Interview: Renee Hanson of Bani Bands

Webgility founder and CEO Parag Mamnani speaks with entrepreneur Renee Hanson about her athletic equipment ecommerce business, Bani Bands.

Parag Mamnani: Hi, everyone. I’m Parag with Webgility. This video is being recorded as part of our series called Beat It. I’m talking to entrepreneurs and experts in retail on how they’re beating COVID-19.

Today, it’s my pleasure to chat with Renee Hanson. She’s an amazing female entrepreneur, a US Army Veteran running an athletics business called Bani Bands. I hope I’ve pronounced that correctly. She’ll be sharing her incredible journey building her business and the pivot she’s made to help our critical frontline workers fighting the pandemic. Welcome, Renee.

Renee Hanson: Hi. Thanks for having me.

Parag: Excellent. Then, I also have with me Emily. You probably remember her from one of our previous recordings. She runs the Elevate Growth Group where she helps brands with their e-commerce business and specifically with the Amazon Channel. She happens to be a partner with Renee. She’s helping them build their brand on Amazon. Welcome, Emily. It’s great to chat with you again.

Emily Wilcox: Thanks for having me back, Parag.

Parag: Of course, excited to have you. So, Renee, your story is both incredibly fascinating and also very inspiring. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got started with your business? Also, we’d love to hear how things have changed for you because of coronavirus and some of the changes that you’ve made.

Renee: Yes. Of course. Well, our story basically started in 2008, but I won’t drag you all the way back into all those details, [laughs] but we have been in business since 2008. When I got out of the Army, I went to fashion school, did a pivot, and learned cut and sew apparel manufacturing.

So, when we started the business, actually, it was tall-sized athletic apparel and then we started making headbands on the side. We were going to volleyball tournaments all over the country, living in a motor home, and driving from event to event to get the business going.

So, it’s a really exciting time. It was also relevant right now because we started right after the economy– Actually, excuse me, right before the economy tanked in 2008.

Parag: Wow. You’re a veteran in more ways than one.

Renee: Yes. This is our second time seeing major economic catastrophe in this country. I’m just figuring out how to best serve our customers and best serve the people of this country and figure out what it is that they need right now and provide those products.

We’re a product-based company. Like I said, my background is in cut and sew manufacturing. We have been in the headband business solidly for the last 11 years. Recently, we’ve pivoted to manufacture headbands with buttons to help nurses, doctors, and health care workers that are wearing masks all the time, that we’re now making headbands that have a button on them so that they can put the mask strap around the button instead of their ears. So, that was very much in our wheelhouse. We were already a manufacturer.

We’re also manufacturing fabric face masks. Our products are made in USA. We just had the opportunity to pivot our business and make sure we’re giving people what they need right now to help them feel better while they’re working, first responders are working, and essential workers, as well as giving people masks so that they can have time, certain cities in this country that you’re not allowed to be outside without a mask on. That’s true in both Miami and New York City.

So, we’re trying to manufacture these items and get those out to the people so people have what they need to cover their face when they’re in public.

Parag: Yes. I got to say that entrepreneurs are tested in the toughest of times and, boy, what a fantastic idea. You’re really helping so many people out there that could really benefit from this. Emily, did you meet with Renee? It sounds like you guys have had a close working relationship especially through this pivot of the business towards supporting the medical workers.

Emily: We’ve been working with Renee and Bani Bands for, gosh, almost two years and so–

Renee: [crosstalk]

Emily: Yes, supporting their sales and growth on Amazon. Part of the reason I thought she would be such a wonderful guest for you to have in this Beat It series is because we’ve actually had– A lot of the clients at Elevate have seen sales increase not due to anything specifically they were doing. It’s just luck of the draw. If you’re in a category that were in demand increase and people were going to buy online, then you got to capitalize on that.

Unfortunately, athletic headbands are not one of those categories. I was so inspired to see the way that Renee reacted to coronavirus because I know you’ve seen it, too, Parag, not everyone is saying, “Where is the opportunity? How can I serve?” Right? There are people that have gone into fear mode and, “How do I just conserve cash and make whatever I have last as long as it can last?” I’m so inspired by what Renee has been able to do in the way that she’s been able to pivot and navigate this. It’s an honor to help her serve customers.

Parag: Yes. Indeed. Renee, your story could be not just inspirational but hopefully, serve as a really strong strategic and maybe tactical playbook for how retailers can combat this crisis. If you could walk me through a little bit in terms of how you decided to make this pivot. What was that light bulb moment? Also, if you could dive in just a little bit in terms of some of the steps you took to– Because, clearly, you’re in manufacturing, so you would have had to change a lot of your production line and make a lot of operational changes to be able to make such a transition, although– Yes. I’ll let you share the story.

