Having one of those days when it feels like your latest hurdle will be the death of your business? You’re not alone. But listen to Lisa Bradley of handmade handbag company R. Riveter. “I think our greatest challenges have also been our greatest opportunities,” she says.
She’s not just being a Pollyanna. In 2011, she and co-founder Cameron Cruse were commiserating over their struggles to find employment, despite the fact that each had a master’s degree. This is no surprise: According to a 2017 survey of active duty spouses, 24% identify as unemployed. That’s not because of a lack of desire to work, says this older study.
Then why is it such a challenge? “Employers say, ‘Why do you have so much experience in so many different places?’” explains Bradley. The reason, of course, is the reality that people in the military are transferred from base to base as a regular practice. Bradley, for example, has moved five times since R. Riveter started, thanks to her husband’s busy career. “Professional mover is one of my wonderful skill sets,” she jokes.
By creating their own employment, Bradley and Cruse realized from the beginning that they would also eventually be generating jobs for others – now close to 40 people – and establishing a new system for manufacturing. But back in 2011, they were just two women gathered around a sewing machine in Cruse’s attic, stitching together handbags from canvas and leather.
It was six months into the business that the pair began adding Riveters to the staff. The job title, like the company itself, is named after Rosie the Riveter, the star of World War II-era posters encouraging women to take on defense industry positions left empty by men who’d been shipped off. “We see ourselves as modern-day Rosie the Riveters, plugging into the economy while still having a family,” Bradley says.
Each Riveter works on crafting a single piece of a handbag, which is stamped with her Riveter number. The members of what Bradley calls “ a virtual assembly line” ship each part they make to factories in Florida or North Carolina, where they are put together into the finished products and delivered to customers.
But the Riveters aren’t the company’s only remote workers. Most of the staff, from administration to marketing to the director of e-commerce, are also distributed. Many are military spouses, but not all are. “We try to provide opportunities to as many military spouses as possible, but to be an employee, you just need to believe in our mission,” Bradley says.
With the new Florida manufacturing facility, R. Riveter is doubling production and its opportunities for new Riveters that come with it. It’s the biggest growth the company has seen since what Bradley calls, “the second official launch of the company.” She’s talking about winning an investment on TV pitch competition “Shark Tank.”
In 2016, Bradley and Cruse appeared on the show and got offers from three of the sharks. Daymond John told them that they would succeed on their own and shouldn’t give away equity to anyone, but ultimately, they shared a 20% stake in the company with Mark Cuban in exchange for $100,000. The result? “We sold more in a night than we had in the previous entire year,” Bradley recalls. “Luckily our customers understand that it takes eight weeks for our product to be crafted by hand.”
Despite exceptional growth, Bradley says that R. Riveter’s business model has changed surprisingly little over nearly a decade in business. The product, from fabric to final stitching, is still crafted entirely in the United States, though it’s no longer made from upcycled military materials. That’s because the Riveters needed to pay for a storage unit just to have a place to keep the fabrics. The new model is now more economical.
How does Bradley manage a remote workforce from day to day? Riveters plug into a website to chart their daily work. Office 365, including Excel, are major players in production planning. And all for all the remote meetings? “I love Zoom so much I could literally work for it,” Bradley says.
In fact, Bradley now says that she thinks remote working is an advantage for her company. “Being right around the corner from somebody, it’s so organic and easy to move things forward,” she says, remembering the time that she and Cruse were indeed on the same base. “But now that we’re past those startup challenges [being remote has] made us more efficient. It’s been a challenge and a tremendous opportunity for us.” The kind of opportunity that would make Rosie the Riveter proud.