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How I Turned My Wife's Pajamas into a Six-Figure Business

By J. Kirby Best, Founder and CEO of Performance Health Care Products, Inc., Nashville, Tenn.
My wife was diagnosed with breast cancer 10 years ago. She's fine now, but we had four little boys at the time and her illness was a blow to all of us. The chemotherapy triggered early menopause, and one of the side effects is hot flashes or night sweats. You perspire heavily, and the bedding gets very wet. And once you're wet, and the flash passes, you get that awful clammy, cold feeling.

I had experimented with some of the early wicking material, and remembered I had some clothes made of this material from the 1980s. I asked my wife to just try sleeping in this material. I said it would wick away the moisture and keep her dry. All of a sudden she could sleep at night. It transformed our life.

We found out which material was best and bought some, and I started making pajamas and nightgowns for my wife. Then it was for my wife's friends, and then their friends, and the demand started getting bigger and bigger.


A decision to grow
The company that we created, Performance Health Care Products, is very small. But we're growing: We sold more in the first two months of this year than all of last year. Last year, sales were under $200,000.

I used to be the CEO of Lightning Source, which is a print-on-demand book manufacturer. It prints copies of 120,000 titles every single day. When I was CEO, we created a really neat infrastructure that stored books digitally and was well-connected with the retail world -- with companies like Amazon.com and Barnes & Noble, who would feed the order right to our presses. If an order came in before 4 p.m. today, we'd have it done by 4 a.m. tomorrow.

Lightning Source merged with another company 18 months ago, and I was out of a job. I moped around and I went to Moab, Utah to ride my mountain bike for 10 days by myself. It was there that I realized that we could take Performance Health Care Products up a notch. We've never advertised, never done anything to promote the company. This is a great little company, and it got to the point where it was time to really do something with it.

We recently launched a new line of medical scrubs made out of wicking material. We got a call from a hospital CEO who asked if we would consider redesigning the scrubs and hospital gowns for his hospital. We got the ER team involved and asked the head doctor and head nurses what changes they would make. Then they just let go with both barrels about all the things that are wrong with standard scrubs. So we listened to all of that and came up with a new design.

There's not a category of scrubs where we don't have a better product than the others out there. I think that's what's going to drive sales to the $100 million mark. I drove Lightning Source into a big corporation, and I can do it with Performance Health Care.

Building a team
I learned a lot about teamwork, and also about performance apparel, as a member of Canada's national ski team. At the world championships in 1977, a well-known athletic clothing company gave us full-length ski suits. But when you raced in them, they started to ride up on your neck and choke you. So we'd rip the front of the suit down. The suit was beautifully designed and was great if you were standing still, but didn't function very well when you were moving.

So I and my business partner, Cally Bowen, founded Bowen and Best Associates, to test and redesign clothes for companies making athletic apparel. That was a day when most athletic gear consisted of sneakers and old pair of gym shorts. But the trend was toward high-tech materials and running shoes. Our company did a lot of interesting testing of athletic apparel, from tennis outfits to ski suits. We would pick the best athlete in that sport and hire them to write up a report about the company's clothing -- it's too long here, or it chafes here. The company lasted four or five years, but that's what sparked my interest in athletic clothing.

The lessons I learned then are still fresh today. They key is to surround yourself with great people. As an athlete, if you're lucky, you are surrounded by a great coach, great training staff and great equipment. You need to emulate what Lance Armstrong did. Look at the team he put together to win the Tour de France. He had the best coaches, the best riders, the best equipment. He had training and nutrition programs that were the best.

As a small-business owner, the key is to keep surrounding yourself with better people all the time. Surround yourself with people who win. They don't have to be superstars in every area -- just in the area to which you've assigned them, whether it's IT or sales. My ability as a small-business owner isn't so much to run any one part of the business, but to choose the best people who can run each part.

The cut-and-sew center of the U.S.
There is an area in northern Alabama that's known as cut-and-sew center of the U.S. Lee jeans are made there, and North Face apparel. This is where Performance Health Care Products makes our products.

We hire people who work when they want to work. We'll get 20 people to fill five slots, and they can sign up and say they want to work five or 10 hours a week. When we didn't own our own manufacturing, we just produced when we had demand, and we might have to order 100 sets of pajamas in every order. But now, we can make it all on demand. If you order pajamas today, we make them tomorrow and ship them the next day.

We're going to have to hire a full-time day shift to keep up with demand. With that day shift, we'll have about 16 full-time employees. This year, the goal is $1 million in sales. It's more likely to be in the $750,000 range, but the goal is still $1 million. -- As told to Taylor Smith

Resources
Learn more about the company Kirby says is tops in the design world.

Understand the science behind wicking material.

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