By Lynne Strang, Late Blooming Entrepreneurs
Keys have a way of disappearing at the worst possible moment. Who hasn’t uprooted couch cushions or dug through a purse in a frantic attempt to find a missing set?
Linda Nagamine knows all about the cushion uprooting and the purse digging. She used to do the same thing until three years ago.
That’s when Nagamine started Honolulu, Hawaii-based EZ Living Connection, LLC, whose primary product is the Cle-a-Porter (roughly “keys to go” in French), a leash-type device she invented that keeps keys close and accessible.
“When I planned the company, my original goal was to help people organize their homes,” says the 60-year-old entrepreneur. “Along the way, I realized I couldn’t have a business with this goal if I couldn’t find my own keys.”
Her simple design consists of a 14-inch leather strap with a clip for keys on one end and a loop on the other, so the strap can wrap around the base of a purse, bag or briefcase handle. Priced at $15.95, the Cle-a-Porter comes in four colors and “really works, because it’s based upon principles taught by memory experts and professional organizers. It provides a consistent, dedicated spot that never changes,” according to a promotional video.
A New Brand
Nagamine just renamed her invention, previously known as the Fun Key Finder, because market research indicated a need for a “more interesting” brand. Her search for the right name has been one of many challenges she’s faced since entering the world of entrepreneurship.
Prior to starting her company, Nagamine spent 28 years with a major airline, where she had a series of jobs in reservations and customer relations. Her career exposed her to just about every type of imaginable customer service situation, both good and bad.
“When you have flight cancellations, you are dealing with hundreds of customers,” she says. “It was an overwhelming feeling of not being able to help people.”
While she enjoyed her coworkers at the airline, she grew tired of the 9-to-5 grind. In her mid-50s, she also struggled with a bout of depression. “During that time, I lived in a black-and-white world, where things were set out in regulations,” Nagamine says. “When I came out of depression, things became clear. It was like stepping into a world of color.”
The idea to form an organizing business came from observing others, including an attorney friend she worked with at one point. “The more I worked with her, the more I thought there was a need for my services,” says Nagamine.
Leaving the 9-to-5 World
During her last two years with the airline, Nagamine undertook several steps to transition into business ownership. She registered for courses in professional organization, including a three-day program in New York City.
She began talking to manufacturers and others with expertise in small business startups. Her CPA, however, refused to see her until she had a business plan, so she went online and found websites that helped her put one together.
With support from her spouse, Nagamine earmarked $15,000 of her own money for the startup. “I did not want to go to family and friends for funding because I did not have the confidence,” she says.
EZ Living Connection launched in June 2007, when Nagamine was 57. She prefers not to divulge sales figures but says they jumped “substantially” after she appeared on the television network QVC in 2009.
“I’ve made some expensive mistakes along the way,” Nagamine says. “At times, I didn’t do my research, like asking for references or talking to past clients.”
Nagamine says she’s learned the value of networking, which doesn’t come naturally for her. Over time, she’s cultivated important contacts such as Mike Michalowicz, author of The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur. She’s a founding member of Enterprising Women Entrepreneurs (EWE), a local group formed in March.
Principles for Success
For her business, she adheres to two “Immutable Laws” (a term coined by Michalowicz). “One is my word is gold. I operate with integrity. If I say I’ll do something, I will,” says Nagamine. “The other is I have no biases. I give everyone the same respect as my family.”
She’s using her knowledge of the airline industry’s service deficiencies to create a better experience for her own customers. “Attention spans are so short. The connection with people is so important,” says Nagamine. “I like the idea of speaking with people, not just emailing them.”
Nagamine knows that selling isn’t her strong suit, so she’s delegated that responsibility to two representatives. One handles the Los Angeles and New York markets and the other has the southern states. She’s eyeing Oklahoma and Texas as possibilities for future expansion.
Aside from her business, Nagamine’s other passion is puppy training. She’s a volunteer for Hawaii Fi-Do Service Dogs, a non-profit organization that provides quality trained assistant dogs for the disabled. “It gets me off the computer since dogs need their exercise,” she says.
While business ownership hasn’t been easy, Nagamine enjoys the journey – something she believes is important for any entrepreneur.
“You need to know what you truly love to do,” she says. “If not, you will lose enthusiasm for the business.”