Bright Ideas: Super mom, super start-up

Holly Bartman, a Michigan mom saving playtime from TVs and iPads one superhero cape at a time.

The CEO of SuperFly Kids, a company that makes custom-made superhero accessories, never thought she would own a business. The Livonia, Michigan-based retail website she started, which took in $2.3 million dollars last year, grew out of a mission to throw a birthday party for her 4-year-old son, Owen.

Holly Bartman's son Owen at his 4th birthday party

Holly Bartman’s son Owen at his 4th birthday party

Cash was tight since Bartman left her job as a special education teacher to be a stay-at-home mom, so instead of spending lots of money on the party, she decided to make each of the attendees a superhero cape.

Bartman says she’s always been crafty. How else would you describe someone who, as a youngster, decorated rocks from her neighbor’s yard and then sold them back to the same neighbor?

Ever the resourceful mom, Bartman made her children’s Halloween costumes each year and Christmas decorations, which she sold locally, but her capes seemed to have super powers; the ability to keep kids occupied.

“As soon as the kids got their capes, they just started running around our backyard and that’s about all it took. We didn’t have to do any entertaining,” Bartman said.

A mom at the party suggested Bartman start selling the superhero attire. A few weeks later she tried it out, spending a few hundred bucks on satin sewing materials and a couple of hours sewing capes. Then she got some help putting together a website.

Bartman quickly learned there were plenty of aspiring superheroes out there, looking for just the right cape that they could personalize, to fend off any evil doers that might happen by.

Bartman, who says she knew nothing about running a business at the time, did no research to see if anyone else was already selling custom-made superhero capes, she just had a hunch, or maybe it was a mother’s intuition, that they would sell. That hunch turned out to be right.

Holly Bartman

Holly Bartman

The business almost immediately paid for itself. When she started out in 2006 she was only selling one or two capes a week, but after a year or so, she was making 50 capes a week. By 2009 the fabric was overtaking her bedroom. That’s when Bartman’s husband, whose over-sized comic book collection helped get the kids thinking about superheroes in the first place, suggested she rent some office space.

She moved her setup a few blocks away. It was at her new office that Bartman met Justin Draplin, her now partner in crime and co-CEO of SuperFly Kids.

Draplin rented space in the same building where he ran a small marketing firm. He was interested in what Bartman was selling and was astounded that she did no advertising, but was already taking in three times what she earned as a teacher, all by word of mouth.  He offered her his marketing expertise and the dynamic duo put his business sense together with her creativity, a combination that took the business up, up and away.

“Capes are cool. I wore capes when I was a kid and there’s 20-something million kids under the age of 7, so I came to Holly and said, ‘I think I can sell these for ya,’” Justin said.

Using a website he built, Draplin began drumming up more orders than Bartman could handle. She was already sewing night and day to keep up with the holiday rush, “He would bring me a stack of orders and I was so overwhelmed. He (Draplin) teases me that every time he walked into my office it looked like I was gonna cry.”

The crying stopped after the holiday rush of orders was over and the business hired more employees, making SuperFly Kids a 17-person operation. Draplin also became Bartman’s more formal business partner.

Everything is made in America, but SuperFly Kids has sold accessories to customers all over the world. The start-up has attracted some big clients too, with companies like Old Navy and Zulily requesting wholesale orders.

While her market is primarily children, adults are cape wearers too. And the superhero trend doesn’t seem to be vanishing anytime soon, with a swarm of superhero blockbusters set to hit the silver screen over the next few years.

Like any good-doer, SuperFly Kids has made sure to give back to the community. Their first “SuperRun” was held in Detroit back in April, hundreds took to the streets in their capes, raising thousands of dollars for local charities, and it’s not a one off. They hope to bring the SuperRun to 30 cities within a year. Plans are already underway to hold another in Detroit next spring.

Super mom Holly Bartman believes the capes themselves are helping to do some good too, “Imaginative play… they need to do that, that’s part of childhood. So we’re helping them do it.”

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