, perhaps they'd like to talk with you even, what's the best way? Is it to go to your website?

Laura Schmidt:

It really is, notestoself.com. We have a contact form on there. All our social media is on there. It's all notes to self socks. We'd love for you to follow us and share any pictures if you have them of you wearing the socks and help us spread the word.

Kelly Scanlon:

Notestoself.com, you can go out there and find out more information. Get in touch with Laura, sign up to follow their social media. Laura, thank you so much for being with us on this episode at Banking on KC and all that you're doing to make the world a more positive place.

Laura Schmidt:

Thank you, Kelly.

Joe Close:

This is Joe Close, president of Country Club Bank. Thank you to Laura Schmidt for being our guests on this episode of Banking on KC. There's lot of messaging being thrown at us every day from every direction, the media, our workplace, our friends and family, and not to be forgotten, the messages we feed ourselves each day through our constantly running internal dialogue. As Laura reminds us, some of the most powerful messages are simple ones, messages that show we care, that we notice others, that someone matters. These messages can change lives, and ultimately, our world. Amid all the noise of the day, those are the messages worth listening to. Thanks for tuning in this week. We're banking on you, Kansas City. Country Club Bank member FDIC.

 

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