Tennis racket charm.

Tennis racket charm.

What a Racket: ‘Overgrips" Launch Ex-Ibmer’s New Career

PIPE DREAM By George Anders WSJ 10/04/05

More than $6 billion in tennis gear is sold each year in the U.S.-a big-volume business dominated by sporting-goods giants with huge sales forces and celebrity endorsements.

Picture of the 2 people who invented the tennis racket "hip grips."

Then there’s Caryl Parker. She is a weekend tennis enthusiast in San Mateo, Calif., who spent 16 years calling on customers for International Business Machines Corp. Eventually that stopped being fun, and it was incompatible with raising four children, so she left the work force for nearly a decade. But she wanted to get back, so last year she launched a tennis-equipment company in her dining room. Ms. Parker targeted a tiny but lucrative market: the sticky "overgrips" that some tennis players wrap around their tennis racket handles.Overgrips cost a few cents to make, yet they retail for about $2 each.

Bobbi Giudicelli and Caryl Parker

Full of naďve optimism about her prospects, Ms. Parker

hoped to turn a drab-looking product into a fashion accessory that might catch the public’s fancy. Getting started, the 48-year-old Ms. Parker made plenty of blunders.

 A Taiwanese supplier sold her thousands of overgrips that were to slippery. Her monthly cellphone bill rocketed to $900 because she didn’t switch to a suitable calling plan. And her piecework assembly crew-her husband and four kids-briefly treatened to strike in a pay dispute.

Then, this past spring, everything clicked. Her Hawaiian-print overgrips became a surprise hit at dozens of tennis shops around the country. A new partner helped fix production snags. Now Ms. Parker’s company, HipGrips, is ringing up sales of at least $15,000 a month, while operating expenses are just half that amount.

Ms. Parkers calls HipGrips her best career move, even though she’s earning only two-thirds of what she made at IBM and often working longer hours. Some days start with 6 a.m. phone calls to East Coast customers and finish with 10 p.m. email exchanges with Asian suppliers. But she is in charge of her own creation. She is excited about work again. And she is mastering new skills at an age when many people’s careers stall out.

When Ms. Parker started hunting for a business idea, it took nearly a year of brainstorming before she felt she had a winner. "I wanted to do something related to tennis," she says. "And I thought there might be a chance to do something for women who play, in an industry where so many products seem designed for men."

Most of her early ideas died quickly. She considered designing tennis clothing, only to decide it was a cutthroat market. She had an idea for gaint court sunshades, but cost and shipping issues seemed insolvable. Even when she first dabbled with the overgrip idea, it wasn’t clear whether she could offer anything special.

Convinced that an unusual design would make the difference. Ms. Parker started sketching out patterns of tiny leaves. Then she tried stars, trees and wallpaper designs. "Nothing really grabbed me," she recalls. "Then I tried Hawaiian-style flowers. I liked it. I showed it to my daughter, Mollie, and she said, ‘Mom, that looks really cool.’ At last we had something that would appeal to women but that boys and men might try, too."

Starting production proved surprisingly easy. After an afternoon of phoning around, Ms. Parker found contact information for Asian factories that could make overgrips. She used Adobe Illustrator to create a digital version of her Hawaiian pattern and emailed it to Taiwan. Within a few weeks, she had finished overgrips to sell. Early problems with slipperiness were soon corrected.

Winning orders was harder. "At IBM, they just told you who your customers were," Ms. Parker wryly recalls. "Not this time." She used an Internet Yellow Pages site to look up tennis shops nationwide and came up with a list of 1,200 prospects. Then she started calling.

"I learned that you never reach anyone on the first call," Ms. Parker recalls. "They’re busy. Or they don’t work Mondays. Or they’re playing tennis themselves." But she persevered. One by one, customers came on board. Ms. Parker set her wholesale terms at about 50% of suggested retail prices, leaving retailers plenty of profit margin. She packaged HipGrips in slim plastic tubes that made them ideal stocking stuffers or hospitality gifts.

By spring, Ms. Parker had plenty of orders-and a family mutiny on her hands. Her overgrips came from Asia and her packing tubes came from Missouri; someone had to put the product into the tubes. Originally, she thought her husband and four children could provide all the labor for a penny an overgrip while the family watched television in the evening.

"It was fun at first," recalls her 49-year-old husband, David Parker, a software executive. "But then it wasn’t." Their youngest son, 10-year-old Rees, demanded a raise to 5 cents. Mostly, her family wanted shorter working hours. And Ms. Parker found she wasn’t enjoying the finance and logistics part of the business.

Help in the form of a new partner, Bobbi Giudicelli, a Silicon Valley executive recruiter and sometime tennis partner of Ms. Parker’s. Ms. Giudicelli, 50, liked the financial side of the buisness. Her family was willing to help pack tubes in the evening, lightening the Parkers’ workload. The two women each invested $17,500 to finance an inventory buildup so they can keep customers in stock.

Ms. Giudicelli also set out to ensure that HipGrips trademarked its name and copyrighted its floral designs. She worried that bigger sporting-goods companies might roll out similarly whimsical products. If so, HipGrips wouldn’t have any competitive advantage in manufactruing, shipping or sales contacts. Its defensible position would have to involve proprietary designs.

During the summer, executives from Wilson Sporting Goods, a unit of Finlands’s Amer Sports Corp., approached Ms. Giudicelli with a proposal: What if they took over manufacturing and distribution of HiGrips? Ms. Parker and Ms. Giudicelli could collect a licensing fee for their designs and be free of day-to-day business hassles.

Ms. Giudicelli liked that idea, though she had expected to wait six months or year before seeking a bigger ally. Ms. Parker was more ambivalent, because she enjoyued being her own boss. But both women gradually decided that the Wilson alliance made sense. It beat hiring full-time workres, getting a real distribution center, and trying to dodge bigger competition.

Besides, Ms. Parker grew intrigued with the idea of designing other sports accessories. Squash rackets might need overgrips. Shoelaces could become more stylish. With Wilson as a partner, she says, HipGrips designs could start showing up in all sorts of places.

"When you work for your own company, you’re so much more passionate about what you do," Ms. Parker says. "At a big company like IBM, you just sell what they tell you to sell. Here, we’re always thinking about ways to improve every aspect of what we’ve made."

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