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I Am American Business

Barbara Kavovit

Producer Notes

If you've ever wondered what it takes to start a big company, meeting Barbara K would persuade you that anyone could do it. And that's an important part of her message. She is still the New York girl who printed up some business cards and hung out at the local shopping center to start her contracting business. She's happy to demystify the process she went through to launch her line of tools for women. Talking to her, it's easy to see how she personally called retailers for months before she got into her first store. She is just one woman, without any business background. But she figured it out. Barbara was happy to shoot at a construction site. She feels at home in a raw space. She seems to get energy from building things.

Video Interview

The "I Am" Q&A

What car do you drive?
A Cadillac Escalade.

What color is it?
Black.

What's your favorite place to go?
Italy.

What website do you like to visit?
CNBC.com.

What was your worst moment in business?
Going out of business.

When did you go out of business?
During the construction days.

What's your favorite drink?
Patron.

What's your favorite food?
Sushi!

What is your idea of fun?
Off-road driving, with a beat-up old Range Rover.

And at work?
Sitting here doing this interview with you.

What personal weaknesses do you forgive in someone?
Impatience.

What business weaknesses do you forgive in someone?
I don't forgive any in business.

What movie star do you like?
George Clooney.

Who's a business hero of yours?
Hillary Clinton.

What personal qualities do you admire in business?
Being able to give to others.

And in life?
Patience.

What personal qualities do you admire in life?
Being able to give what you don't have.

Are you doing anything green, anything for the environment?
Yes. Everything green for the environment. From low-flow toilet bowls, showerheads, to cloth, shower curtains instead of plastic, weather-stripping for the doors to save energy, keeping your air conditioner and heating at appropriate temperatures lighting.

What was your greatest moment in business?
I haven't had it yet.

And how about in life?
My son.

What is the most unusual thing in your wallet?
A sonogram from when my son was six months old.

What is your dream?
My dream is to live in harmony with everybody around me.

Do you have a motto?
My motto is just be happy.

And what is your present state of mind?
Happy.

Transcript


CNBC:
Do you think there are ways in which building a company is like building a house?

BARBARA K:
I think the way you build a company is the way you build your life, and everything is a blueprint. So if you know how to follow a blueprint, which I never did when I started, then you understand the different stepping-stones and the different steps it takes to achieve whatever that vision is that you have. It’s all in a blueprint. And everything that you do in your life, in your home really, transcends to everything you do outside your home. So if you can take care of things, if you can be a self-sufficient woman inside your home, then you could have that vision to do whatever you want to do. And that’s why I think it’s so important to be able to have tools and know how to use the tools in life.

CNBC:
If you know how to use tools in life do you think that would help you use tools in business?

BARBARA K:
I think tools in life is really a metaphor. I think the reason why I created tools is because I wanted women to understand that if you knew how to pick up a power drill, what the feel of it was in your hand, how empowering It was, then you would understand the feeling of independence, empowerment and confidence. And those are the necessary traits to be able to build character and build a business.

CNBC:
The women who watch our network may be thinking about starting a business. Do you have any advice for these women?

BARBARA K:
I don’t think I ever had a job out of college. I think I had a job for four months and I got fired actually. But, I think that you’re either a born entrepreneur, or you can acquire the talent to be an entrepreneur. And it certainly helps that there’s so much knowledge out there. And I think for me, when I started my own business, I had a vision and an end result. But how do you get there? I think it’s important for someone at home that wants to start a business to write down what their thoughts are, and what they are good at. I had to ask myself, "What am I good at?" I knew I wasn’t a rocket scientist, I never got straight-A's. I was just average coming out of high school or college, so I had to take what I was good at, and really run with it, and I think that’s the first thing an entrepreneur or a would-be business owner should do. You should really focus on what you're good at, write it down, and try and get your vision on paper. Then start to research what the size of the market is that you’re looking to do, what’s the buzz, how are you going to get other people interested, what’s the concept? What type of dollars are we talking? Those are all really important questions that you have to ask yourself. And then talk to people, network. The best way to build a business is to get out there and start talking to people, join every and any organization. Join women’s organizations, business organizations and just market yourself, because that’s all you have, I mean especially, if you don’t have any money. I always say home improvement equals self-improvement. And if you’re able to take a set of tools and hold them and feel them, I think that’ll transcend to everything that you do, and that reflects how you can start a business.

