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Growing up as the oldest of four, Karen Eschebach knew that if she wanted to keep something out of the hands of her younger siblings, everything had to have its place. She had a box for her Barbies and another box for Barbie's clothes and a labeler -- which she used to put her name on every book she owned. "In a house growing up with three younger siblings," Karen laughed, "that labeler was my way of saying 'This is mine.'" Little did anyone know that Karen's early lessons in keeping things contained would turn into a multi-million dollar business -- least of all, Karen. To her, it was just a way of being. So much so, that when she became a mother herself, she began a Clutter Cutters Club for other moms in her Grosse Pointe, Michigan neighborhood. "We'd get together once a month," Karen explained, "and I'd help them all with ideas on how to organize their pantries and linen closets. I'd give them an assignment and the next month, they'd come back with before and after pictures. Sometimes we'd even go to someone's home and organize a closet, so everyone would learn from the process." It wasn't long before people started asking for more personal attention and Karen found herself with a small business as a professional organizer. After a corporate career in data processing, where she designed systems to keep information in place, she thought she'd found the perfect way to organize her life as a wife and mother with her desire to work. Just a few miles away, Karen's friend Jennifer Weaver was trying to figure out how to achieve that same balance. With three kids, there weren't a lot of extra hours in the day, so Jennifer decided to spend a few evenings a week as a direct sales consultant for The Pampered Chef -- selling cooking utensils at parties that women in the neighborhood would have in their homes. And it was at one of those parties, which Karen happened to attend, that the two women's little side businesses began to merge into one very big idea. "That's when it occurred to me," Karen recalled, "that I'd never seen anyone sell the organizing products I was recommending to my clients, at a home party." "It was a light bulb moment," Jennifer said with a smile. "I couldn't believe that someone else hadn't thought of it." But before they even got started, the two women hit a speed bump that almost kept them from getting their idea off the ground. Karen and a third partner went to a trade conference to learn more about direct selling, where they found themselves surrounded by people telling stories of the millions of dollars they invested to get their businesses off the ground. The third partner decided it was more than she wanted to take on and Karen came home disheartened, unsure that she'd be able to bring her vision to life. "But I thought let's go for it," Jennifer said. "We don't need a million dollars. Pampered Chef began in someone's basement, why can't we? We just had to start out slow. We only bought what we could afford, which meant we began with less than 20 organizing products and bought the absolute minimum. I remember finding something we loved and thinking, 'Oh my God, we have to buy a dozen?!'" "And we began by selling at vendor fairs and at schools and churches to get the word out," Karen added. "We could buy a table for $40 or $200, depending on the size of the event, but we'd be there with people selling things like Tupperware and Cutco. We just didn't look quite as professional. All our signs were homemade." They also didn't have the same quantities of merchandise on hand, but what they did have was Jennifer's truck -- which during their second show, she kept driving home, to load up more boxes. "Every time I walked back into the house," Jennifer recalled, "my husband would ask 'What did you forget now? And I said 'No, they're buying stuff. I need more!' We sold everything we had that weekend." That weekend alone, the women sold more than $2,000 worth of merchandise -- products that help busy homemakers organize their homes, their cars and even their purses. And the partners decided it was time to test their party concept. But before they'd even figured out how to accept credit cards, they got a call that would spread the word about their fledgling business much faster than they ever expected. A local reporter wanted to tell their story. "Suddenly we were getting calls from women that didn't even live in the Detroit area," Karen said. "Many of them had moved to other cities, but still read their hometown paper, and they wanted to know not just how they could buy our organizing products, but how they could sell them." Before they knew it, and long before they had an organized system in place, the partners had a small team of consultants around the country selling Clever Container products at home parties. "We were still working from my basement," Jennifer laughed, "only now we were using the entire basement. We even took over my children's play area. There were days we received so many packages we couldn't get out my front door. "But we were building this business within the limits of our credit cards. The recession was starting and we couldn't get more credit, so when we hit the $9000 mark, we'd have to stop buying product until some money came in. We didn't want to get in over our heads." Yet still, word continued to spread, and when a national morning show gave a 15 second nod to this brand new direct sales company, there was no looking back. The company quickly grew to include more than 100 consultants, and the women were spending more and more time packing boxes in Jennifer's basement. So much time that while her daughter was in school, Karen would have to run home to let the dog out for five minutes. During on one of those quick doggy runs she ran into a man who had just pulled up in front