One evening last fall, Julie Weldon and Stacey Pierce, a married couple from South Carolina, were on their knees praying inside an RV, their last major possession, while parked at a campsite outside San Diego.
With tear-streaked cheeks and puffy eyes, the women felt beat down and broken. They prayed for more strength. They prayed for just a bit more endurance after having come so far. They prayed they had what it would take to keep putting one foot in front of the other to reach their finish line.
This is not exactly the picture Weldon and Pierce, 50 and 49, respectively, had imagined for this stage in their lives. They’d hoped to be retired, maybe running a little bed and breakfast.
Instead, last year, the entrepreneurs sold their house. They moved into an RV, putting everything they had left into their company, and headed for California.
Their product, The Wanderr, is a powerhouse piece of beach and adventure gear. It’s a cart for hauling up to 150 pounds with a cot and a foldable, adjustable chair, all in one rugged package that can traverse difficult terrain, including sand.
The concept is gold, and the two are fully invested, not just financially, but with all their passion, their drive, and their entire lives. They say it’s a calling.
But it has also been a wild roller coaster ride.
Just two weeks earlier, the couple had been riding the high of their biggest, game-changing break after winning a live competition on national TV and securing a deal with QVC and HSN (formerly the Home Shopping Network). The agreement and the exposure catapulted their product to a new level. But on this night, they found themselves back in the trenches, feeling overwhelmed, almost completely depleted, and doing the same thing they have been doing for years now: searching desperately for funding.
Weldon likened their experience these days to the last few miles of a marathon. “I’ve never been so sure we are going to be successful, but many days, we don’t feel we have the energy in our lives to keep going.”
The idea behind The Wanderr began decades ago when Weldon’s father noticed a mother struggling to manage all her gear while taking her kids to the beach. Her parents created a prototype, but with six kids and a bakery, they never managed to bring it to market. In 2012, Weldon decided to give it a go.
By 2014, she had founded a company and partnered with a manufacturer, but the partnership was a disaster. Rather than put her name behind a product she didn’t believe in, she walked away from her own company, taking a job at the Shrimp Shack for $10 an hour to clear her mind and tend her wounds.
After a couple years, Weldon and Pierce felt called back to the concept, and in 2018, they pulled the trigger on a redesign. Two years later, in the middle of a global pandemic, they had to fire a Chinese manufacturing company and find a new one. Meanwhile, the couple was hustling, trying to find investment dollars, but they just weren’t coming in.
“As women, it’s very hard for us to get funding,” Weldon said. During 2020, they made over 100 pitches to potential investors to little avail. At the same time, they watched a friend of theirs, a man with a sunglasses business, raise $8 million.
The numbers are harsh. In 2020, female-only founders received a mere 2.4 percent of all investment funding in the United States, according to an analysis by Crunchbase. Over half goes to women in tech. That leaves about one percent for all other women-run ventures.
And even among these few funded startups, Weldon and Pierce are rarities. Not many female entrepreneurs are bringing complex products like theirs to market. “We walk around the trade shows looking for other women doing something similar,” Weldon said. “We never find them.”
The couple were reckoning with these realizations when they decided to sell their home. They had already closed all their 401Ks and maxed out their credit cards. The house was all they had left.
“We looked at each other, and it really was the only choice,” Pierce said.
“We weren’t going to give up on our company.”
After the house went, they weren’t sure what to do. RV life was not the obvious choice. Weldon and Pierce are not exactly minimalists or avid road trippers. “Let’s put it this way, we had four closets in our house, and that wasn’t enough,” Pierce said. But they have enjoyed the experience, seeing the country from its highways and meeting people along the way.
After hearing that the couple sold their house, a U.S. manufacturer they had been courting for years agreed to work with them. “He said in 30 years, he hadn’t met entrepreneurs who were as committed as we are and who believed in their product as much as we do,” Weldon said. The Wanderr will be entirely made in the United States in 2022.
After winning on the TV show America’s Big Deal in October, and the deals and exposure that came with it, Weldon and Pierce are confident they are on the upswing. They can feel the end of their time battling in the trenches is near. They have already weathered so much and have always gotten back up again. But it is still scary to be out on a limb where they are, and their day-today lives can still be a struggle.
When they don’t feel they have the energy to continue and to finish the race, the people they have built relationships with along the way have come through.
“Our friends and family, even strangers, it’s like they are lined up along the path, waving at us and saying, ‘Keep going,’” Weldon said.
And they do.
Live on the beach with our friends at OME Gear Co!
Posted by 30A on Thursday, 17 June 2021