Renee: Yes. Of course. Well, one of my sisters is a nurse. She is working in a COVID unit at the VA Hospital in Kentucky. She’s in a lot of the Facebook health care groups and she had sent me a screenshot of a nurse wearing a headband with buttons on them and basically said, “You should do this.” I was like, “I didn’t know this is a thing.” [laughs] Of course, it makes perfect sense. She’s not used to wearing a mask her entire shift. Nobody is. It wasn’t a normal thing to wear a surgical mask or an N95 for an entire shift.

So, after a couple of days of that, the back of their ears, it was just absolutely wearing out, getting raw, and it’s like– I can’t imagine being in that environment. It’s already so stressful and then they have something that you have to wear be irritating to you. That’s just– Yes. So, I realized, I’m like, “Okay. This is completely in a real house. I just have to find buttons.”

So, honest to God, the first 25 headbands that went out, I hand-sewed them from buttons from Wal-Mart. [laughs] I just was like, “I have to get these on the website immediately.” I messaged Elevate Group and had them get them up on Amazon.

We were actually first or Amazon for that particular item. My factory is in Southern California, but I do have suppliers overseas as well. We were lucky enough– So many things are shut down in California, too, but they’re a kind of manufacturing. They were starting to make masks, basically, not medical grade PPE but PPE for people who are needing it. So, they are considered an essential factory. I’m also very lucky that my supply chain is stable both here and in China.

Parag: That’s fantastic.

Renee: Yes. It’s really remarkable, just the way the virus has unfolded globally that China’s through the bulk of it now that the US is getting hit and that my factory is in California versus New York City. There is a lot to think about in the supply chain and also making sure that people are taking right precautions and that– if we have a demand and we’re providing a product to make sure that if one of those supply chains goes down, then I have backup from the other.

We were able to find buttons in Los Angeles through a supplier and then I just went ahead and immediately ordered a significant amount of buttons from my Chinese supplier that are all here now. Now, we’re starting to catch up [laughs] in production, but my factory in California went and got an actual button sewing machine. It’s like a big industrial machine that just does buttons super-fast. They were already making our headbands. I ordered a bunch more and they’ve been able to produce– We got the first batch of their production earlier this week. Otherwise, I’ve had a couple of home sewers in our area help us with– They’re in their own space and it’s clean and sterile and they’ve been sewing buttons on headbands that we already have in inventory in a warehouse in Nevada. [crosstalk]

Parag: So, you went from– kind of overnight with stitching of a few buttons, went from being a non-essential category business to becoming an essential one, which is just amazing. Can you talk a little bit about the strategy once you got the basic products? Like you said, you got your first 25. Was this an experiment you ran on your website or with Emily’s help on Amazon? How did you–?

Renee: Yes. There was not an experiment. That’s one of the strengths that I have is to actually– just noticing trends and if it’s in our wheelhouse, being able to accelerate that, and position ourselves to be in front of the wave, that I knew it wasn’t just something that was going to be a flash in the pan. Obviously, this isn’t going away anytime soon. People are going to continue to wear masks, whether it’s health care workers or the general public. So, I feel that this particular product will have some longevity.

By all means, I hope it doesn’t. I hope this thing is over in a month and nobody’s wearing a mask and we’re all hugging each other again, but the reality is I don’t think that can be the case and I’m super grateful to have it in my wheelhouse, to be able to produce products that people need to stay more comfortable during this timeframe.

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Parag: Sure. You mentioned you have a website and then you’re also– You obviously have an Amazon presence. If you could speak to both the channels and how maybe the strategy was a bit different, because especially with marketplaces, you probably had to change even your product category to become a little bit more relevant and get that presence. So, talk to me a little bit about how you went about listing your products and making some of those changes so you could actually get those eyeballs to start purchasing your product.

Renee: Right. Well, we are already selling headbands on Amazon, so we actually converted an old listing that was the same headband, but we just added buttons to it and pushed it out and that manner, it’s like we just recreated a listing essentially without breaking rules [laughs] so I don’t think so. Emily can talk more on that.

Yes. So we basically just added buttons to existing listings, buttons to headbands on existing listings and then optimized keywords so that when people are searching headbands with buttons for nurses or headbands with buttons for masks that they would start to find us.

