Lori Greiner – Entrepreneur, Inventor, TV Personality
The Unstoppable Inventor
By Caroline Cox
Lori Greiner is a problem-solver. Her first invention, a jewelry organizer, was born out of necessity back in ’96 while she worked at the Chicago Tribune and sold costume jewelry on the side. With a six-figure loan, little business ownership know-how and a drive that could not be deterred, she successfully turned that one idea into a $500 million dollar brand with more than 350 inventions.
Greiner has created products from expandable luggage and reversible tote bags to cooking utensils and cosmetic organizers. She makes regular appearances on QVC and holds more than 100 U.S. and international patents. Next on the horizon? A recurring role on ABC’s invention-based reality show Shark Tank, where she makes several appearances starting February 10th.
Here, she talks to Little PINK Book about what it’s like working with her husband, the days she spent pounding the pavement and what inspires her most.
PINK: What’s your top success secret?
Lori Greiner: I set my mind to do something and get it done. I do whatever it takes and I don’t take “no” for an answer. In the beginning, everybody said, “How are you going to just start a company and make a product? How do you know people are going to buy it?” There were a lot of skeptics. I said, “I’m just going to figure it out. If I need a toolmaker, a molder or a model maker, I’ll find one.” I started out by making a list of what I needed. Then I found the [resources] to make it happen. Being tenacious, driven and not thinking about “can’t” as a possibility allowed me to succeed.
PINK: From whom were you hearing “can’t”?
LG: More so than bankers and investors, it was from people I knew personally. My in-laws are very conservative and they were concerned. Most other entrepreneurs I’ve met have this exact same attitude – they’re not worried about not being able to make something happen. It’s more, “How am I going to make that happen?” That’s an important element to the successful entrepreneur’s mindset.
PINK: What product did people say couldn’t work?
LG: There were many products where I was told it couldn’t work. I had a large, mirrored jewelry cabinet that didn’t take up a lot of space, but it was tall. It had cabinets on three sides, three mirrors and it spun. Those mirrors opened up to reveal an anti-tarnish jewelry cabinet and a three-way mirror. It stored more than 700 pieces of jewelry and had places where you could put scarves and hats. It was an amazing unit but really complicated to make. I’d be sitting with someone who was helping me do the dimensions, draw the specs or design it. They’d say it was going to topple over. There were a million reasons why they said it couldn’t work. But it did work. People loved it and it sold wonderfully. It was a “Today’s Special Value” on QVC, and we sold several million dollars-worth of them. That’s probably one of my favorites because it was really challenging.
PINK: What’s the biggest concern for women business owners?
LG: There are a lot of steps that go into running a business and creating a product. Some women find it daunting or think it’s going to be too much and they’re not going to be able to do it. Just like with anything, you’ve got to start with step one. List out what you need to do, then methodically start to check things off the list. Before you know it, you’ve done 10 things when you never thought you could get passed five.
PINK: What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
LG: My parents always told me I could do anything I wanted. The confidence of knowing I was capable of doing anything wasn’t necessarily a piece of advice, but an encouraging part of my psyche. I carried that belief with me. It was also watching my entrepreneurial family and people who achieved their dreams.
PINK: Did you have a mentor early on in your career?
LG: Not really, but my father was a brilliant man and a strong businessman. He and my grandfather were entrepreneurial. They were both into real estate-type businesses. They took risks and did things others weren’t doing at the time. One was my mother’s father and one was my father, so they weren’t [blood] related. It’s interesting. They say you marry people like your father. [Laughs.] Just watching them helped me not be afraid to tackle something new. I had that in my genes and my upbringing.
PINK: How much is your brand worth?
LG: We’ve done around $500 million in retail sales. I’m a wholesaler so I sell through retailers. That’s what the retailers have done with my products, how much has been sold by QVC and other retailers across the country. That’s how much money I made them. [Laughs.]
PINK: What’s your biggest weakness as a leader?
LG: I don’t have a huge team, so I handle a lot. I’m hands-on in everything I do, even if that means I’m doing a thousand things a day. I’ve been told that’s the way other entrepreneurs are too. They started out doing everything, and it’s hard to give that up. My biggest weakness is that I’m not trained as a manager. I started out as an inventor with a product idea and that grew and grew. I’ve had a staff, but I never went to business school or took Managing 101.
PINK: How big is your team?
LG: We have about eight people but we outsource a lot of companies. You don’t need to have a lot of staff [to run a business] today. I have photographers, graphic designers, packagers and lawyers. I have offices and suppliers overseas and all over the world to help make the products. All of those people are an important part of my business, but they don’t have to be staff. I think it’s smart to keep the number of people you employee manageable and close. Then you can outsource where you don’t need an employee.
PINK: You’ve created hundreds of inventions. Where do you get inspiration?
