Some people might compare changing a crib or bunk bed sheet to wrestling a wild animal. Changing one can involve back-breaking, finger-pinching maneuvers. With years of sheet changing under her belt from three children, including twins, Stapleton resident Caroline Portis thought her friend’s invention was brilliant: a crib sheet with a base that doesn’t have to be removed and a top that zips off and on, taming the sheet-changing beast. With applications for older kids, college students, people with arthritis, RV owners and eldercare, the potential for the QuickZip Sheet Company was great. It just needed some nurturing from MergeLane, a Boulder-based business incubator aimed at women-led businesses.
When her daughter, now a teenager, was a baby, the sheet’s inventor, Elizabeth Sopher, couldn’t believe more people weren’t complaining about the difficulties involved with changing a crib sheet, something that has to be done often with babies. The design not only made sheet changing easier but also eliminated hazards from sheets coming loose.
The company had been more of a sideline than a full-time venture for Sopher and her former partner. But with an opportunity for the sheets to be sold in buybuyBABY stores, there was impetus for growth. Sopher asked Portis for help, knowing she had experience as CFO of the Boppy Pillow Company, and various other jobs in accounting, finance and operations. Portis was getting ready to leave Boppy to start her own consulting business and took on Sopher’s company as her first client. After seeing the potential of the sheet, which also comes in twin, twin XL and full sizes, Portis gave up her consulting business and invested in QuickZip Sheets as a co-founder last year.
Portis’ work experience had taught her about consumer products, the customer base, the supply chain and textile purchasing involved in juvenile consumer products. “I know from my Bobby days what the opportunity is. I know how many babies are born a year. I know who the players are,” she says. One of the main challenges Portis sees for QuickZip Sheets is explaining the product to people because it is different. That’s one of the issues that MergeLane is helping QuickZip address.
Hundreds of companies applied to be one of eight businesses chosen for MergeLane’s inaugural year of the program. Founded by two women, Portis explains that “the mission of MergeLane is to broaden the on ramp for women-led companies. Selected companies must have at least one woman founder and the company has to have some traction under its belt.” Unlike other business accelerator programs that require being in-residence, away from home, family and business for long periods, MergeLane requires their companies to be on-site in Boulder for a total of four weeks divided up over the course of the 12-week program.
The businesses receive curriculum targeting early-stage business issues, connections and mentorship specific to their industry. The businesses and mentors are matched up through mutual selection in what Portis describes as 30-minute meetings like speed-dating. “You’re meeting with this guy who just sold a company to Twitter or this person who is a designer out of New York or this one who is a COO of a major company,” she says. “These were phenomenal people!” QuickZip gained mentors who have helped with the company’s marketing plan, branding, investment banking, legal issues and help with reaching nursing homes, home health care and occupational therapists, a market Sopher and Portis feel the sheets are perfect for. “It’s an elegant solution,” says Portis. “This product provides seniors and people with arthritis a sense of self-sufficiency, accomplishment and dignity.” Various sizes of the sheets are currently available at buybuyBABY stores, through the company’s website, wayfair.com and on Amazon.
MergeLane receives 6 percent ownership in exchange for an initial $20,000 in seed money, with the potential to further invest in the company down the road. The program culminates in April with Demo Day, pitching to a room of potential investors. “This is gold,” Portis says of the experience with MergeLane. “We could have grown without them but it would have been a lot harder and a lot more painful.”
Sopher and Portis are gearing up for the success they hope will come their way. Portis feels her experience with high-growth companies, solving problems and building processes and systems for growth, has helped prepare her for what she and Sopher face. “I’ve never really had the inclination to invest,” says Portis. “But when I saw this, I thought it was meant to be.”