June 23

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Female Founder Emily Vaca on Self-Funding Her Company MINNIDIP

By Mimi MacLean

June 23, 2022


Emily Vaca

Emily Vaca, Founder of MINNIDIP Luxury Pools

Emily Vaca is the founder of MINNIDIP and La Vaca Design House, a non-toxic inflatable pool design that she self-funded and spent over two years working on before officially launching! Her company is family-run, ethically sourced, and operated in her hometown of Chicago.

Tune in to learn more about how she started her design company, manufactured and launched the first designer inflatable pool, and her advice for creative female entrepreneurs who want to self-fund their business.

Find Emily and MINNIDIP:

Episode Contents

Starting MINNIDIP and The Inspiration Behind It

MINNIDIP summer campaign

Mimi:
Emily, thank you so much for coming on today, I really appreciate it. You are like a serial entrepreneur, you had your own company, your design company, and then you started also Minnidip. I'd love to just talk about your most recent venture with Minnidip and why you decided to do that, and let everybody also know what it is.

Emily:
Thank you so much for having me today. Minnidip is the first designer inflatable pool, it is the flagship product of my company, La Vaca Design House, that I started. You mentioned it started in a different space prior to launching Minnidip, but my goal was always to have my own product that would be on retail shelves one day. Minnidip was an idea that was born and so excited and lucky that we'll be celebrating our fifth year, this June, from launching in 2017.

Mimi:
That's awesome. Are you direct to consumers or are you selling also to retail shops?

Emily:
We have multiple channels. We do wholesale with retailers like Target, that's one of our largest retailers. Bloomingdale's QVC, Anthropology, Urban Outfitters. Then also direct to consumer is one of our largest channels, where we sell on our website, minnidip.com. We also are at independent boutiques throughout the country and also Canada and Australia.

Mimi:
Wow. Was it hard to get into the big stores, like Bloomingdale's and Target and how did you do that?

Emily:
Yeah, so actually before I even had the idea for Minnidip, I told my husband… Well, I had the idea in 2013, but then before we started, hit the ground running to actually create it, I told my husband, I want to have my own product on Target shelves one day. That was goal one from the birth of the idea. He reminded me of this idea I had years prior and said, what about the pools that you wanted to design? The light bulb went off, this is the perfect product for Target shelves. That was always my goal, and actually within a year of launching it, I had my meeting with my buyer and a commitment to be in all stores nationwide the following year.

Mimi:
Wow, because usually they're pretty hard to even get to. If you email them or write them, they don't respond, right?

Emily:
Yes. It took about six months of cold emailing, consistently, before I got the response. Do not give up, if you don't hear back, is definitely my number one lesson from that, but it took a while to find the right buyer, to find the right department, to know who to reach out to. A lot of looking on LinkedIn and looking for the correct buyer or Googling and finding who might be that right person, and emailing people in the wrong department for a long time. Then finally, through persistence, they responded, okay, we're going to pass you along to the correct buying department.

Mimi:
Oh my gosh, stop bugging us, here's the right one. I think your product would've been one of those things where you could just blow it up and bring it to the actual Target headquarters and just have it sit in front, fill it with drinks or beers or something on a Friday afternoon.

Emily:
That would've been an amazing guerilla tactic, for sure.

Mimi:
They can't ignore you if it's sitting there, they're going to be like, what is this? This is so cool. I haven't seen this before.

Emily:
For sure. I actually waited until after we launched it to contact them at all. It was six months, but perfect timing when I got in contact with my buyer, but I was too nervous to reach out prior to launching it because we were the very first designer inflatable pool that was made for adults, with trendy patterns, modern inflatable pool. I didn't want to take it to them before it had launched, just because I wasn't sure how that world worked, and my background in design and working with brands, I kind of know, you want to be careful who you share a new idea with, so I had to wait until I launched it. Luckily I had really great photos and that got their attention in the email.

Sourcing and Manufacturing The Highest Quality Materials

minnidip and phone company collaboration

Mimi:
Oh, that's great, that's great. Once you had this idea, that you wanted to do it, it sounds like one of the hardest parts was actually sourcing it, because you wanted to have, non-toxic, much more aware of how you're making it. Can you talk a little bit about that process? Because I do think a lot of people have ideas, and great ideas, but then it's just connecting the dots to get to, okay, where do I even begin to start finding the right manufacturer? Is it the United States, is it overseas?

