Karyn Climans always insisted her two boys wear helmets while skiing and biking. "And of course, I modelled the behaviour by wearing one myself," she says. "But I didn't grow up wearing a helmet – no one in my generation did."
It wasn't until Ms. Climans slammed into a tree while skiing that she became a true proselytizer for helmet safety. "My son called out to me and I turned around," she says. "But I forgot to stop skiing. I literally hit that tree at 16 miles an hour – so hard I shattered my helmet."
"Lady, without this helmet, you wouldn't be alive," the ski patrol guy told her when she came to.
At that point, Ms. Climans – a stay-at-home mom from Toronto – began to think of a way to make helmet safety more fun for both kids and adults. In 2006, she launched Tailwags Helmet Covers, a line of stretchy polar fleece covers that originally featured just animals (hence Tail Wags), but now sport princess crowns, dinosaurs and superheroes.
The covers sell for $40 to $45, although sale items and bulk orders can cost as little as $10 each. The covers are universal to every type of sports helmet, whether for bikers, skiers, equestrians or motorcyclists, says Ms. Climans. "I only use fabrics with a lot of stretch. The same cover that fits a toddler's helmet will stretch to cover a bucket style motorcycle helmet."
She also sells capes to match the helmet covers, cooler Lycra covers for cyclists, reflective Nite Brite covers, and Sun Lidz, with a brim and a fabric neck piece to protect against the sun's rays.
"I just keep thinking of new twists," says Ms. Climans. Her latest moneymaker involves customizing bulk-ordered helmet covers by superimposing images (such as corporate or team logos) through a process called "sublimation." She launched the service just two months ago, but already it has proven hugely popular with charity rides, ski teams and corporate sponsors.
The bonus: Often orders of 50 to 200 helmet covers come in through Tail Wags' website, and that means less focus on the punishing round of direct-to-consumer shows that has so far fuelled the company's growth. "I am predicting that in a few years this will be even bigger than the core business I've built over the past 10 years," Ms. Climans says.
Eventually, she aims to buy her own sublimation machine and hire someone to run it so she can bring that process in-house – that way she'll be able to offer customized one-off designs. "I know that business will go crazy," Ms. Climans says, with her usual irrepressible enthusiasm.
"I get people who say, 'I really want to make a helmet cover for Uncle Joe for his birthday.' Right now, we have to say, 'Well, unless you're planning to order 50 of them right now, we can't help you.' But we're getting there!"
Dominik Lancar, the entrepreneur-in-residence for non-profit Futurpreneur Canada, commends Ms. Climans for keeping her eyes open to opportunity. But he also cautions her against spreading herself too thin. "My question to her would be, 'Why make custom one-offs?'" he says. "It may not be a bad idea, but she's already stretched in terms of what she can deliver."
Although Tail Wags generates about $200,000 to $250,000 in revenue annually, Ms. Climans works hard for the money. "I travel all across Canada," she says. "I've got something ridiculous like 39 shows booked this year and I'm starting to do more shows in the U.S."
When she was treated for breast cancer less than two years ago, "the booth was spinning circles around me," she says. But she kept on smiling. "What choice do you have?"
Ms. Climans continues to handle the everyday operations of her business as well. "When someone calls to ask for the marketing department, I say, 'Speaking,'" she says. "And when they call the accounting department or the design department, I say, 'Speaking.' As a small business owner, you wear many hats."
True, says Mr. Loncar, but you still have to choose where to direct your energy. "I'd focus on the corporate/event market because that can definitely go somewhere," he says.
Mr. Loncar advises Ms. Climans to hone her brand and bring her business to the next level by revamping her website and telling her story in a more compelling way. And he suggests that offshoring production might allow her to improve her margins.
But although Ms. Climans farms out the cutting and sewing of her helmet covers and some of the marketing functions, she has chosen to keep production at home. "I'm a diehard for Made In Canada," she says.
In fact, after her second appearance on CBC's popular Dragon's Den in 2012, she was offered a deal by Bruce Croxon and Jim Treliving. Negotiations broke down during due diligence, however, because Ms. Climans refused to contemplate moving her manufacturing offshore.
"I knew I would lose control over the creative, the quality would go down the toilet and jobs would be lost," she says. "And I'm a mother of two – our young people are finding it really hard these days."
Nonetheless, she says, Dragon's Den provided a chance to showcase her product. "An hour before it aired in Ontario, the orders started coming in from the East Coast," she recalls. "And then we just watched as they rolled in from across the country. I had 65,000 hits to my website that night."
Ten years on, the business is still going strong, and Ms. Climans feels good about what she does. She treasures the photos that parents send in of their kids – once reluctant helmet wearers – who now don't want to take them off. "For kids, it's all about dress-up and imaginary play," she says. "If they think it's play, it becomes fun for them and they're happy to do it."
Tail Wags was the winner of the Media Pitch Session at The 2016 Globe and Mail Small Business Summit. In the session, entrepreneurs pitched their companies to a panel of journalists for a chance to be profiled on The Globe and Mail website.