Elizabeth Scarbrough recently won a Chase & Living Social Mission: Small Business grant, giving her $250,000 with which to expand her environmentally-conscious travel accessory business, VinniBag. She shares with us how she won this extremely competitive grant and gives advice to other small business owners looking to win grants.
NerdWallet (NW): Please describe your business.
Elizabeth Scarbrough (ES): “Ellessco LLC is a small, women-owned business that started as a mother-daughter team in 2009. We produce and market travel accessories, and have committed to employing US resources for design, manufacturing, packaging and shipping. We also feel strongly about being eco conscious, and maintain a recycle program that converts plastics into garden hoses to help keep our planet green. Last but not least, we live by the simple rule, be nice and have fun. Our first product, VinniBag, is an inflatable travel accessory for liquids & fragile items. Air chambers conform to the contents, suspending items in an air cushion. A dry-seal closure prevents liquids from leaking out, or from moisture getting in – perfect for protecting electronics while boating, wine and olive oil in a suitcase, or mailing an heirloom ornament. You can see more about the product at www.vinnibag.com After developing a great distribution channel throughout the US, we needed to broaden our product line to leverage that investment.”
NW: How did you hear about the grant? What did you have to do to apply?
ES: “Product development is incredibly costly, and the investment in prototypes and tooling is daunting for a privately funded company. So, in June of 2012 we heard about the Chase & Living Social Mission Small Business Program. I received an email from Chase, probably because we have credit cards with them. The email sat in my inbox for quite a while. I opened it several times, but just didn’t think we’d have a real shot at it. Then one day I just had a sudden impulse to go for it, in spite of the amount of work it would require. I spent a lot of time on the application, and then the fun began trying to get all the FaceBook votes!
To be eligible for this grant, we had to complete a lengthy grant application, and then obtain at least 250 votes on FaceBook to qualify. Not as easy as it sounds! We begged, pleaded, and annoyed friends, family and strangers to vote for us, all the while seeing the number of applicants skyrocket. Ultimately, 70,000 companies applied for the grant, though not all were eligible due to the voting requirement. It’s hard to put into words what we felt when we won this grant – it still seems a bit surreal.”
NW: Why do you think you won? How did your business stand out?
ES: “I was told that we won based on the quality of the application, the inventiveness of our product, and the ‘story’. We’re a small company with big ideals, and we’ve accomplished some major things on a shoestring budget. Our commitment to manufacturing in the US, and our conscientiousness about the environment, economy and our community didn’t hurt either.”
NW: How did receiving this grant change your business?
ES: “It was a game changer! We are self-funded, and still having to invest in our growth and expansion. The big challenge for us was having only a single product to sell through our distribution channel, which was costly and time-consuming to establish. But new product development & tooling costs are overwhelming for a small business. The grant enabled us to start working on several new projects that never would have gotten off the ground without it.”
NW: What advice do you have for other small business owners who are seeking funding?
ES: “Professionalism is key. You need to present yourself well, have a well-written business plan and inspire confidence in your prospective lender. I’ve helped other companies write business plans, and it has always amazed me how people will submit documents that are full of typos and badly written. Seems like a no-brainer, but it happens all the time. But beyond the window dressing, you must also have sound strategy & financials. It’s not enough to have a great product or service idea, you must demonstrate that you have the skill sets to succeed in the marketplace.”