Emily:
Yeah, absolutely. That was for sure the hardest part of building the product. I was very lucky that I had 15 years of experience working in advertising and marketing and design. The design process of it was the easy part, the packaging, the logo, the name, all of that, the website, I did all of that myself and I knew I could do that part, but I had never manufactured a product before. I had handmade a lot of things in my side company that you mentioned before, but mass producing something is a different process, so that was the hardest. Then also on top of that, it was a new idea, so I had to be extremely careful with who I had reached out to because I couldn't go directly to a pool manufacturer with this idea of making modern pools that are geared more towards adults, because that would be so easy for them to find an on trend pattern and put it onto an inflatable pool.

Emily:
I had to really circumnavigate that, and it took a long time, it took about two years to find the right manufacturer, because I had to be so secretive with it. I had started in trying to do everything domestically, I contacted dozens of manufacturers in the U.S. and had been told no by all of them, because with the technology of what it was, they would use it for medical devices or military devices and novelty inflatable pools was not something they were willing to take medical devices off the line to start producing. There was a lot of complications with that, and then eventually I did find a manufacturer out of California that could help me with the overseas manufacturing, kind of like a subcontracting element to it. Because they were located here, I felt comfortable having them sign the NDAs and making sure it was very confidential in the process, versus me directly reaching out to someone that I didn't have a relationship with prior.

Emily:
He was able to make sure we did all of the lab testing and ethically source everything and companies that were audited and that we could really trust to build the first wave of inventory. Then once it was out in the world and I didn't have to be so secretive, I actually came in contact with my current manufacturer, who is also overseas, and they are the leaders in the industry of inflatables. I was able to really grow the business and accelerate it and have a lot more direct visual contact with them, and going to the factory, and seeing the entire process from start to finish. That was afforded to me once I could be a little bit less secretive and make sure that we were able to grow and have the people that know how to make that product the best.

Mimi:
When you originally launched it and you were being secretive, what was your first outlet? Was it direct to consumer on a website?

Emily:
Yes. We launched it on our website first and Instagram was really where we announced it, we used that platform a lot because it is such a visual product, that it worked perfectly for that, that was the reason I created it. I was having a party and wanted a cute inflatable pool to match all of the other design elements I had set up for this party for my friends and I, and there wasn't anything like it. I was looking for that perfect picture moment, it really translated easily into online on our .com and our Instagram first. We were able to build up customer base, followers, that were taking pictures of themselves using the pool, and then it just snowballed from there of this amazing content, and people enjoying it, and couldn't wait to show it off on their own feeds.

Emily’s Legal Advice as a Female Founder and Preventing Knockoffs

MINNIDIP on shelves in target
Photographer: nina avroneva

Mimi:
That's great. Now, because you were nervous about competition before, have you found that there's other people now trying to knock you off? Is there any kind of barrier to entry?

Emily:
Yes. I knew that there would be competitors. It was not something I was patenting in the very first iteration of it. Just from my experience and background, I knew that companies are always looking to copy, after someone creates a market and builds the demand, that's the hard part. Once that's there, they want to swoop in and use their connections that they have to copy something. I knew that was going to happen, which was why I was so secretive about it in the first place. It wasn't a surprise. I will say I was surprised at how blatant the competition copied my designs, and I hand make all of the patterns myself, every single pool we've ever launched is a pattern that I have created. I'm so connected to the design process, the thinking, and creating patterns that really speak to the Minnidip aesthetic. When someone copies it, almost to a counterfeit position, it's very obvious where they got that thinking or a marketing campaign that we did, or a collection concept, and then that whole concept gets copied, as well, is frustrating, but I knew it was going to happen. Then there are actual counterfeits that are on the market, which was something that we were surprised about.

Mimi:
Can you do anything about it? Do you have to just hire a lawyer and do like a cease and desist or something?

Emily:
Yeah. We've had a lawyer from day one of trademarking the name, because I knew that the IP was the most important part of it, of building the brand. Yes, we do have a lawyer that does cease and desists. We have actually patented pools as well, the scallop tufted pool was an invention of mine, so we have people producing that, that we have to serve cease and desist, because they're infringing on our patent as well. It's not just a copyright pattern issue, it's also infringing on patent issues, which sucks. If you create something awesome, you have to expect that that's going to happen at some point.

Mimi:
Of course. Yeah. No, definitely. Looking back, what would you say has been the hardest part or a lesson that you wished you knew before you started?

