Interview by Mike Sullivan of Sully’s Blog
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Kirby Best, the father of four boys and a former Canadian national team member where he was the driver of the four-man bobsled Canada 1 and skied on the Canadian Biathlon, Speed and Freestyle Ski Teams, was the former CEO of the industry leading digital print on demand book publisher Lightening Source. In 2000, Kirby’s wife Anne was diagnosed with breast cancer. During her treatment she suffered terribly from night sweats. Kirby suggested she try one of his moisture-wicking t-shirts. While not comfortable, and certainly not stylish, it did help keep her dry. Anne battled and beat breast cancer and after her recovery she and Kirby decided they wanted to do something to help others dealing with the disease. Kirby left his CEO job and he and Anne started their own business venture.
DryDreams Sleepwear manufactures sleepwear using a proprietary material that helps women battling night sweats brought on by menopause, medical treatments or pregnancy stay dry and comfortable and night. A noteworthy point about this company is that 100% of the profits are donated directly to cancer research organizations. Recognizing additional uses for the material he recently founded the Nashville, TN based Performance Health Care Products where their foray in the medical apparel industry via their high-tech and unique offering, Performance Scrubs, is already creating big waves in the $750M medical apparel industry.
At what point did you realize the moisture-wicking sleepwear that you created for your wife was more than a just a good idea and that many others could benefit from the products as well?
The genesis for the Performance Sleepwear was my wife’s own successful battle with breast cancer. She had terrible night sweats that were brought on by her chemotherapy treatments and I suggested she try one of my moisture wicking t-shirts. It didn’t look that great and wasn’t very comfortable but it did the trick. After her recovery she became an advocate for women battling breast cancer and we decided to launch a product that provided some relief. And given the nature of the product we decided to donate 100% of the profits to cancer research charities, a practice we continue to this day.
During our R&D phase we began understanding the wide scope of night sweats and the many factors that cause them. So while the initial focus was breast cancer it widened considerably to include women going through menopause, who were pregnant or those who just wanted to stay cool at night. We even created a men’s line which has been very popular in helping those with sleep apnea which also causes night sweats. The funny thing is one of our biggest audiences is young women 13 -30 who just like the look and feel.
What was the catalyst that moved the company from sleepwear into medical scrubs? What are some of the benefits of the material and designs to the medical industry?
When we were creating Performance Sleepwear I learned about some new materials that were in the development stages. I’d spent a lot of time in hospitals during my wife’s breast cancer treatment and I wondered why professionals who work in such a high-tech environment were wearing uniforms that were so “low-tech.”
As the sleepwear line starting taking off I started looking more closely as how some of these new ‘smart materials’ that could be applied to the medical industry. So after talking to countless nurses we created a check list of what benefits were most important to them. The catalyst was a call from a local hospital CEO – a great guy who wanted us to move faster. We worked with his staff and then with the fabric mill, one of the leading textile and chemical companies in the world, Milliken & Company, to create the fabric for a line of scrubs that brought the industry in to the 21st century. And with that Performance Scrubs was born.
After a lot of R&D we’re now able to offer a scrub that isn’t only the softest on the market but contains antimicrobial properties via silver ions that won’t wash out. And because nurses are almost always responsible for purchasing their own scrubs our material is extraordinarily durable and looks as good after 100 washes as it did when it was new which makes it very cost-effective. And from that jumping off point we started adding the ‘bells and whistles’ that spoke to the needs of the nurses.
The sleepwear and scrubs on your websites are actually quite appealing and fashionable. Are these your own designs? Did you hire a designer to produce these?
Thanks. And although I’d like to take all the credit, I’ll pass that along to all the nurses and Kathy Rader our VP of Manufacturing whom we consulted with closely during the design process. We really wanted to know what was important to them and over and over we heard comfort and a professional look. The comfort was taken care of by the material. Creating the look was a little trickier. One of our first decisions was to go with bold, solid colors without any prints and color-coordinated piping to add a touch of flair. We felt that created a more professional look and because many hospitals are now moving towards identifying nurses areas of expertise by the color of their scrubs we felt we were in a better position for institutional sales.
We decided on a relatively unique three-quarter arm length and mid-rise pant to address modesty issues and worked to make sure our pockets were strategically placed. We also offer the widest range of sizes on the market because not everyone falls under the Small, Medium or Large category. We want every customer to feel like they have a custom-fitted uniform.
And because our scrubs are hand-sewn we are able to offer nurses something unique where they can mix and match and actually ‘build’ their own scrubs. While we purposefully kept our colors and scrub design options limited we’ve figured out we offer over 100,000 different combinations!
What steps are you taking to grow the company over the coming years? Are there particular marketing strategies you’re implementing?
Our main marketing strategy is the tried-and-true “word of mouth.” But in our case it also includes ‘word-of-touch.” The feedback we’re getting from nurses is the first thing their co-workers do when they see them in the scrubs is to touch the material. So we’re holding the scrubs version of ‘trunk shows’ at hospitals which gives nurses the chance to feel the material and try them on. And our ratio of ‘test-wear’ to purchase is ridiculously high.
Beyond the customized individual service we’re offering nurses is a focus on the small to midsized institutional market. There are a lot of changes taking place in the medical industry and we feel we’re in great position to service hospitals on a large scale. Our scrubs are washed in cold water, require minimal drying times and are wrinkle-free which cuts costs. The solid colors speak to the industry trends and because of the extreme durability of the material they’re as cost effective to hospitals as they are to individuals.
With most of the things we buy today being produced oversees and shipped to the US for less than they can be made here, how are you able to compete with all of your manufacturing done in the United States?
Great question and one we battled with for quite a while. At the end of the day our decision to become the only scrubs company manufacturing entirely in the U.S. revolved around two key areas, customization and quality control. Our customers know that they can choose the color, piping and design options they want and their order will be shipped within days. There is no way we could create the kind of inventory it would take to offer that if we were manufacturing overseas.
And because our Cullman, Alabama manufacturing plant is relatively close to our headquarters we can maintain a presence in the facility and make sure our products are meeting our standards before they’re shipped. And if for any reason a customer needs an adjustment we can turn it right around and get it back to them. But because Cullman is known as having some of the best sewers in the country we’re confident that we’re getting it right the first time.
There’s another factor at play that ties in to outsourcing. I believe that given the current financial climate if given the choice people would prefer to “Buy American.” But because we’ve relied on offshore manufacturing so much it’s become more difficult. And up until now, in the scrubs industry at least, that option hasn’t even been available. We also like knowing that we’re providing skilled garment workers with employment. The industry has obviously been very hard hit. So for us, manufacturing in the United States was easily the best option.
You come from the role of CEO of Lightning Source, which is a print-on-demand book manufacturer. What similarities and differences can you draw between that and owning and growing your own company? Which is more rewarding and which is more difficult?
As the CEO of a large corporation my main objective was to keep my eye on the bigger goal and then delegate responsibilities to meet that goal. As the founder of a start-up I still may be the CEO but I’m also wearing a lot of other hats. It’s more likely that I’ll be at a hospital selling scrubs than sitting behind a big desk taking meetings. So it took a little time for me to get used to the fact that when I wanted to delegate something to the marketing department that I was the marketing department. And while it can get a little chaotic it’s also one of the joys of being an entrepreneur. The highest highs and the lowest lows! I know I’ll have a new surprise or challenge every day. It’s the constant state of “What’s next?” that really helps keep me focused and happy.
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