Katharine Harlan, ’99, single-handedly turned blankets into gold.
No, she didn’t conjure up King Midas or Rumpelstiltskin—instead, Harlan conjured up cute.
She cooked up Bon Vivant Baby, a business that produces food-inspired swaddling blankets with names like “Lil’ Eggroll,” “Tortilla Baby” and “Lil’ Sushi” (all $48).
Swaddling (for the younger, less informed crowd) is a technique of tightly wrapping newborn babies to keep them warm and calm.
But Harlan’s idea is unique, as the blankets have photos of scanned food items directly printed onto the product.
In fact, the design on “Tortilla Baby” is an edited and scanned Trader Joe’s tortilla.
Harlan is so true to this theme that even the blankets’ packaging is food-inspired, with “nutrition facts” printed on each one.
Now that she’s been featured in over 20 stories, from US Magazine to ABC News, it seems that whatever she’s doing is working.
“I’d love to take credit, but honestly, it wasn’t me,” Harlan said.
She attributes Bon Vivant Baby’s success and popularity to two things: the product’s uniqueness and a Facebook post.
During the 2013 Christmas season, Harlan got a call from a reporter at Time Magazine after a Time researcher found the product online.
“I knew if it was going to get on Time’s Facebook page that has a million likes, then other press would see it,” Harlan said.
Sure enough, Harlan went from a couple of orders a day to 80.
“All the gods aligned, and I got really, really lucky,” she said.
Harlan wasn’t always an entrepreneur. Before Bon Vivant Baby, she worked in marketing wine, but quit due to the long commute from her home in San Francisco to her job in Napa.
After leaving wine, Harlan worked at the largest pet apparel company in the U.S., Simply She, marketing items like dog sweaters, hats and costumes, but, eventually, she quit due to a change in ownership.
While unemployed, Harlan began working on her swaddling products to keep herself occupied.
“I came up with the idea gradually,” Harlan said. “The actual swaddle technique is called a burrito roll, so it made sense to me.
“I thought it would be kind of funny if, when you swaddle your baby, the baby would be in a tortilla.”
Harlan’s experience working in the pet industry helped, as she had the inside scoop on the novelty apparel business.
Eventually, Harlan began focusing more and more on preparing her “Tortilla Baby.”
“There was a point at six months where I was burning the candle at both ends, and I stopped looking for a job,” she said.
Harlan not only came up with the idea, but also developed and found manufacturers for her product. She attended textile festivals, scrutinizing over 300 fabric samples to find the right one.
Some, Harlan explained, didn’t print correctly or weren’t the correct blend of fabric.
Luckily, the arduous search for manufacturers was made easier by Maker’s Row, a resource for businesses to find manufacturing partners.
“If you want to make jam, car parts or garments, you can find manufacturers in each state,” Harlan explained.
However, despite the resource, three-fourths of the manufacturers Harlan contacted didn’t respond.
“It’s very humbling when you’re a small business, and you just have one product,” she said. “You don’t get this outcry of support.”
Not only did she have to find a manufacturer, she also had to make sure the manufacturers were up to her standards.
“So much can go wrong, and it’s very difficult to make anything, period,” she said.
Harlan was also committed to keeping the production in the U.S.
“(Abroad) it’s hard to make sure nothing illegal is going on, and it’s just such a different industry,” she said.
Eventually, Harlan did find suitable manufacturers: Avid Ink, a printer, and Venetian Manufacturing, a sewing company.
“They really liked the product, and they liked me,” she said.
This entire process, from the idea to the first “Tortilla Baby” sale, took a little over a year.
The “Tortilla Baby” is now her best seller, and, overall, Harlan is in her fifth production with around 4,000 units.
But Harlan’s stressful, baby-filled journey isn’t over yet, as she attends baby-product trade shows and constantly checks to make sure production is going smoothly.
“You’d think it’d get easier, but there’s always something that goes wrong,” she said.
“You have to make sure they are knitting the right fabric, using the updated patterns and making the right amount.”
Despite the constant work flow, Harlan plans on expanding the company in a new direction.
“I’m looking into new swaddling designs for specific businesses, but I’d like to develop a more diverse product line,” she said.
By next year, Harlan hopes to have food-inspired bib and burp cloth sets at lower prices.
“I’d love to do socks, too,” she said. “I have a lot of ideas. It’s just that they all cost money.”
And at that point, Harlan will have a baby of her own, as she’s due to give birth in January.
“(When he’s born) I’ll have the product in the hospital with me,” she said. “I’ll have to see if he’s better in an egg roll, sushi roll or tortilla, though.”
Previously published in the print edition on Sept. 16, 2014.