Emily:
That you can't control anything.

Mimi:
If you think it's going to this way, it's going to go that way. You think it's going to take one month, it takes four months.

Emily:
Exactly, exactly. Yeah. I'm definitely a bit of a control freak. I think, you want to have plans in place, for sure, you need to be very strategic and smart with your plans because you don't want to waste your time or money. You have to have a plan in front of you, but just knowing that you can't plan everything, that you're going to get curve balls, and you have to be able to pivot and adapt really quickly in order to either survive or thrive through those challenges. Then also too, that it does not happen overnight. I always joke, I naively thought as soon as I hit publish on that very first Instagram post about the pools, that they would like go viral instantaneously and that did not happen. They have grown exponentially beyond my wildest dreams very quickly, but I think, thinking it would happen overnight, in the beginning, just because it was something brand new, was something that I wish I would've known, but I'm glad I didn't or else I might have been hesitant to start.

Self Funding Her Ventures as a Female Founder

female founder Emily Vaca interview
Photographer: nina avroneva

Mimi:
Right, right. No, that's definitely interesting. You're self-funded and completely woman owned. Can you talk a little bit about that? Just because I think a lot of people have, and you're you don't have a partner, correct?

Emily:
My husband owns 49% of the company and I own 51. We are owned together, family owned and operated, and then female, I started the company by myself, the first couple of years, and then he recently joined the team in 2020, but we own it together.

Mimi:
Oh that's great. When he wasn't working, was he still half your owner? The only reason why I ask is because, I just feel like, I'm working on this idea right now for a company and it's so complicated, such an art, breaking out the equity and trying to value an idea, which is not even a company yet. How much the equity's worth or what someone's putting in. If you don't mind me asking, if it's mind your own business, then just tell me that. With his 49%, was that for the equity that he put in, or was that just because tax reasons, you wanted to just split it up because your lawyer told you to do that?

Emily:
To be woman owned, you have to own 51% of the company, so that was why he's at 49, and I'm at 51. He's actually a minority as well, my husband is Mexican, so for tax purposes, retail purposes, we could have went either way on that. We had started the company, before even launching Minnidip, as 50% owners because we were using our funds together to build the company, and also time. Before he was full-time employee of the company, like I am, he was working around the clock, outside of his normal job, and too reminded me of the idea, and also, I always joke, what husband's going to be like, yeah sure, you can put our entire life savings and our house up for collateral for an inflatable pool business. Even though the day to day was founded by me, because I was working even before we got Target, or while we got Target, I was still a hundred percent just me for the first two, three years. He was equally invested into the company and believing in me and being that sounding board.

Mimi:
That's amazing. Now, do you have other full-time employees or have you used all outsourcing consulting?

Emily:
Including myself and my husband, two other employees, so four total. We were very excited to bring on our director of design and content in 2020, she came on full time last year in 2021, Carrie. Then we recently brought on Evan, our warehouse specialist and production assistant for all of our photo shoots and content that we create. Then my dad actually, from day one, has been an integral part of the company too, where he'll come up for months at a time and help us with everything from shipping out big retail orders, to assembling the products that go in them, to learning a 3D program so that he could render the packaging that's on our boxes on Target shelves now. My brother-in-law came, before we were able to hire full-time employees, he came for a couple years to help us keep up with the demand and run the warehouse and all of the shipping because we ship everything out of our Chicago warehouse.

Lessons Learned From Working With Her Husband and Family

female founder quote

Mimi:
Any lessons learned for working with family? They always say, don't work with family or friends, never ends well.

Emily:
So far it is the best possible solution and completely worth it. I think the reason it worked out well for us is we were all mutually invested, emotionally. There's no one better, than my dad, to want me to succeed, so of course he's going to help us and really care and want us to do well. David and I, it works really well, people always ask us how do you work together? There's no one that would be able to understand it. I think I'm so lucky that he also is in the same industry as me, we both were art directors in advertising, so versus if I did have an accountant that would help on a very different level to help with the business, but he gets it. I'm not trying to convince him constantly, we should do this thing because he's like, totally, I see the vision. It worked out really well for us and we really love hanging out together, so being together 24/7 actually works for us pretty well.

Mimi:
That's awesome. Do you have any kind of mentor or business coach?

Emily:
Not specifically.

Mimi:
Sounds like your dad, and your husband.

