Raised in a rural community of 800 people, Kristin Rae always hoped her innate creativity would somehow become a career. But central Illinois is more known for farming than fashion. Undaunted, she got a degree in fashion, but building a life pulled her away from her passion.
Rae was a waitress, bartender, switch-board operator – she did it all, and opportunities for chasing her dreams didn’t come easy. It wasn’t until another full-time job entered the picture – motherhood – that she found her inner drive to start looking at new possibilities.
"The catalyst was losing my financial independence for the first time," Rae said. "I had always worked, always had an income, and when I had my first daughter, I lost all that. I was a stay-at-home mom and I didn't have any money coming in." As a woman, she always felt part of her value was determined by how successful she could be at making a living, so she lost the sense of pride that she used to get from paying for things on her own. "There was something in me that made me want to produce something to contribute to my household. And outside of building my family, I wanted to build myself something that I could put my creative efforts into."
In 2012, a sketch on a napkin helped Rae marry her creativity and ambition. After experiencing one too many shampoo explosions in her luggage, Rae was inspired to draw and then create the prototype for a leak-proof travel bag. "I actually carried it around for years before I thought it was a business idea," she said.
Now the founder of Inspire International, a collection of independently designed and developed lifestyle brands, she recalls the difficulties of running a startup and wants to help other entrepreneurs navigate these same challenges.
'Did your Dad write this?'
Rae's first year as a business owner was far from ideal. "I was struggling," she said. "I emailed all the typical retailers. I was trying to find a retail outlet that would allow me to control the pricing and how I wanted the brand to be perceived." But she couldn't even get an emailed response. She felt she was perceived as "a young, naïve woman, new to the industry." That’s when funding became her biggest obstacle yet.
What weighed on her most during this first year was the feeling that the work she was doing wasn't contributing to her family's overall stability. Instead, her efforts were yielding the complete opposite – debt.
Rae assumed a trip to her local bank to get a Small Business Administration loan would be straightforward. She believed she qualified for the loan, and with a business plan in hand, thought she'd walk out with the funding needed. That wasn’t the case as the banker asked, "Did your Dad write this business plan for you?" The overwhelming feelings of exhaustion and rejection caused her to wonder, "maybe if I had a different product," or "maybe if I wasn't a woman," this wouldn't be as difficult.
Shopping on Amazon leads to shipping with Amazon
As boxes of inventory piled up in her house, Rae began browsing Amazon online and discovered a promising way to distribute her products in 2013. Soon after she listed in Amazon’s store, boxes stopped piling up and started shipping out – some with crayon marks on the outside thanks to her daughter. In 2014 she joined Fulfillment by Amazon (FBA), and Amazon Exclusives shortly thereafter. FBA allows small businesses to have Amazon manage the storage, packing, shipping, and customer service for their products. Small and medium-sized businesses selling in Amazon's stores come from every state in the U.S., and from more than 130 different countries around the world. After joining both programs, Rae started to see the immediate turnaround of her business with the bump in online sales.
"There’s an ease that comes with running your business on Amazon and all the tools and resources that are available," said Rae. Today, Amazon is helping business owners, authors, and developers reach hundreds of millions of customers globally. Millions of businesses from around the world are thriving in Amazon’s stores, no longer burdened by their physical location, the costs of customer discovery, acquisition, and driving customer traffic to their branded websites.
Rae is now empowered to run a successful, global business from her computer. She can provide for her family, and is able to do so through a creative outlet.
“I have found so much independence and a new part of myself in this entire journey of being a businesswoman – that's super empowering for me, and I know that's empowering for a lot of women-owned businesses too," said Rae. "I was able to break out of that social mold of what my assigned value was." This is reflected in her brand, Inspire International, which is focused on pushing the limits and defying expectations – tackling motherhood and entrepreneurship all from her home in rural Normal, Illinois.
Inspiring her 'Normal' community
As Rae's business grew, word got around town, and everyone was wondering what the "Amazon Lady's" secret to success was. She found herself naturally stepping into this role of an Amazon ambassador, but more broadly, a small business mentor. Equipped with a wide knowledge base of the tools and resources Amazon provides sellers, she has been able to offer personalized advice to a handful of local businesses.
BEER NUTS was one of the first businesses with which Rae connected. This family-owned, legacy brand had been doing things the same way for decades, so making a change was easier said than done. Company President Andy Shirk, from the family’s third generation, helped create the room for that change to occur, but it wasn’t until Rae stepped in that BEER NUTS started to feel the positive effects of that change.
“Kristin was really the catalyst for all of it. She helped put the pieces together for us,” said Shirk. By helping BEER NUTS with their digital presence, she’s “provided a reconnection to old customers, as well an opportunity to target new customers.” Rae started mentoring BEER NUTS in 2017, and in that first year they saw 700% growth in Amazon sales.
Now that Rae and Shirk have found their stride with Amazon, they both want to have a role in providing opportunities for other local entrepreneurs to experience the same success. They've found it can be as simple as connecting others so they can support each other in their ventures, and help growth occur faster.
Whether hiring an aspiring model for help with product testing and marketing, or using a local photographer who’s looking to build out her portfolio, Rae seizes any opportunity to be a catalyst and an advocate for local entrepreneurs. And she hopes to instill that same confidence in her daughters.
“I want my daughters to grow up and think of their value as something that’s determined based on their own efforts they put into something that they enjoy doing, and not just the value that someone assigns to them,” she said. “They should have the opportunity to defy a social standard that someone may try to assign to them.”