Ironically, there have been quite a few Chinese sellers that have put the identical product up, including my photograph and all of the content that Elevate created for us. There’s been at least 20 that we’ve submitted to take for infringement. It’s just weird to see my photo because–

Of course, there’s nobody else around. It’s my husband and I working in our office and our warehouse. I don’t have a model, but I can just throw a headband on and take a picture. So, it’s like my actual photo on these listing.

I’m like, “Well, it’s what you have to work with.” You work with what you have.

Parag: Absolutely. You’ve got to make do with all the resources that you have. It’s the sign of entrepreneurs. Emily, I wonder if you could maybe double click into what you did in terms of the Amazon strategy and how it might have also differed from the direct website that Renee has.

Emily: Yes. A few things with the Amazon piece. Generally, we vet products in advance. It’s a collaboration with the brand. I think Renee showed us the product and our team immediately was like, “Yes. There is going to be demand for that.” I think we all knew right away that it made a ton of sense to do.

We did need to be a little bit careful because Amazon is being so tricky right now around facemasks and things like that. That was where we wanted to tread very carefully to make sure that this product was able to get out there and be purchased and didn’t, in any way, get miscategorized or flagged by Amazon as being a facemask.

So, my creative team was really, really quick to get this turned around. We all felt the urgency of the situation and so we prioritized getting these images done above some of the other client work that was in the queue. We tried to find creative ways of graying out the mask on some of the images so that it was really clear what was included and what wasn’t.

We got some ad spend allocated to that product right away. Renee had FBM, Fulfilled by Merchant capabilities. I share that because I know that’s how your brain thinks, too, Parag. We can make it sound like, “Oh, we just flipped this switch and something’s on,” but it’s not really true.

Parag: I was going to ask you exactly that as a follow-up. Okay. So, you got these listings. How do you actually get them shipped? You’re already set up for that, Renee.

Renee: It’s crazy. We have a 1,200 square foot office that’s just like– my desk and worktables and a bunch of bins that have all of our product in it, because we ship everything for our website and then generally, we would just ship into FBA whenever– we have products running low, but we are in a position that even though businesses in Nevada are shutdown–

We don’t have employees. It’s just my husband and I. So, we’re able to go in and ship orders and then because we can set these particular listings up as FBM, we’ve been in there fulfilling the orders. I say we but, really, it’s been mostly my husband because I do all of the business operations otherwise and he does mostly logistics and shipping, but I’ve had to step in and help. We have had to have a couple local friends that are–

Our women’s business group have come in to help us. It’s a big enough office. We can stay six feet away from each other and we’re all wearing masks inside and washing our hands a lot and stuff, but it’s just such a bizarre time. We have such a spike in demand and we actually need help in our office, but I have to be so careful about who I allow into my physical space, not only for our own health but also to make sure that we’re following our own protocols to make sure that– we’re washing our hands and we’re wearing masks. We’re not sending anything out that could potentially be contaminated either.

So, it’s just really such a bizarre time to have a boom in business. I’m super grateful but also, trying to maneuver those challenges of having enough help to get stuff out there. One of the women sewing buttons for us, she owns a cafe in Carson City and it’s shut down. So, she completely sterilized the whole place and has her own sewing machine and says, “I’d really rather just be in my own bubble. Can I just take the buttons and the headbands?” I’m like, “By all means.”

So, we’ve been meeting up with her every day and she’s been sewing 100 plus headbands a day for us to keep up while our factory in southern California was getting tooled up to give us the couple of colors that we have in-depth on Amazon. We have a few other things available on our own website. So, this woman has been helping us do that. It’s awesome because she is– her main source of income has been shut down.

So, now, we’re able to pay her her piecework to sew buttons on headbands and she’s crushing it. She’s cranking out so many headbands and it’s also really helping her keep having an income for her family.

Parag: Sure. Without necessarily divulging any company details, can you share, in terms of just a sense of scale, in terms of where you were maybe pre-COVID and having these non-button headbands and now converting here, is there a sense in terms of impact to the business, positive, negative?

Renee: Well, our Amazon sales are up significantly, but that is only about 20% to 25% of my business revenue. We are actually majority wholesale business and we have Major League Baseball licensing. We sell products to most of the stadiums. So, when COVID started, I was definitely in a funk. I had a significant number of our stadium orders for the summer canceled or frozen.

We’d shipped spring training, of course, and we had shipped the bulk of the first shipments for opening day because they usually want those in February and March, so we shipped most of those before everything got frozen. March 13th, we stopped shipping to everybody.