CNBC:
What was going on in your life when this all began?

BARBARA K:
When I first started this business I heard my mom and her friends talk about those contractors that would never show up. And this woman never got her deposit back and I said why would a woman be intimidated in her own home? So, I made up some business cards, stood outside in a shopping center, and that was how I started my business, going up to women as they came out of the grocery store, telling them I could help them with any home improvement, home repair, in their home.

CNBC:
So what were you actually?

BARBARA K:
I didn’t know what I was in the beginning, but I was a general contractor. Most people would say, “Well how would a young girl that didn’t know anything about repair, construction, home improvement, start a construction company?” You have to be very resourceful when you’re starting a business with very little cash-flow. So I looked in the local paper, Penny Saver, and I would look for “Situations Wanted,” carpenters, electricians, tile men, anything that regarded home improvement. And when the women called me to paint a room, hang a picture, I knew I needed a carpenter or a handy man. If they called me about painting a room, obviously I would need a painter. And then I would go and actually pick these guys up because I knew they weren’t going to show up for me either. I would take them to the job, collect the money, pay the tradesmen, and then I would make sure the job was done neat and clean. From there I wrote a letter to IBM, told them that I started a home repair company. I was sure IBM would need the same help as these homeowners. And believe it or not after calling them for six months they finally took my call, and that’s what it takes, six months of calling, never giving up the first time, the second time, it sometimes takes 50 tries to get somebody on the phone. And I think people that start businesses today have to realize that. Don’t stop after five times, 10 times, 15 times, it’s the people that keep going, that eventually get the deal. So after I finally got the guy on the phone he gave me a two-year contract to do all their small repairs in their corporate headquarters. And that kind of put me on the map. I got a van, hired a couple of carpenters full-time, and I created this logo of this house with a woman, and she was directing traffic in this house. You go there, to men, you go there, you go there, you go there. And I was really a little bit before my time because there were no women contractors out there. And so most people asked “Oh, is your dad in the business? Or your boyfriend?” I said “No, I started my own home repair company”. I remember calling the governor’s office to get certified as a woman business-owner, and they couldn’t believe that there was a woman owning 100 percent, so they actually came down from the governor’s office to make sure that I was running the company. And I think even back then they were just flabbergasted that a woman could run a company in a male-dominated world of the New York City construction market.

CNBC:
So how long were you a contractor?

BARBARA K:
I was a contractor for 10 years. All through my twenties, into my early thirties. Then one day I was watching a TV show and a woman was trying to hang curtains after she’d just moved into her new apartment, and the curtains fell down on her head. And that was my “Eureka!” moment. Wait a minute. It’s not only about owning a construction company. This is a home-improvement sector, a $230 billion industry, and after my research I found out that, $55 billion of that were purchases made by women in the home-improvement sector. And I should really stake my claim because now I have this credibility of being the founder of a construction company. I thought, I should design a line of tools because women need their own tools to succeed in life.

CNBC:
Do you think when you came up with the idea, that you would have done it right away or was it because your business was not succeeding at that point?

BARBARA K:
Well, after 9/11, my business really took a turn for the worse. Basically all construction stopped. And it was a time where I was going through a divorce, I had a young son, and I really had to recreate myself. I needed a reinvention, pronto. I had bills to pay and I wanted to take the experience that I had in construction, and parlay that into the next best thing that I was going to create. So I decided to come up with a brand, named Barbara K.

CNBC:
When you saw that TV show, were you thinking, “Wow, women are so helpless”? What went through your head when you saw that?

BARBARA K:
When I saw those curtains fall down on that woman’s head, I said no woman should ever be in a position where she isn’t self-sufficient in her home. And that’s what made me realize that there should be a brand out there, an expert, and there was a whole opportunity for me, because I had done what no woman had really done, I’d built a construction company. And why not take it further, and be the expert, and design a line of tools. And that’s what I meant when I said earlier, realize what you're good at. What opportunities are in front of you?

