Sara Bryant, or Sara Bee as she is known in the studio and in her business, has created a niche product for a specific audience; her knee pads are used by pole dancers. Bryant, a former high school English teacher, admits to making a lot of mistakes as she tried to get her business going.
Sara Bryant started her business, Bee’s Knees Knee Pads, to solve a problem for a small, but specific, group of people — pole dancers. Her goal was simple: make a better knee pad.
Oh, sure, there were already knee pads aimed at everyone from volleyball players and weightlifters to yoga and gardening enthusiasts, but those were too generic for Bryant, a former high school English teacher who took up pole dancing in 2013.
Generic knee pads were either too thin or too bulky; too stiff or too soft; too tight or too loose, she explains. And you had to take off your shoes to put them on. She wanted something with a replaceable, comfortable pad that was size- and color-inclusive to fit every knee (and thigh), yet also sleek, sexy and easy to “strap on and strip off.”
But Bryant, who has a master’s degree in English and taught for 18 years, didn’t know how to turn her idea into a business. Clueless about business plans or market research, she didn’t even know what to search for when looking for similar products or manufacturers. “I just knew I had an idea.
“I don’t sew, but I went to Michaels, got a big needle, thread, and Velcro, took apart an old volleyball kneepad, sewed the hook strip on one side, the loop on the other side.”
Bryant made nearly a dozen prototypes to come up with her unique knee pad design. She has a team of four to six people who hand make the items. Her designs include five shades of “nude” to suit a multiple of skin tones.
“The calls went like this, ‘you want to make a what? For who?’ Once you mention pole dancing, they were like, uh, no. I don’t know if they didn’t like it or they didn’t get it.”
Finally, a manufacturer of medical grade compression garments “took pity on me,” she says. “He knew I was excited about my idea but didn’t know how to do this. He told me I was a small batch manufacturer needing a partial cut and sew contractor.”
He made her a sample, which she brought to the women at her studio for feedback. Incorporating their suggestions, she made another sample. Then another, repeating the process 10 times until, finally, “we had the right thing.”
Sizing the knee pads was another challenge. “I measured every knee I could find. If you came to my house, I’d ask to measure your knee.” But she didn’t scale the sizes correctly and they “popped off” the dancers, “which was terrible because I spent $750 on cutting dies. I had to do it all over again.”
Just when she thought she was getting somewhere and was a month away from launching, two other companies released a strap-on knee pad. “At first, I was devastated that they were faster than me, but then I realized that meant it was a good idea. And mine are quite different.”
Bryant showing off her pole skills. She is a strong advocate for the sport of pole dancing.
Bryant, who lives in Rhode Island, launched her business in 2018 but couldn’t promote it widely while she was teaching, so kept her social media business accounts private, making it tough for customers to find her.
“Every time I wrote a check or filled out an invoice or a purchase order, I would joke, oh, yeah, I’m doing big business here.”
It took two years, and teacher-burnout, but she finally quit her job. “I had been running a business for two years, but I didn’t treat it that way until I had to, when I had no job. I thought, ‘this is all I have, I guess I’d better start treating it like a business.’”
She made mistakes aplenty. “I made a lot of bad decisions because I was acting on impulse or out of anxiety. Having a product vision upfront would have helped. I wasted so much time and money.”
For instance, she thought growing her company meant she should be global: ship all over the world, find a second cut and sew team, get labor costs down, and “be everywhere.”
“I sank a lot of money into buying raw materials, then couldn’t find a manufacturer,” she says. “I still have boxes of hook and loop, boxes of mesh that I can’t get rid of because they are so specific (to my product). I put a lot of money into an effort, a mission, that was not true to who I am. I am a small batch manufacturer.”
Her knee pads, which start at $65, “are the most expensive to make,” she notes, “but are specifically designed for what we do.”
For other companies, she adds, knee pads are just accessories to other items, such as clothing, which is “more fun and easier to sell. Knee pads are not their passion. (Mine) are made to make a pole dancer’s life better.”
Although her sales gained some traction, something was still off. “The business was growing but I wasn’t making any money. My butt was getting kicked, my margins were incredibly slim. I’m priced twice as high as the (others) and they are making more money than I am. It’s a miracle I’m still here.”
Something needed to be done.
Bryant wanted a better knee pad for a small, but specific, group of customers: pole dancers.
Enter the Rebrand
With the help of a business coach, she realized that “I never priced my products using actual math. Which is an embarrassing sentence to say.” She had calculated her material costs, but didn’t take into account her time, overhead, packaging, shipping for returns, taxes, websites, or money for growth.
