I know how much y'all love update stories, so here's one for you.
A couple of years ago, I wrote about Caitie Gehlhausen, then a sophomore at High Point University who had come up with something clever: a mobile phone accessory that combines a card holder and a phone-grip holder. (You used to have to choose one or the other.) Gehlhausen's invention, which she dubbed the Socket Lock-It, holds up to three cards, such as a driver's license and a couple of bank cards. It also has a slot for an expanding phone grip such as the popular PopSocket.
When I profiled Gehlhausen in March 2019, her new company, of which she was the CEO, had just gotten 35,000 orders for the Socket Lock-It. A month later, she won the $10,000 first prize in High Point's annual Business Plan Competition. Not bad for a 20-year-old CEO, right?
Fast forward to this week, when the Socket Lock-It began appearing on shelves in more than 3,000 Walmart stores across the country.
Yep, that Walmart. Not bad at all for a now 22-year-old CEO.
Gehlhausen and I caught up by phone this week. Here's what has happened in her CEO life since we last talked:
• Gehlhausen felt that she had to choose between school and golf and business, and she picked her new business. She quit the High Point women's golf team after her sophomore year. She graduated from the university last May — a year early — to focus on the Socket Lock-It.
• She got a patent for the Socket Lock-It. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded her Patent No. 10,530,411 on Jan. 7, 2020, for a "cardholder accessory for portable electronic device."
• Gehlhausen continued to win big on the entrepreneurial circuit. She took first place (and $5,000) in the pitch competition at the Collegiate Entrepreneurs' Organization's Global Conference & Pitch Competition in 2019. The next year, she was picked to be part of the 2020 Startup Bootcamp organized by Future Founders, a Chicago organization that helps youths and young adults become entrepreneurs.
• Her business was picking up. She was selling the Socket Lock-It on Amazon, where it has a solid four-star (out of five) rating. She also sold customized versions (think corporate logos) to conference, trade show and event planners, who included the product in their swag bags.
About the time Gehlhausen got her HPU degree and moved back home to the Indianapolis area, the COVID-19 pandemic killed off the conference and trade show business. But she heard that Walmart had opened up its annual call for U.S.-made products to put in its stores. She applied, and Walmart agreed to interview her.
Before that big day, Gehlhausen worked her High Point, Future Founders and other networks to get intel on Walmart. The word she got back, Gehlhausen told me, was this: Don't expect much. You probably won't get an answer right away. Best case, Walmart might give you a trial run at 50 to 100 stores. Even then, it'll take close to a year before you'd see the Socket Lock-It in stores.
The interview was set for Oct. 1, and Gehlhausen had 30 minutes to make her pitch from her family's home office. (Interviews are normally done at Walmart headquarters in Arkansas; this year's open call was done virtually because of the pandemic.) About halfway through, Gehlhausen said, the Walmart exec on the other side of the screen stopped her and said: We love your product. It's a yes.
"It was so much better than I was expecting it to go," Gehlhausen said. "It was beyond anything we could have expected."
Gehlhausen beat pretty big odds here. According to Walmart, about 4,800 small businesses applied to be part of the open call. About 800 got interviews. Of those, about 175 of those got a yes from the retail giant to sell in stores.
Even better for Gehlhausen, Walmart wanted enough Socket Lock-Its to put in 3,055 U.S. Walmart stores in April, May and June. Gehlhausen didn't reveal exactly how many items she had to manufacture, but she said her Walmart order was more than 10 times the size of any previous production run.
The Socket Lock-It started appearing in Walmart this week. It's in a floor display near the electronics section, Gehlhausen said, and it retails for $4.88. Gehlhausen said Wednesday that she hadn't yet seen her product at the three Walmarts she has visited. But some friends elsewhere had reported that they've found it in stores.
"I'm so jealous. I want to see them," Gehlhausen said. "But it'll come soon."
Staff writer John Newsom covers higher education for the News & Record of Greensboro and the Winston-Salem Journal.