CNBC:
What did you do first?

BARBARA K:
I had this idea to create a brand and a line of tools. The first thing I did, was make a prototype. I skipped the business plan part. Because I had this vision, it was so clear to me, of designing a toolkit. A toolkit that would be slim, and almost like an iMac where you can see the silhouette of the tools, almost like you can see the guts of the computer. So a woman can actually carry it. It would be a great color, blue. But the tools itself were going to be gray and ergonomically designed to fit better in their hands. But, the difference was that I wanted to include a guidebook. Education. That’s what was missing. The missing link.

CNBC:
How did you make a prototype?

BARBARA K:
Well, I can’t draw, so I hired an industrial designer that was could create a CAD drawing of a design that I had, this really slim-lined toolkit, with the tools in it, and the guidebook, and he said oh, this, this could never work, it’s too thin, it’s too slim and, and I said, you just design it, put it on paper and I’m will take it and make a prototype. So he did, he made a CAD drawing and once I had that CAD drawing, I took it to a prototype maker. I spent $8000 to make a prototype. And this prototype went into a silver case and it was basically handcuffed to my wrist. And from there, I started to call manufacturers in China.

CNBC:
How did you know where the prototype-maker was? How did you know where the manufacturers in China were?

BARBARA K:
During this time, I started to develop a business plan. I called Home Shopping Network, found out who the vice-president was, and I said, “I’m starting a brand for women, tools for women”, and they loved the idea. And I asked them, “Do you know any manufacturers?” Do you know any prototype-makers. I talked to people. There's a wealth of knowledge out there. The more you talk to people the more you find out.

CNBC:
So after that, how much more did you spend, launching the business.

BARBARA K:
So after the $8,000 prototype, I spent another $50,000 on hiring somebody full-time, on making the business plan, on writing the marketing plan because I realized after doing some initial research, this was a big concept. There was a lot of potential money in this idea. So I invested my own money.

CNBC:
Where did this money come from?

BARBARA K:
Well, this money came from my life savings, basically, and I took everything I had left from the years in construction and I used it because I really, really truly believed in this idea.

CNBC:
Wasn’t it scary?

BARBARA K:
It’s not scary, it’s exciting. If you really are passionate about something, you’re so focused, you see nothing else. You just see one way, you see your end goal, you see an opportunity, you’re optimistic and that’s how you have to remain.

CNBC:
Was this easy?

BARBARA K:
Being an entrepreneur, starting a business, being successful at it, is not easy. It doesn’t come cheap, emotionally, spiritually, and financially. You just have to be so focused on your vision and getting the formula right. And the formula doesn’t come quickly, it doesn’t come easily. It’s constantly taking a chisel, and chiseling through that concrete wall. It seems like It just never stops. As an entrepreneur, as someone that wants to start a business, you have to be prepared to tweak, to alter, to be 24-7. It’s literally your baby. It’s an embryo and that’s the best way I could describe it. It’s like a woman that just [LAUGHS] becomes pregnant. You have to nurture it, you have to build it, you have to grow, you have to change.

CNBC:
What is the size of the home-improvement market?

BARBARA K:
The size of the home-improvement market is a $230 billion industry today. Of which, $55 billion of purchases are made by women.

CNBC:
Why did you think you could fill that void In the marketplace?

BARBARA K:
I really felt that I could create a brand that women can turn to, to make home improvement fun, easy and exciting.

CNBC:
Why did you come up with the name you came up with, what was that about?

BARBARA K:
I came up with the idea of using my name, Barbara K. I wanted women to realize that any woman could be me, I was just the average girl next door, a girl from the Bronx who had no more opportunity than anybody else, that started a home repair company, and parlayed it into a brand. And I wanted women to be able to resonate, that if I can do it, she can do it. And that’s what’s so exciting about this.

CNBC:
What are the principles of creating buzz for a product?