Emily:
Yeah, exactly. I have sounding boards that are so important to me and they definitely always keep me motivated, absolutely. I would say, less of a formal mentor, but just the stories of the women before me, like Jacqueline Johnson, there was all of these women, Oh Joy!, that I was watching their journey and it inspired me to want to go after that as well, and really connect to the challenges that they faced and I think it armed me, during that path, but I was also so hesitant to share my idea before it was actually a thing, because I know it could kind of sound silly. I didn't really seek out mentorship prior to launching the company. There's definitely people that I can reach out to now if I have a question about something specific, but definitely internally the whole team, we all figure it out as we're going, if we have challenges.

Female Entrepreneurs Are Often Seen as Practicing Cute Hobbies and Not Starting Businesses – This Outlook Needs to Change!

MINNIDIP pools
Photographer: Whitney Hsieh Photography

Mimi:
The reason why I bring it up is because one of the things I like to focus on is only 1.7% of female entrepreneurs of companies ever reach a million dollars in sales. One of the reasons I think, because I've been trying to pick that apart and ask the CEOs as I interview them, why do you think that's the case? What can women do differently that can increase that percentage? I do think, having mentors is one of those things that women don't do. I never did, I look back on my career, I'm like, wait, I never really had a mentor. Why not? Whereas men, I think it's 78% or in the 70 percentile have mentors, whereas women it's in the thirties. I guess my question for you is, what else do you think women can be doing to increase their odds of hitting to be a seven figure company?

Emily:
It's hard because I think part of the reason that that number is so low is, obviously women and minorities have challenges that they face that others may not in getting funding or connections or things like that. I think for women in particular, for me, I didn't want to launch a company until it was something I was very passionate about. I wasn't doing it about the money, about the business to start, because if I was doing it about the financials, I would've stayed in my career that was successful at the time. When you have a passion and want to feel connected to the work you're doing, because it is so much work, you have to feel connected to it, and I think women are really in tune to that because there's so many things we could be doing, we want to make sure we feel a connection.

Emily:
It can mistakenly get seen as a hobby by people that are in positions of power or have the connections or have the resources that you need. I think making sure that we see it as a business and not only a passion, because you have to be able to convince people that this is a business opportunity, here's a market, you have to do the market research, so you have the data to back it up. You're doing it because you love it, but it's hard sometimes to be taken seriously if you don't have that data or the market space opportunity, as a touch point. When you're trying to convince others, you need to get ahead either with a manufacturing partner or a line of credit at the bank or an investor if that's through route you go. Even now with the success we've had, I still have people, oh, you're a cute little pool company, huh?

Mimi:
You're like, no.

Emily:
Yeah. It's like, no, it's a business. This isn't a hobby. I think just feeling confident in the, you're not convincing someone to love it because you love it, but you have the data to back it up, that it's a business opportunity and they can grow.

Mimi:
To add to that, I also think a lot of women don't allow themselves to think big enough. They don't think that they can be in Target, that was your goal, you were shooting high. Whereas maybe other people who would have the same idea as you, that wasn't even, oh, there's no way I'll ever get into Target, I'm going to just sell them online, I'm going to sell them on Etsy, or whatever, and not think big and go big. I think that's a lot of times, women don't think big enough because they're juggling it all, they might be making the candles in their garage or whatever. I do think that's another part, is that they're not thinking big enough, like you said.

Emily:
Yeah. To think big, I think you have to find your… Do you want it to be a living where you are doing what you are passionate about and selling it on Etsy, which can also be a really great revenue stream, but do you want it to be that and you're doing the thing you love on your own terms or do you want it to be a multimillion dollar business. You have to think bigger, and you also have to find something that nobody is doing. I had started my first company, which has morphed into, Minnidip is one of the brands under it. I had started out doing event design, wedding design, invitations, logos and things like that, and I was hand making wedding favors and that definitely could have been a path, but I could see that there was, just in my close circle, 500 other people doing that exact same thing, and I wanted to wait to take the leap and push a big idea forward when I knew it was something that hadn't been done yet, because that's what's going to make you stand out and get the attention of a Target or a Bloomingdale's because you're doing something unique versus trying to elbow your way through 500 people already doing it. You might do it much better, and your brand might be better, but it's going to be a harder thing.

Mimi:
Do you feel like, especially you being an artist, you're probably a perfectionist, you want everything just so, and I think that's one other area that women can improve on. Because we more tend to be perfectionists than men, that you get held up in the details of the font and the website and making sure the font on your packaging looks just so before you launch. Did you have that problem?