So, I have a lot of income hanging out there, including some accounts that are past due now and also knowing that those secondary, mid-season orders that we had in the queue, they’re probably going to get canceled because if we do have a baseball season this year, it won’t be until mid-summer, which is when those second shipments would usually go. So, if they already have the first shipment, they’re not going to need a second shipment. It’s definitely like my business, as well as many others, is going to have a ripple effect for the next 12 months minimum just from that. That was my main model is wholesale baseball stuff. However, [chuckles] Dick’s Sporting Goods came in and gave us a huge opening order last week that covers [crosstalk].

Parag: Well, congratulations. That’s fantastic.

Renee: Thanks. Yes. It’s just been such a whirlwind that– Because we have licensing for gaiters, neck gaiters. It’s not a mask. We’re not calling it a mask, but it’s a neck gaiter. It can be used to pull up over your face. We have baseball rights to that. Dick’s Sporting Goods bought a lot of them for their e-com that we are shipping this week and next week.

Manufacturing now has just been an absolute rock star, cranking out the things that we need. I would say overall big picture, we’re actually holding to how we thought this year was starting to pan out before COVID. We dropped, but then we picked back up, and then we picked back up a little bit, but we definitely don’t have a potential and the momentum that we had going into the year with other big accounts that we were really pretty close to locking some deals in.

Parag: Yes. The fascinating aspect is because the bulk of your business is wholesale and that’s also in a space where the lockdown is tremendously impacting, you’ve managed to, with the help of your diversification, actually capitalize on your retail channels, kickstart a new product using an existing baseline product. So, it’s just incredibly, incredibly fascinating. I think probably, hopefully, gives a lot of– light bulbs should be going off right now for entrepreneurs watching this in terms of how they might be able to do some pivots.

As you think about the future, one other aspect that comes to mind here is for someone that might be just getting started online, you definitely had a bit of a head start in terms of your e-commerce site and Amazon channels already being available, but if you’ve got a product that’s creative as yours, then it seems like it could be an opportunity for even a brick and mortar retailer to jumpstart and get going.

As you think about the longevity, you mentioned about 12 months or so. Has this enabled you to also pull some other products in your category that– obviously, your mask and your headbands with the buttons are going to be taken off, but are other products also seeing a lift or are those the primary categories? Have you thought about the future or other product categories that you might introduce to ensure you can continue to see that upswing?

Renee: Yes. Not necessarily new products. In the bulk of our products, we use a patented cooling fabric. We’ve really, as a brand, focused on performance for whatever products we’re making the most. The majority is headbands, but we do, in a way, have some neck gaiters and some cooling scarfs and a few other pieces.

We’ve really focused on making sure that the products that we’re making are premium. They’re performance-driven. We have professional athletes wearing our products. It’s really important to me to put stuff out there that actually works.

So, thinking of the big picture of the ripple effect over the next year or two years or three years, I’ve actually been thinking in textile science. What else is out there that we can be using that’s not just cooling but could be antimicrobial, antiviral?

There’s a lot of textiles out there that are really– The textile industry is doing a great job of innovating new fabrics for us to use with different applications. So, on the big picture of things, those are the things that I’m thinking about. What are things going to look like in a year? What can we be cutting and sewing that’s going to add value to the wear? Especially, if we can come up with something that’s truly rated at some medical-grade protection, we just haven’t had those capabilities up until now.

Unfortunately, and I think our country is really realizing how much we depend on overseas manufacturers. We’ve gotten used to paying a certain price for things and we don’t like the idea of paying more for it, but the reality is, we just outsource everything we actually need in our country right now. It’s tough for US manufacturers to try to retool and create these things that we so desperately need so quickly in this country.

So, I think there will be some onshoring of some of our essential goods again. If there’s an opportunity for me to work with some of the textile mills that I work with to create some new fabric technology, that’s where my brain is, but that’s definitely the long haul if we can come up with some products that would really add value.

Minus a really effective treatment or a vaccine or both, I just don’t see us going back to “normal” where we’re going into convention centers and we’re going to stadiums and packing stadiums or we’re going to amusement parks. I don’t see that returning to normal until this has been eradicated. We just don’t know how long that’s going to be. I hope we’re able to go back to somewhat of a normal experience.

I had a big wake-up call when this happened, realizing that my whole business model was based on the fact that people wanted to get together and go to a stadium to watch a ballgame. I think it’s really important– I’ve come up with some things that are working and I’m really super grateful for that, but I think entrepreneurs as a whole need to be really thinking about how things are changing, what is working, and what’s our new normal in six months, in a year? What are people going to want? What are they going to be buying? What services are they going to need? How are those services going to be performed in a different way than they were before a global pandemic?

