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Success of Catawba College Professor's Business Venture Depends on a Promise

January 07, 2011

Category: Business & Economics, Faculty


I Promise ProjectHave you made a New Year's resolution?  Have you already broken one? 

Catawba College Business Professor Pam Thompson is betting you can make a promise, not a resolution, and stick to it while "making the world a better place one promise at a time."

Thompson is launching a business venture that depends on people making a promise and going public with that promise with a bracelet and social networking. She has spent most of the last three months "learning about starting a product-based business rather than just teaching about it."

The result of her efforts is the PROM!SE™ bracelet — one part of her I Promise Project LLC (www.ipromiseproject.com).  Participants in the project make a 30-day commitment to change a specific behavior. They purchase an American-made, high quality webbed bracelet with the PROM!SE logo printed on it. They then sign the included Promise contract, Facebook/Twitter share the promise, register the bracelet's unique code to gain access to the online Promise Forum,  and even capture and upload a short video making their promise. In the online forum, participants give support to and receive support from others who also have made promises. By making the promise public, participants are more likely to keep their commitment.

"My daughters came to me one night and said, 'Mom, you've got to get your bracelet idea off the ground. We saw an infomercial selling thumb gloves to keep you from texting while driving,' " Thompson recalled. "We had been bantering about my idea for the bracelets with the word 'promise' on it for over a year."

I Promise Project"The next morning when I came into my office at Catawba, I told Mr. [Ralph] Ketner about the thumb gloves and then about my crazy idea for the promise bracelets. He said that my idea was one of the best he had heard in a long time and asked, 'What's keeping you from doing that?' "  Thompson continued. "I told him, 'Time,' and he asked, 'What about money?' and I said, 'That too,' and he said for me to get a business plan together if I was serious about the project and share it with him. And, so I did."

After seeing the business plan in mid-October, the 90-year-old Ketner, the entrepreneurial founder of Food Lion and the benefactor of Catawba's Ralph W. Ketner School of Business where Thompson works, offered to help get her idea off the ground. The business venture will continue to pay it forward as half of I Promise Project's profits return to Catawba College and its Ketner School of Business.

As the business plan became reality, Thompson "started learning lessons."  First, I told a very few [Catawba] students about it because we had to get the trademark registered. I didn't want too many people to find out about it until I started the registration process. Once that was in place, I worked with a supplier and many of my students to finalize what the bracelet was going to look like.

"I agonized over whether we should go with the silicone bracelet which my students feel may be  in the maturity stage of that product life cycle," Thompson explained. "I really liked the webbed bracelet and the students affirmed my thoughts. I received some bracelet prototypes from an American manufacturer and worked back and forth with them and my students for four weeks – it was agonizing just to make a decision on this."

Thompson credited students enrolled in her fall business classes and Phi Beta Lambda members for assisting her in her decisions. "One thing that helped was having my target market around me all day long, and my daughters at home, and even the director of custom fabrication at the bracelet manufacturer was a 24-year-old."

I Promise ProjectOne thing Thompson's banking on with her business venture is the social networking options available with the purchase of her product. "There are at least four ways to interact and all of them are optional," she said. "There's the Facebook and Twitter Share, the Promise Forum and what I'm calling Promise Tube. Access to the forum and social networks will give you a chance to talk to people all over the world as participation builds, but you also have the opportunity to upload a 30-60 second video stating your promise on The Promise Tube."  (The business venture is the "I Promise Project" on Facebook and Twitter.)

Thompson plans to offer her products to both individuals and non-profit groups wanting to adopt a high profile challenge such as stopping texting and driving, increasing civility, or stopping bullying. "These groups can order custom bracelets and then can make a difference and raise funds for the organization at the same time. We can use meaningful colors or even put logos (if allowed) on the bracelets for specific groups and we will have fund-raising media packages for their use," she noted. Bracelets are currently available in black, pink, red, sky blue, royal Catawba blue, and deep purple. Service members and their families may opt for the popular digital camouflage pattern and make a "promise to come home," or "promise to wait" for the family member left behind, she said.

"Mr. Ketner's five fast pennies philosophy permeates this whole project," Thompson explained. "We've had lots of discussions about keeping costs low, so the selling price can be low and the margin reasonable. The whole idea is to make a difference in people's lives while selling  bracelets. What's so amazing to me is that a 90-year-old has bought into a project that ties social networking in with a product purchase – he gets it!  I can't thank him enough for his support of the I Promise Project."

I Promise ProjectThompson is dependent on marketing her $8 bracelets through social networks – Facebook, YouTube and Twitter. She's learned that "if you don't believe in it and if you don't market and push it, nobody will."

"There have been a couple of days when I've woken up and wondered, 'What have I done,' " she quipped, while noting that she is grateful for the lessons learned. "All of this is start-up and it takes a strong stomach. I've learned how to get a toll-free number for just a few dollars a month, how to register a trademark and LLC, set up merchant services and online payments, get employer and tax ids, develop packaging, and negotiate volume discounts for a product. I've had to set up USPS and UPS accounts, make decisions on shipping and handling charges and methods,  and try to estimate what demand will be. The students have helped each step of the way and I am particularly grateful to Phi Beta Lambda, our Professional Business Fraternity, for their continuing help." Thompson is also grateful for the help of her brother, Ernie McDermon of Atlanta, who has assisted with the website and shopping cart. "My daughters and their friends have been a tremendous help also as I am constantly bouncing ideas off of them and they have been wearing the bracelets and getting feedback," Thompson stated.

Thompson's neighbor and friend Mary Ann Johnson, Public Relations Director of LSA NC, has also helped as one of the early adopters of the bracelets, and Adair Doran, a teacher at Salisbury High School, took bracelets with her on her trip to Spain over Christmas. Cecilia Stach, Administrative Assistant for the Ketner School of Business, has been instrumental in providing advice on the bracelet design and group fundraising options. Tracy Ratliff (Public Relations, Catawba College) designed the unique Promise Bracelet packaging and contract, and Thompson's uncle, Charles Liberty of Washington, D.C., also invested in the project.  Former Catawba communications student Cheryl Knorr Foster is helping with the marketing effort in two weeks by bringing her professional video production team to campus to film a video for the website and Thompson will be looking for people willing to participate in the video by making a captured promise.

"At worst, if we end up giving the bracelets away, we've gotten our money's worth in my opinion just by the business lessons learned. I will be carrying the lessons into the classroom this spring and I am willing to share the lessons learned with anyone who is interested." 

In 2011, Thompson's hopeful that plenty of people will want to make a difference in their lives by "making a promise, not a resolution." Those interested in changing their life by purchasing a bracelet and making a promise may purchase a bracelet from Phi Beta Lambda students in the Ketner School of Business on Catawba's campus, at Caniche in downtown Salisbury, N.C., or online at www.ipromiseproject.com.


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PhotosPHOTOS: The I PROM!SE Project

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