Online entrepreneur Judi Dreyer of St. Petersburg was looking for a way to boost the sales of her custom shoe totes.
Her company, Two Sisters Accessories, was making a profit, she said, but not much of one.
So, on the advice of a friend, Dreyer contacted the Kate Tiedemann College of Business at University of South Florida St. Petersburg and was put in touch with marketing professor Philip J. Trocchia. Since 2009, his students have been taking on real-life marketing challenges at no cost for local businesses.
He suggested his spring 2016 marketing strategy class take on Two Sisters as one of its civic engagement projects.
"Every semester, I have several companies and nonprofits lined up on the first day of class,'' Trocchia said. ''Some organizations approach me; some are referrals from my contact at the Small Business Development Center; while, I approach others who seem interesting."
Trocchia said his students have worked with about 60 companies and nonprofits over the last seven years.
In the case of Two Sisters, grad students Emily Shrider, Erica Houseman and Roger Saavedra, all working on their MBAs, took on the project, producing a 124-page marketing plan for Dreyer.
Their research found there is indeed a market for the totes, which have a center divider that sets them apart from products already on the market.
Using surveys, focus groups and independent research, the students came up with a list of suggestions on ways to increase revenue.
Dreyer instituted some of their recommendations, including dropping the price of the totes sold exclusively online from $75 to $49 each.
They also suggested making the straps sturdier. Dreyer had the same idea.
She patented the tote minus its handles so it can be changed at some point in the future, perhaps to leather, which can be removed before the bag is washed.
Dreyer's husband came up with the idea for the totes.
Michael Dreyer, a certified public accountant, was riding the train to his job in downtown Chicago about 10 years ago when he first witnessed working women's conundrum with their kicks.
Years later, he told his wife, who was looking for something to do after staying home to raise their three children, that she should design a shoe bag for working women.
The universal need to tote extra shoes is especially obvious in big cities, where shoes spilling out of plastic grocery bags or peeking out of purses and briefcases are common sights on streets and commuter trains.
"I really think there's a market for them," he told her.
With that germ of an idea, Judi Dreyer got to work.
This is what she knew immediately:
• The totes had to be designer-quality.
• She wanted them to be fashionable, which to her meant they had to be made out of fun, washable designer fabrics.
• Her primary market, at least in the beginning, would be urban workers in pedestrian-friendly cities, like New York, Chicago and Philadelphia.
Dreyer, 59, got serious about developing the shoe bags in 2012. Her vision evolved through prototype after prototype for a year and a half.
She visited local quilting shops and browsed online designer fabric companies to find just the right five — the largest economically feasible number — fabrics to appeal to the widest audience. She chose fun and flowery for the 20-somethings and conservative darks for those wanting a more professional look.
Finally, in March 2015, she and representatives from Bespoke & Co., the Tampa clothing company she had been working with, took the end result to a manufacturer in Orlando. The first production run was 100 bags.
She sold one-third of that first run at $75 a bag. Her target market had widened. Selling through her Facebook page, she found that she had an audience with other women, including golfers, bridesmaids and those in sororities.
The first color to sell out? Solid black.
Dreyer, armed with her USF marketing plan, hopes to continue making improvements to both the totes and her sales strategy for them.
But her ultimate goal remains unchanged.
She wants to grow the company for her daughters — Ashlee, 32, and Andrea, 27 — the two sisters in the company name.
"I was inspired by my daughters. Hopefully, it will become a family business and they will take it over."
Reach Patti Ewald at [email protected]