I think these are the questions that entrepreneurs can be asking themselves and talking with their peers about coming up with really creative solutions so that not only that we can stay in business, but that we can thrive and that we can offer jobs to people and that we can provide these things that the world is really going to need. So, it’s just been an opportunity to really think at that 10,000-foot level and just really think about what do we need as a country, as a world, the global community?

Parag: Yes. I know. That’s exactly right. I think right now everybody needs to really think about what the future looks like and how, as entrepreneurs, we can see, as Emily also pointed out, what’s the opportunity? How do we actually capitalize in the moment?

Before I wrap up here, I did want to ask in terms of your overall business operations, the way that you were set up, it sounds like there were some things that worked really to your advantage operationally as this happened. Does it change the way you run your business now? Are you thinking differently about staffing? Are you thinking differently about fulfillment and operations? You talked a little bit about coming onshore, but has this also changed for you, not just products and the way you think, but the way that you would actually run your business operationally differently?

Renee: Yes. Interestingly, I was really leaning towards– we were building momentum to hire more people. For a long time, I’ve had a lot of independent contractors that have lived remotely. They’re not anywhere near us in our tiny little town at Northern Nevada. That’s been great. Emily is an example of that. We’re not in the same city but we’re lucky enough that we do get to see each other a couple of times a year in person, but I’ve been really wanting to have people in my actual office. I’ve wanted to start building a company culture where we do have that face-to-face interaction.

So, while that’s still true, I think I’m now more open to saying, “Okay. Well, I’m still going to find the right people that are close to us physically, but they don’t have to come in for a while.” Just trying to think, “Okay. Well, I’m being forced back to that virtual model.”

We are going to be hiring really soon. The cash flow is there. I have a contractor I’ve been working with for a while who’s a rock star. She’s an operations manager, a project manager for me. She’s very likely getting put on payroll pretty soon. That is so awesome. It’s exciting that this opportunity right now is allowing for that to happen. If we can continue to grow at this pace, then I’ll be able to hire more people and that it feels really great right now when there are so many people that have lost their jobs. Here, we’re one of the companies that’s succeeding right now, so we’ll be able to actually grow and have help and hire people. So, these are all really things I’m looking forward to. Things have changed a little bit operationally, but on the bigger scale, too, our ability to ship FBM is another reason we’re winning right now because of the current FBA, it’s just– our products wouldn’t be considered essential. They wouldn’t be shipping out quickly.

I think that’s another reason that we’re beating our competitors is because our competitors don’t have an option for FBM, which is why so many of those ship dates are so far out. We’re winning because we’re shifting in two days right now. That definitely has me thinking a little bit more of a long-term that, of course, I hope FBA doesn’t continue to pick up and ship over the next month or two to keep giving us a little bit of a competitive advantage, but I just– I don’t know.

I don’t know how it’s going to unfold with Amazon, how things are going to change with their shipping and their warehouses, but right now, we’re in a good position that we can ship our own product. Let’s pray that the US Postal Service gets the funding it needs because we ship all of our stuff US Postal unless somebody requests that it go overnight.

I just can’t imagine absorbing the additional shipping charges. A headband is under 20 bucks. People don’t want to pay $12 to ship at FedEx Ground and have it take a lot longer than the post office. So, I hope that we fix that as a country because I know so many people depend on that as part of their business operations.

Parag: Yes. No. That’s very insightful. I think some keywords that really stand out to me from our discussion is diversification, creativity, embracing remote work, and having that flexibility to fulfill yourself rather than relying on just FBA or a third party.

Again, as an entrepreneur, your creativity is incredible here and very inspiring story for everyone that’s watching. I also just want to say thank you for coming up with this product because it’s going to really help our frontline workers who really need it the most, all of our healthcare professionals are doing such a tremendous job. It’s war out there and they’re jumping head in.

Emily, I want to thank you for making the introduction to Renee. We hope you’ll do many more of these and introduce us to wonderful clients that you’re working with that are really finding some creative ways to beat the crisis. Again, I want to thank you, Emily, for taking the time. Renee, thank you also for being a part of our Beat It Series.

Renee: Yes. Thank you so much, Parag. I appreciate it.

Parag: Thank you.

Emily: Thanks, Parag. Always a pleasure.

Parag: Great. Thank you so much.

Parag

Before founding Webgility, Parag led product teams at Amazon.com and was a founding partner at the leading web development company Gate6. Parag is a self-proclaimed data addict.