It Ain’t Over . . . Till It’s Over
Solving the Case
Jamie James, 54
North Hampton, New Hampshire
“Where are my keys?”
If she’d said it once, she’d said it a thousand times—Jamie James could never find anything.
And it was worst at the grocery store, always provoking sighs and grumbles from the people behind her in line. There she’d be, doing her purseexcavation routine, digging through receipts, reading glasses, and candy wrappers looking for the credit card she’d thrown into the leather abyss after her last purchase.
“I was always moving too fast to stop and put things back in my wallet,” Jamie confesses.
Jamie, mother of four and family law attorney, typically blew into the courtroom like a tornado, digging through her oversized bag for a ringing phone, never able to find it. “I felt like a bag lady,” she says. “I needed to simplify.”
She envied her daughter Kaitlyn, who organized all of her essentials
(college ID, credit card, and even a random $20 bill) by tucking them inside the protective silicone gel skin surrounding her cell phone so they were always handy.
But clever or not, Kaitlyn’s system wasn’t foolproof. “Mom, you’re going to kill me!” she moaned one day after losing her credit card—yet again. The problem was that over time, the soft cell phone case would stretch, allowing her valuables to slip out and vanish.
There has to be a better way, thought Jamie. How great would it be to have one compact, convenient place where I could stow all of my must-haves: cell phone, cash, AmEx, debit card, driver’s license, health insurance card, and keys?
It was an idea that itched at the back of Jamie’s mind for months, something she might never even have acted on if not for a sudden tragedy: In November 2009, Jamie’s healthy, vibrant mom and dad fell ill with the H1N1 flu, were hospitalized, and died.
“My life came to a stop,” Jamie says. “I went to my parents’ funerals within 17 days of each other. No child, no matter how old, should ever have to go through that.”
Their deaths shook Jamie awake. “I realized that life can change on a dime. I said to my husband: We need to start new.” Two months later, they sold their house in Andover, Massachusetts, and settled into a home a mile from the ocean in North Hampton, New Hampshire, where Jamie, her husband, and their four children had memories of many happy summers spent sailing and going to the beach.
The change was good for Jamie and her family; their home life felt comfortable and safe. What wasn’t so great was Jamie’s work life, as she had to commute back and forth to her office in Massachusetts—an hour each way—every day.
The family law she had practiced for nearly 20 years, in which she dealt
with divorces and child custody, was depressing. And now it felt even more so. “It’s almost like being an oncologist. I was dealing with the worst time of someone’s life every day. I’d go to bed questioning Is this what I want to do the rest of my life? Yes, it pays the mortgage and the tuition, but dealing with individuals who are so unhappy is emotionally draining.”
That’s when Jamie began thinking again about designing a product that busy women like her could use to hold all of their “vitals.” “It was almost like, if I could figure this product out, then I could figure me out. I needed to do something that was happier.”
Jamie knew she couldn’t outright quit her career, but she could start taking steps toward creating a business. A month after moving into their new home, she hosted a dinner party for four couples. She cornered her friends’ husbands and showed them a prototype of the product that she’d whipped together. It was the very definition of jerry-rigged: She’d cut some slits in the back of a gel skin phone cover that would serve as credit card slots, taped a piece of cardboard on as a makeshift cover, and added a string to form a wristlet. Not much to look at, but Jamie pointedly wanted to get the guys’ opinions.
“I knew my girlfriends were more likely to be supportive and say, Yes, you should do it!” she says. “But the guys would be brutally honest.”
At first, the husbands didn’t really “get” what Jamie was showing them, until she asked them a few questions: Does your wife ever have trouble finding the phone when you call her? Does she always have to root around in the depths of her bag to find her keys? Does she make you carry her phone and ID when you go out? Yes, yes, and yes.
The men got interested and started brainstorming.
“I always have to carry her lipstick, too!” one said. “Can you add a place for that?”
“I know a website guy!”
They were on a roll—until one husband posed a question that stumped the crowd:
“How are you going to create a product that fits all of the different cell phones out there?” Ya got me, Jamie thought. But, undeterred, she went ahead and took her prototype to her tailor along with some fun fabric.
“I was so nervous. I told him, ‘This is just between you and me. It’s our secret.’?” But when she saw the finished product a few days later, her butterflies went away.
“It was so exciting to hold in my hands what had once just been in my head!” she recalls.
