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Ponchairo solves sideline chills, gains traction at Scheels

From bleachers to business: Mom's blanket idea warms hearts and hands.

The best ideas come when you’re not expecting them, like sitting in the chill of a dusky evening at a youth sporting event. When the temperature dropped one night, so did a big idea for Melissa DuVall.

As she sat cheering on her son’s baseball game, she realized that there were many conveniences for many of the outdoor chairs around her, like cup holders and footrests, but none of them had what she wanted: an all-season blanket that could stay with her chair to block out the wet, chill or wind. A blanket that would be there when she needed it, but out of the way when she didn’t.

That’s the beginning of Ponchairo, a wearable blanket that stores on the back of an outdoor chair or can be used alone, sitting or standing. These blankets are now available at Scheels in Overland Park and through Ponchairo’s website.

“I wish the website could offer touches because the fabric is just amazing. It’s three layers, warm, so soft, it folds really nicely, and it’s waterproof, windproof and it’s breathable so it won’t mildew if you pack it away damp,” she said.

Invention and the patent process

It wasn’t a quick journey, though. DuVall might even call it tedious.

She began searching online to see if something like what she wanted already existed, and she came up empty. So she sketched, abandoned the idea and much later mentioned it to a work colleague off-handedly.

Then she received some flippant but ultimately life-changing advice: “He said to me, ‘I think God sometimes gives us ideas. And if we don’t go with them, they need to be passed on to somebody else,’” DuVall remembers. “The thought of somebody else having my idea and going forward with that would just kill me. It was at that point that I went ahead and started the patent process.”

Did it accelerate after that? Not immediately, but it wasn’t because there was a lack of interest. DuVall was careful to continue placing her family’s financial well-being above the product.

“It’s a commitment, pursuing a patent, emotionally and financially,” she said. “Then you’ve got to invest in manufacturing and marketing the product. I really did not want to seek investors because I didn’t want to let anybody down on the chance the idea didn’t fly. I just did not want anybody else to be any sort of casualty.”

The gradual nature of the rollout has allowed them to save the money to fund Ponchairo themselves.

An introduction to efactory

Family is at the center of Ponchairo. It’s there in the design of the product – keeping your hands free so that you can clap for your kids as they compete. And it’s there behind the scenes, too: DuVall has involved the whole family in building this family-run startup, whether it’s running marketing and social media accounts, helping at trade shows or modeling for website photos.

Her son Jace, a Missouri State graduate, introduced her to efactory’s Missouri SBDC at MSU. He learned of the center in his business coursework, and they met with business consultant Lance Coffman on a variety of topics as Ponchairo became a reality.

He helped identify manufacturers, put her in touch with resources and provided solid advice along the way.

“When I’ve gone to Lance and said, ‘I’m struggling to find somebody to help me with this. Do you guys have anybody?’ And for him to say, ‘No, we don’t.’ That helps me, too,” DuVall said. “It helps me realize that these service providers aren’t everywhere, so I’m not disappointed in myself for not finding the solution.”

She continues to rely on his advice on expansion questions, like whether to pursue sales on Amazon or other big online retailers.

“Lance is going to be a resource for me in that regard, too, because the process for a product that is trademarked is a little more rigorous than maybe for other things,” she said. “To have him as a resource and an advocate, and to know that I could use efactory facilities for meetings and such, it’s great to know I have those options.”

Finding opportunities to share the story

The connection with Scheels was fate, though.

“We had a display set up at Allison Sports Town, and a Scheels executive happened to be there for a basketball tournament and saw it,” DuVall said. “He reached out to us and said, ‘I think this has potential. Would you be interested in working with us?’”

Not everyone has been as encouraging along the way. She shared her experience recently on social media.

This past weekend, we shocased Ponchairo at a local trade show. A gentleman and his wife approached our table, where he proceeded to tell me he saw no use for Ponchairo and if I were on Shark Tank, he would "crush me like the cockroach I was!" Tanks, Kevin O'Leary! Because I had absolutely nothing to lose, I laughed, told him I understood and bought enough time to slip in an abbreviated pitch. They left, I took a deep breath, a drink of water and continued on, thinking - Is all this hard work worth it? How many times must I give the pitch? What was I thinking, inventing a product? And then something quite special happened. About an hour later, his wife returned - credit card in hand! :-) Lesson learned. Always be selling...even if you're a cockroach! ;-)

Hoping that her experiences can be encouraging to other entrepreneurs and inventors, she has committed to being a sounding board for others who seek advice.

One thing she’d tell any of them: “If you’re going to do it, love your product like it’s your kid through the good, the bad and the ugly. Just keep on loving it, nurturing it, and when others start to see the beauty of your product, enjoy it.”