LG: Sometimes it comes like a flash. Especially when I’m on airplanes. The phones aren’t ringing so I can think and focus. Up in the sky, I have a minute to breathe. A lot of it stems from issues I have in my own home. I like jewelry a lot, so I focused on making the best things to house that. Whatever it is – I try to find a way to make it better and more useful than what’s out there.
PINK: When you were first starting out, you camped out on Michigan Avenue in Chicago to see what people thought of your prototype earring organizer. What was that like?
LG: It was fun. I had a little model made. Since the finished product required the risk of making a $300,000 mold, I thought I better find out if women really wanted it first. The model cost $10,000 to make, and I filled it up with earrings. I wanted to go to every diverse area across Chicago, so I went in front of the Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue. I figured they wouldn’t shoo me away as fast. [Laughs.] Then I went to the north, south and west suburbs. I went to the major shopping malls and stopped women to ask them what they thought of my product. I think I gave them a silly present if they’d stop and talk to me, like a pen or bubblegum.
PINK: What was the general reaction?
LG: They were all very nice and they answered my questionnaire. I also snuck into the Taste of Chicago. I got kicked out three times – every time I would sneak back next to a different food vendor. I always asked people, “Do you like it? Would you buy it? What would you pay for it?” The overwhelming response was that they liked it, they could use it and they’d buy it. The only thing that varied was what they would pay for it. I think we ended up selling it for somewhere between $19 and $22. It was pretty cheap.
PINK: You’re on the upcoming season of Shark Tank, a show on ABC where budding entrepreneurs get to pitch their ideas to potential investors like yourself. What was the process of you becoming a part of the show?
LG: I was supposed to be the original female “shark” for season one. I was excited and ready to do the pilot. Then my mother passed away. It was a hard time and I wound up not being able to do what was contractually necessary to be in the pilot because I was taking care of things for my mother’s funeral. But the company kept in touch with me and said they’d like to have me back. Now it’s season three and I’m back. There are some really exciting things go on. My episodes start airing February 10th at 8 p.m. EST.
PINK: With everything you have going on, how do you balance life and work?
LG: My husband Dan works with me. He was an accountant and controller at a large company in Chicago when I started my business. Five or six years later, he saw it was becoming pretty big, so he quit his job and came to work with me. We get along really well – we’re like Frick and Frack. It really wasn’t that hard for us to transition into [working together] because we already spent all our time together. There are some couples that need their space, but we weren’t like that. We always wanted to be together. He handles his areas, I handle mine and it works out great.
PINK: Do you have rules about trying to not bring work home?
LG: That’s impossible. We don’t even attempt to do that because it’s not something we could do. When you own your own company, it’s almost 24/7. You’re going to be watching and checking on it day and night. You can say, “We’ll stop talking about work at 7,” but you won’t. We look at it positively because we really love what we do. When we feel maxed out, we’ll take a break to watch a movie or go to dinner.
PINK: Do you travel together for work?
LG: Yes, but we love to travel. We try to mix in fun when we can. We were in London for their QVC [network] in December. It was a rough day – I had seven one-hour shows in one day. But then we ran by Harrods and checked out all the Christmas festivities. The next morning we took a nice walk and got to experience London for a little bit before heading home.
PINK: What do you do to rejuvenate yourself?
LG: Our favorite thing is staying home and watching about six movies in a row until all hours of the night, making a great meal and having great wine, or watching episodes of a TV show we like. Right now I’m a little obsessed with Mad Men. I also love cooking. I make great seafood, like shrimp and scallops in a raviata marinara sauce. I love to entertain at home with friends – I cook a big meal (often a Lobster boil) and buy some fine wine and then sit back and talk the night away. Often it pushes 2 or 3 a.m. before we all realize how late it is and break up the party.
PINK: Who is your personal heroine?
LG: I admire Barbara Walters. After reading [her autobiography] I was impressed with how many things she did. She stepped out in an arena where women weren’t really accepted. She did a lot of bold, brave things that took guts. Oprah is also an amazing human being. I love how much she cares about humanity. I feel like I’m a similar kind of spirit in that I have always cared a lot about helping others. I care when people are sad. I feel their pain.
PINK: What’s one thing most people don’t know about you?
LG: I’m a big Tennessee Williams fan and I used to write plays. I call it my pre-passion, but it’s still a passion. It was years before I created my first product. I like to write dramas – dramatic thrillers that are “deep” with plot twists and complex relationships. I’d love to get back to writing plays one day. I also always wanted to make a movie. That’s what I started with wanting to do in life, be a writer and make a film. It’s never too late!
PINK: Do you have a favorite quote?
LG: Someone I do business with sent me a quote they said reminded them of me. I found it very complimentary and I really liked it. It was, “An army of sheep led by lions will defeat an army of lions led by sheep every time.”
PINK: How do you define success?
LG: Success is when you’re happy in what you’re doing and you do well by others every day.
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