of her house and stepped out of a chauffeur-driven, black sedan. "It wasn't Ed McMahon," Karen said with a twinkle in her eye, "but it might as well have been! At the time, my home was listed as the company address and this man got out of the car and said he was sent by these two guys in Chicago, who were interested in talking with us. There I was, all sweaty, dressed in shorts and a tank top and he wanted to talk business." The man turned out to be a representative for two angel investors, who'd been keeping a close eye on the growing business. Unbeknownst to Karen and Jennifer, one of the men's daughters had inquired about becoming a consultant -- buying a sample kit, so her father could get a closer look. The two investors even threw a Clever Container party, to see exactly how it all worked. And now they wanted the two women to fly to Chicago and meet with them. "Karen called and asked if I was sitting down," Jennifer said. "I'd run out to the grocery store, so she told me to pull over my cart. We weren't sure if they wanted to invest in us or buy us out, we just knew this was something big." And big it was. Five years from the time the women ordered their first products, they were being offered $250,000 to expand their business, as well as warehouse space and a team to fulfill their orders. "The day that freight truck showed up at my door," Jennifer remembered, "and moved all that merchandise out of my basement was one happy day! That winter we re-did the basement and created a really cool hangout for our kids. We gave them back their play area, plus some, and they deserved it." Today, the two very organized women have a team of 800 consultants who sell more than 1,500 products a week. This year, Clever Container is projecting $2 million in sales and they're spending more and more time creating their own brand of organizing products. "The best piece of advice we can give to anyone who has an idea they believe in," Jennifer said, "is not to stop at the first stumbling block. Where there's a will, there's a way." "And when opportunity knocks," Karen laughed, "open the door –- even if you're dressed in shorts and a tank top."
The Clever Container Co. aims to simplify lives Data processor leaves corporations to perfect home organizing system.
Karen Dybis / Special to the Detroit News
Karen Eschebech, sells her organizing product to friends and clients during an at home sales party in Grosse Pointe Park.
Walk into Karen Eschebach's home, and you'll notice there is a place for everything, and everything is in its place.
That's because the former personal organizer has a knack for finding everyday items a home. Her next project is helping others do the same. Last year, Eschebach founded The Clever Container Co. — a direct sales and party planning company that demonstrates and sells products that help organize a person's home and simplify their lives.
Where she came from: Eschebach went from Redford High School to Oakland Community College, where she received an associate's degree. She went back to school at Central Michigan University to get a bachelor's degree in applied science.
From there, Eschebach enjoyed a relatively long career, spending 12 years at EDS and five more at Ford Motor Co. in data processing.
What changed: As the old saying goes, having a baby changes everything. Eschebach and her husband welcomed a baby girl into their family in August 2000. In an effort to spend more time with her daughter, Eschebach tried a number of hats — an eBay consignment business, working as a personal organizer — but nothing seemed to stick.
Moment of truth: Eschebach had a brainstorm while attending a Pampered Chef direct-sales party in July 2006.
"I realized there was nothing out there like this for organizing. So I decided to do it," she said.
She researched the subject with vigor, filling a spiral notebook with ideas. She dragged her laptop computer along on a family vacation and devoured books about cosmetics guru Mary Kay Ash and Pampered Chef founder, Doris Christopher. She also hired a Grosse Pointe Park firm, Frontier 3 Advertising, to help her create a brand for her new company, including a logo, motto and packaging.
The result was The Clever Container Co., and its motto of "It's not just the product. It's the process."
Stumbling blocks: One challenge was the realization that she may not have the resources to make The Clever Container Co. a reality. Her doubts arose after attending the Washington, D.C. meeting of the Direct Selling Association and comparing herself to most of the successful entrepreneurs there.
"I didn't have millions of dollars. I didn't have a warehouse. I didn't have a full, glossy catalog," Eschebach said. Another obstacle came when Eschebach's friend and original business partner decided the timing just wasn't right for her. Eschebach accepted her decision with regret and eventually approached another woman, friend and fellow Grosse Pointe-area, stay-at-home mom, Jennifer Weaver. A new partnership was born.
"I couldn't do it alone," Eschebach said. "It's always great to have another person evaluate things. Plus, we're using her basement as our world headquarters."
Words of wisdom: Eschebach believes the key to success for The Clever Container Co. is discovering unique products and creating one-of-a-kind organizing tools. She and Weaver have put their own money into the business, a definite sacrifice. They feel the investment will pay off in the end, and it keeps them focused on the process at every stage. This March, Eschebach and Weaver will attend the International Home & Housewares Show in Chicago, where 37 percent of the products are related to organization. That is just one more sign to Eschebach that she is headed in the right direction.
Karen Dybis is a Metro Detroit freelance writer
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