It all started with blueberries.
More specifically, with blueberries that Melissa Kieling’s young son refused to take to school because they were always warm and mushy by noon.
It was 2009 and Kieling, a recently divorced mother of three, was struggling. Her Los Angeles home was in foreclosure, and her car had been repossessed. She had $13 in the bank.
Six years later, Kieling is the CEO of PackIt, a $15 million company that sold the first foldable, freezable bag designed to keep food and drinks cold for up to ten hours.
“ was a tragic time for my family and me,” Kieling told Yahoo! Parenting, reflecting on the early days of PackIt. “I was doing small jobs [here and there] to keep the lights on and put food on the table.”
In her spare time, she began crafting a fix for her child and his blueberry dilemma.
She researched gel-cooling technology, and found a way to keep her kids (now 11, 16, and 18) happy, their food still cold when lunchtime rolled around.
Kieling built the first PackIt prototype with a shower curtain and ice packs. She had a dry cleaner stitch the creation together.
She soon realized she was on to something, and began developing a business plan to sell her invention.
“I felt so strongly that it had to work that I wasn’t willing to detract from that and go the safety route and get a safe, conservative, reasonable job,” Kieling told the Los Angeles Times. “I just tightened the belt everywhere and kept going.”
She recruited a friend to be her business partner, and with some money from family and friends, Kieling set out to trade shows with an initial order of 5,000 PackIt bags.
“It was exciting to see people getting excited about it,” Kieling said. “When you put something out there that you’ve poured your heart and soul into, you don’t know how the consumer is going to respond to it.”
Target saw the product in 2010, and liked it, but chose not to buy.
“The secret sauce really isn’t apparent to the consumer right off the bat in a glance when they see it on the shelf,” Kieling said. “So we had a lot of educating to do for our customers.”
A 2011 PackIt infomercial, of all things, proved to be a pivotal moment for the company.
Since the spot aired, PackIt has seen tremendous sales, and growth. The product line expanded include insulated sandwich and grocery bags.
Products range in price from $11.99-$29.99.
Kieling’s PackIt products are now distributed worldwide in more than 70 countries, and can be found in Target, Whole Foods, and Bed, Bath, & Beyond.
Last year, Inc. magazine named PackIt one of the fastest-growing privately held companies.
“I feel like I have earned my seat at the table,” Kieling, who has neither career experience outside the home nor a college degree, also told the LA Times. “And it didn’t come in the form of an MBA from Harvard. It came truly in the form of trial and error.”
Kieling’s first business cards for PackIt read, “Founder/Mom.”
“I don’t know if there was any formal education out there that could have prepared me for starting a business better than motherhood,” Kieling told Yahoo! Parenting. “You navigate unfamiliar territories … similar to having your first child.”
Kieling cites asking for help, and advice from others, as the key to her success.
“Had I not allowed myself to be vulnerable enough to ask,” she says, “I wouldn’t have succeeded.”