To test out her creation, Jamie began using it everywhere—at cash registers, at restaurant tables, at the ATM, in bathrooms, and at her desk. And—bingo!—it actually did what she wanted it to do: made her life simpler. But in doing so, it was getting filthy fast. Jamie realized she was going to have to manufacture it in leather. Problem solved.
But other complications kept nagging at her, especially that one husband’s question about the product accommodating different-sized phones. Jamie arrived at the answer one day during her hour-long commute. Velcro! she thought. That’s it! Velcro! That’s what we’ll use to stick any phone to it.
She loved the idea so much that, within days, she applied to obtain a patent for the design. Unlike other cell phone cases already on the market that opened up like a little book, Jamie’s cover flipped up and over, like a steno notebook, essentially turning the wallet part inside out, so a user could talk directly into the cell phone without obstruction. Jamie also added a wristlet strap that unhooked so you could attach your keys.
“Everything you needed was in the palm of your hand,” she says.
Now all Jamie needed was a manufacturer—and she found one at a
horse show, where a vendor was selling beautiful leather goods. They started talking and two months later, Jamie visited the company. “That’s when the lawyer in me came out,” she says. “I asked the president to sign a nondisclosure agreement so he couldn’t steal my idea.”
“I was thrilled at his reaction. He took one look at my product, hit his head, and said, ‘I can’t believe nobody else has thought of this!’?” Over the next few months, Jamie picked out her favorite Italian leather and fine-tuned the design, and in January of 2011, production began.
But what to call it? “My friends and family encouraged me to name it after myself, but then someone said to me, ‘Someday you’ll create another invention and what are you going to call that? You want Jamie James to be the name of your company, not your product.’?” On a long drive home from a ski trip, Jamie, her husband, and her daughter Kaitlyn (via speaker phone) spitballed names and came up with the winner: the Cellfolio.
When the first 600 Cellfolios were delivered, Jamie was ecstatic. She was also overwhelmed by what lay ahead. “That’s when the real work came. I had this product that I had borrowed thousands of dollars against our retirement accounts to make, and now I had to figure out how to get it out there.”
Kaitlyn helped her map out a strategy. She suggested that they immediately set up a website—nothing fancy, just a landing site that would provide information and facilitate orders—and then got to work spreading the word.
“I know all my friends will want one,” Kaitlyn told her mom, “so let’s get the product into their hands. And they’ll get them into their moms’ hands. And their moms will get them into their friends’ hands.”
That’s how their grassroots campaign began. Next, they passed out batches of the Jamie James Cellfolios to college kids across the country, offering to give them a cut if they sold any. She also gave them away to real estate agents, lawyers, and doctors.
“During that first month,” Jamie recalls, “someone from Colorado ordered 15 of them off the website; I called and asked, ‘How did you hear about us?’ She said, ‘I was at a medical conference in Florida and one of the doctors showed me his, so I decided to buy one for everyone in my office.’ I was elated.”
Then, Jamie doubled down on social media, setting up a Facebook page, Tweeting, and blogging. “I had to learn a whole new language,” she says. She also signed on to be a vendor at gift shows in seven states.
“It was a huge step out of my normal box, but it was also uplifting. For the first time, I had a smile on my face while I was working.”
Soon, the Cellfolio began dominating her thoughts, no matter where she was. “Whenever I walked into my law office, before asking my assistant if any clients had called, I’d ask, ‘Where did the orders come in from today?’?” And when she’d spot women using the Cellfolio at restaurants or in line at the coffee shop, she’d get an instant lift. “You see somebody holding a product that you made and you realize that you actually did something to change their day-to-day life.”
Today, Jamie, who hasn’t used a purse in three years, has sold so many Jamie James Cellfolios that she has been able to repay the retirement funds she’d tapped to get her invention off the ground. “The goal now is to get to a
financial place where I can get out of law completely and just do this thing I love,” she says.
In February 2013, after the Cellfolio was mentioned in a Los Angeles magazine, it was chosen to be included in the gift bag for the Academy Awards—and Jamie got to fly out for the ceremony. She also streamlined her inventory by creating a Velcro-free design made solely for iPhones. “When I did the market research, I found out that 70 percent of people in the U.S. carry an iPhone.”
For all her success, Jamie has just one regret: that her parents didn’t get to see the fulfillment their daughter found with her “fifth baby.”
“It’s almost been like a rebirth,” she says. “I was lucky that I was only 50 when all of this came into being. I still had time in my life to be something else. I know they would have been really proud of me.”