“When I did the math, I realized that every time I sold a pair of knee pads I was losing money, because I just guessed (at the cost). Also, I priced them based on what I thought people would pay, what others were charging. I didn’t price myself accordingly. That was a hard lesson. I was mortified because I had done it wrong for so long, and terrified because I was going to double my prices. I felt like I was starting all over again.”
She shut down her website for five days and worked to re-brand her company so she was not just a one-product Bee’s Knees Knee Pads, “the sleek and sexy pole dance knee pad that straps on and strips off,” which she laughingly calls “the longest elevator pitch ever.” Instead, she became BKKP, a four-product company that sells “pole dance essentials, made for pole, made for you.”
Bryant is passionate about her products and wants customers to know that “this is not a volleyball pad that we are calling a pole knee pad, this not a gym bag that we are calling a pole bag. This is made for the body you have, for the practice you do, for the stuff you carry.”
She had already designed planners and journals geared for instructors and students and is working on two other products – a padded shrug and an equipment bag made specifically for pole dancers. But this time, she says, she’ll do her market research, discover what dancers want, and will price it right.
“The rebrand was hard and scary, but it was the best thing I ever did.”
Bryant tried some entrepreneur groups and coaches along her journey, but it wasn’t until she found the Craft Industry Alliance that she felt she found her business tribe. Craft Industry Alliance members, she explains, “know what it’s like to be small. They want to stay small, and be successful in that smallness. Also, I like that it is mostly women. There are a lot of smart people here.”
Bryant, a Craft Industry Alliance member since 2021, often participates in Craft Business Roundtables.
“I know I’m not an actual maker, so I’m very different (from most members),” she says. “But my questions are the same. I need to know the basics about email marketing, lead generating, Facebook ads. The (Craft Industry Alliance) resources are great and everyone seems to have a good handle on who we are and who we are not. I find that reassuring. No one has pressured me to push further.”
Other entrepreneur groups didn’t get her, she says, and she was exasperated when advised to give bigger discounts or sell to wrestlers and ice skaters, totally missing her objectives, which are so specific.
“I want to sell to pole dancers,” she would explain. “That’s who these (products) are made for. Stop making me be everywhere. Respect what I do and who I am and stop acting like it’s less than. Stop trying to make me into Walmart.”
Bryant, who works from her home office in Rhode Island, recently relaunched BKKP as a four-product brand that includes knee pads, books, and soon pole bags and shrugs.
These days, Bryant is amused that people now ask her for business advice.
Starting a business is different for everyone, she explains. “There’s not just one way. What works for me won’t work for someone else.”
She, for example, is a jump-in-and-figure-it-out-as-you-go kind of gal, which has its drawbacks. However, she notes, she probably wouldn’t change anything. “Despite the mistakes,” she says, “it’s been a fun ride.”
Sara Bryant took a rocky road to her business, but she learned a lot along the way.
She offers some advice (which she freely admits she did not follow, or know, when she started).
- Just start. Anything you need to know, you’ll figure out along the way. “If you’re not the kind of person who will figure it out, then (your business) will just end.”
- You’ve got to be a little bit foolhardy and have a lot of faith in yourself.
- Start in the place that sounds the least intimidating to you. “That’s where you get your traction. If the first thing that makes you feel you are on your way is starting an Instagram, start there. If picking your name and making a logo makes you feel you are on your way, go for it. If you need a more formal approach, and want to file a DBA in your town, great, do that. Whatever makes you feel that you’re starting, do that.”
- Be scrappy. Look for free resources and smart friends.
- Spend as much time as possible in the research/development phase. Send out surveys, learn to ask the right questions.
- Have a product vision, see the big picture. “People in different parts of country might have different needs. If my goal was to just make knee pads, well, there’s already knee pads out there. What is your unique value? What’s the intersection of your skills, knowledge, passion and expertise that makes you the person I should believe? Knowing why you are doing what you are doing helps you make better decisions.”
Her best advice in three bites: Have a product vision, spend time in R and D, use your friends.
Roberta G. Wax
Roberta Wax is an award-winning journalist and imperfect crafter. A former news reporter, her freelance articles and projects have appeared in a variety of newspapers and magazines, from the Los Angeles Times and Emmy magazine to Cloth Paper Scissors, Somerset Studio, Craftideas, Belle Armoire, etc. She has also designed for craft companies. Although she has no art background she was a crafty Girl Scout leader. www.creativeunblock.com