Entrepreneur finds a niche in cyber nappies
By Alison Aloisio
Bethel native Kelly Hayes Wels, four months pregnant, has 10,000 diapers in her basement.
She's not just stocking up so she doesn't have to leave home until the baby is potty trained.
Wels owns an Internet business, "Kelly's Closet," from which she sells modern cloth diapers out of her Waterford home.
A green theme
The 1991 Telstar grad originally trained in the field similar in which her father, George, makes his living landscaping.
She holds an associate's degree in horticulture from Southern Maine Community College.
Wels worked for several years at O'Donnell's Nursery in Gorham, Maine, and later as a sales representative for a plant bulb company.
But after her second child was born in 2000, Wels decided it was time to stay home and find income that would fit around her child-rearing schedule.
Internet-based businesses were just starting to take off.
"I had an idea to sell boutique baby clothing," Wels said. "So I had a website designed and then I hardly sold anything for five months. I was going to close the doors."
As she pondered what to do, Wels received two e-mails from women asking if she could offer cloth diapers made by one of the boutique clothing companies "Kushies"
"I figured I had nothing to lose," said Wels.
She ordered the smallest shipment of diapers she could.
"Within three or four days the whole shipment had sold," said Wels.
The modern cloth diapers are far different from the old rectangular-shaped ones that often leaked and, because they were held together with pins, posed a stabbing threat.
Today's version is instead contoured, utilizes snaps and is lined with fleece to wick moisture away from the skin.
Wels decided to try them out on her 1-year-old son.
"They were awesome," she said.
She did some research and added more brands to her site.
Then a company called FuzziBunz® contacted her about offering their diapers. She bought some.
"I couldn't keep them in stock," she said.
Price on her brands range from $17.95 to $23 each.
Not cheap, said Wels, but the savings, compared to disposables, add up over time.
Sales were terrific for several years, and Wels figured she had it made in the diaper business.
But in 2005, she noticed that some of her customers were starting their own websites and selling cloth diapers.
By the end of 2006, she said, "my sales had dipped significantly."
An employee she had hired to help her had to be laid off.
Wels realized she would need to try a different approach.
"People do more research now before they buy," she said.
So she decided to offer some new wrinkles, such as a 30-day, money-back guarantee. And she now has access to the factory seconds of one company, an arrangement other Web diaper businesses don't have.
Wels, who had been spending a lot of money on magazine ads, also decided in June of last year to instead hire a publicist to handle her marketing.
Since then, she said, the publicist has gotten her business name into featured locations in some national magazines.
Now Wels' business is grossing about $50,000 a month. She has two employees. She's added two more websites. One promotes her best-selling diapers and the other offers bulk sales.
Pregnant with her third child, Wels says she has to pace herself in her work, resisting the urge to constantly check e-mails.
"There were many weeks I was working 80 hours," she said. "I think it was the work ethic I got from my parents."
So she now leaves much of it for her employees, and spends more time looking at the big picture.
"I'm always watching what everyone else is doing," she said. "I've learned you can't get too comfortable in business."
And she's happy that her latest line of work has at least a loose tie to her first profession.
"It's still green-related," she said.