BARBARA K:
I wanted to create tools that were exciting to look at. How do you recreate something that people expect to see? A hammer. A power drill. You always expect to see the same boring power drill and hammer. So I added a little bit of a curve, I made it lighter weight, I made it so the power drill could come off and you could have half the weight here, half the weight there, and actually put it on your head. So how was I going to create buzz, well it was going to be in the product, it was going to be in the marketing of the brand. What was so exciting about this brand? Well, you were going to be able to save time and save money, and do it yourself. And not have to rely on your husband or your brother or your father or your next-door neighbor. And you were going to look good doing it.

CNBC:
What is the importance of attaching an idea?

BARBARA K:
In my case the idea was a brand that women can turn to, for fun, smart solutions in the home. How did I take that, and make it so that women can feel something, touch something, make it work for them? Create a line of tools.

CNBC:
Where’s the company now? What are your new projects?

BARBARA K:
As a company evolves and you create the distribution, we now have distribution in a number of different retailers, and even internationally, there are a lot of opportunities that come your way and you have to analyze each one. And since I started this business I’ve come out with two books. Room for Improvement and Invest in Your Nest. I am now the exclusive AOL home-improvement coach, where you can go on to AOL and see 10 streaming videos of showing everyone how to do certain projects in your home. I’m also working on my own TV show, which I’m very excited about. My mantra is to keep creating great products for women, to be confident in the home and in the car.

CNBC:
What are your big products and what are some new products you’re developing?

BARBARA K:
Some of the great products that I have right now are my 30-piece toolkit. I have the super-light power drill, Dorm Survival Kit, the Roadside Safety Kit, the Hang-It-Up Kit, the lighted-screwdriver set, and the Essential Toolkit. We have the Home Office Kit and the Kitchen and Bath Solution Kit coming out. So again, everything for the home and also a full line of products to keep you safe on the road.

CNBC:
I heard you were doing clothes?

BARBARA K:
Yes, I have a line of work wear coming out. So when you want to paint your room and do some great stenciling on the back of your wall, you can put on some great clothes that are comfortable and stain-resistant, but also clothes where you can run out to pick up your kids, go to the grocery store, and still feel sexy and look good.

CNBC:
How long did it take you to get your first store?

BARBARA K:
From the time I first started calling, to the time that my products were actually in-store, was one year.

CNBC:
How did you do that?

BARBARA K:
I did that by calling the retailers, the buyers in the appropriate department, and simultaneously, manufacturing products. That’s how much I believed in this.

CNBC:
Didn’t you have to invest more money at that point?

BARBARA K:
By that point I had created the business plan, and I was raising money. So that’s when it started to get a little bit more complicated because when you do your business plan, you realize, “I do have a big idea here, there’s a big market here”, and there are other people that are very interested in this, so I started to raise a lot of money.

CNBC:
So you personally went to China to meet the manufacturer to persuade them to do this?

BARBARA K:
I went personally, on a plane, to Taiwan, leaving my son. I wasn't happy about that but, going for five or six days, with my business plan and my prototype, talking in a boardroom about my idea, and telling them that there is no other product like this being sold and there’s no other brand out there like mine, was exhilarating. Now you’re in, or you’re out.

CNBC:
How long did it take them to decide?

BARBARA K:
That day. Even with the cultural difference, that day.

CNBC:
How’d you feel?

BARBARA K:
I felt like getting on a plane and coming home. And celebrating with my son.

CNBC:
So how big is the company now?

BARBARA K:
Well, the company is growing. I like to look at Barbara K. as a multi-media product with distribution. And our goal now is to build the media aspect of the brand and the distribution globally. Because we really believe that this is not only about women in the United States, this is about women around the world. Today Barbara K. is a multi-million-dollar company and we’re looking to grow, and be bigger and better than ever.

CNBC:
Would you consider your story an American success story?

BARBARA K:
There's so much opportunity out there. And, there are so many ways to create success for yourself. The timing is right to have a vision, realize an opportunity, and create a business.

CNBC:
Is there something uniquely American about that?

BARBARA K:
Well, I think that there’s something uniquely American about the fact that we are in the land of opportunity. Whatever idea you have, you can create a business from it. That’s a fact. It’s the people that choose to put the pen to paper, and focus on it, and make their idea in their brain…and execute it, make it a reality. Those are the entrepreneurs, and the people that will succeed.

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