Emily:
Oh, absolutely. Actually in fifth grade I learned the term perfectionist, because I would be described that way in class. I'm definitely a hardcore perfectionist, and that was the hardest part of launching the brand. When I did the logo, it was kind of, oh, I'll just do this for now and it'll be a placeholder and I can change it later, I've redesigned packaging for big brands, that's a thing. But now, it has equity and I can't change it. If you try to just be a perfectionist, you're never going to have progress, you have to launch with what you have. It is not the way I thought, in my idea of how it would be launched, that it would've been launched, but I had to just do it or else somebody would've beaten me to the punch, or I wouldn't have gotten any feedback and been able to build it and make it better as you go. It's never going to be what it should be in 5, 10 years, on day one and just letting go of that and knowing you're going to grow and take learnings along the way, you have to or else. I have ideas where I haven't launched them because I have this idea of exactly how I want it to be and that it'll never happen because I'm never going to have time to get it to the exact iteration of it that I want.

Have Thick Skin and Hear The Nos In Order to Learn!

quote card by emily vaca

Mimi:
Do you have any other last minute advice or tips for anybody who's listening, they have an idea they're thinking about launching or they have launched and they're just seeing all these people that are successful and they're like, why not me? Everyone makes it look easy, but there's so much hard work that goes behind it.

Emily:
There is so much hard work. I would say, I mean it's super general, but have a thick skin to build up a tolerance to know you're going to hear so many no's and if you're not hearing no, you're not asking enough people, because you're going to have to hear it so many times before you get that one door unlocked and just building up the tolerance and knowing, this probably isn't going to work, but I'm going to ask anyway, then you're never going to get the knowledge to start asking the right people to hear the yes's. I think that that's the biggest key of, it's the resilience, and you inherently start to build up that resilience the more you hear no, and just get used to it.

Mimi:
Right, it's getting comfortable with that uneasy feeling.

Emily:
Yeah, exactly. Rejection obviously is always hard for everybody, but you can't take it personal, even though the business is so personal to you. It can't feel like rejection, it just has to be an obvious step to the right.

Mimi:
It's totally true. No, that's good advice because I definitely feel like it's hard not to take it personally and getting used to that no.

Emily:
Right. It's a defense mechanism, but I'd be like, oh it's cool, they're not my demographic. Just tell yourself that, because it's true, if you're hearing a no from someone that is your core, ideal customer that you want to have your product sold to, or they love your product and they say no, then you have to reevaluate, how can I make it better for them to say us? If you're hearing no from a random person, they're probably just not seeing the vision yet, so you can't take it personally.

Mimi:
No one wants to be the first person, I find. Being a part of another startup, asking people to buy this product that nobody knew, this was like the clean beauty, 10 years ago, people thought you were crazy, that you had 10 different heads. Nobody knew that the cosmetic industry was completely unregulated, so people were like, what are you talking about? Nobody wants to be that first person to say yes. If it's your manufacturer, if it's a retailer, whoever it is, everyone's like, oh, I don't want to be the first one. But as soon as you become hot and some star put them on their Instagram page, then all of a sudden everybody wants it.

Emily:
Yeah, for sure. You just have to know that's part of the journey, so you're not discouraged along the way.

Mimi:
Right. Definitely do not take it personally. Anybody who's listening who wants to check out these awesome inflatable pools is Minnidip, so M-I-N-N-I-D-I-P.com.

Emily:
Two N's for skinny dip, just remember it that way.

Mimi:
Oh good. That's good. Awesome. This is amazing, and thank you so much for your time and definitely perfect time for summertime, for anybody. I'm sure now with COVID it's probably helped because people aren't traveling as much and if they don't have a pool, and if you do want a pool, it's like a three year wait to get one. Anybody who's waiting for their pool in three years, you can get a couple of these in your backyard.

Emily:
Yeah, we could barely keep up with the demand during the COVID.

Mimi:
Awesome. Thank you so much, Emily.

Emily:
Thank you so much for having me, I really appreciate it.

Mimi:
Thank you for joining us on The Badass CEO. To get your copy of the Top 10 Tips Every Entrepreneur Should Know, go to thebadassceo.com/tips. Also, please leave a review as it helps others find us. If you have any ideas or suggestions, I would love to hear them, so email me at mimi@thebadassceo.com. See you next week and thank you for listening.

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