Entrepreneurship Series: R.Riveter with Founders Cameron Cruse and Lisa Bradley
Start a Business Degree at American Military University.
By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, InMilitary.com and InCyberDefense.com. Veteran, U.S. Army and U.S. Air Force
Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of interviews with veteran entrepreneurs, military spouse entrepreneurs, and businesses that engage with the military community. You can catch our previous interviews here.
Meet the company redefining the future of American manufacturing by providing employment opportunities for military spouses from all over the country… The best part? They also happen to make beautiful, well-built handbags.
While I was serving on active duty for 10 years, my wife faced a very common and painful employment problem that is experienced by thousands of military spouses nationwide: the inability to find meaningful work. According to a recent study by the RAND Corporation, military dependents report severe employment challenges due to a number of factors.
Among the factors cited were service member absence and the related heavy parenting responsibilities. Another contributing factor that spouses reported was employer stigmatization, often driven by the employer’s concern that the spouse will be forced to leave abruptly.
What’s more, the RAND study found that military spouses are more likely to live in a metropolitan area and are more likely to have finished high school and have a college education than their civilian counterparts. On paper, military spouses should be more employable, not less.
Finding a solution to this frustrating problem was the creative impetus behind what is today an nationally recognized brand and one of America’s greatest modern, and still budding success stories.
In keeping with the theme of empowering women, two military spouses named Cameron Cruse and Lisa Bradley would start a company called R.Riveter from scratch, and in the process, change the way we think about American manufacturing and military spouse employment.
I recently spoke with Lisa and Cameron for the InMilitary entrepreneurship series.
Wes: Lisa and Cameron, thank you so much for your time. You guys have a fantastic story: Two military spouses create an incredibly successful, nationally recognized handbag business. R.Riveter is the quintessential American success story. A lot of military spouses have your same drive and passion but aren’t really sure where to start. Can you tell us about that decision process for you?
Lisa: Thanks for having us, Wes. Because of the issues finding meaningful employment as a military spouse, Cameron and I had a lot of conversations about our frustrations. We were starting to see that if we wanted a career in this transient military life, we’d have to create it for ourselves.
Wes: So, I have to ask, why handbags?
Cameron: At first, we didn’t actually know what we wanted to make. There was a lot of brainstorming in the early days. We asked ourselves what’s a product that a woman could use daily that’s utilitarian and versatile? What’s a product that they could just as easily carry on a hiking trail or a night out?
Wes: For those that aren’t aware of your manufacturing process, you have talented military spouses, whom you call Riveters, spread out all across the country. These spouses are all experts in crafting their particular component. So a bag gets a grand tour of the United States as it is being assembled. Was this “decentralized manufacturing” planned from the beginning?
Lisa: Actually, no. As we were growing the company, we slowly started to bring on “Remote Riveters”. We realized that military spouses not only needed flexible income, they need mobile income to move with them from military base to military base. Each Remote Riveter ships their components to our Fabshop in North Carolina for a final assembly and quality check before shipping to the customer.
Cameron: What’s great is that all of our Riveters put their stamp, their riveter number, on their part of the process. Every bag has a unique story. It’s a story about handmade products, made in the U.S.A. by American military spouses.
Wes: That’s what is so great about R.Riveter. Customers can genuinely feel good about a product from you because of this incredible process. How have you built a successful customer base? Where did those first customers come from?
Lisa: In the early days we would visit farmers’ markets. It was very much us running all over the place.
Cameron: Yep. We hit the ground selling. We were intent on growing our community very authentically. Authenticity is in such high demand these days, people really responded well to our products. And then Shark Tank happened and we were launched into the national spotlight.
(Editor’s note: In February 2016, Lisa and Cameron were invited to appear on ABC’s Shark Tank TV show to share their mission of providing mobile, flexible income for military spouses, using their unique manufacturing process. Cameron and Lisa accepted an offer of partnership from billionaire investor and serial entrepreneur Mark Cuban.
Wes: Let’s talk about the “Shark Tank Effect.”
Lisa: Shark Tank was a powerful moment of affirmation. Creating mobile, flexible income for military families through our unique manufacturing process was the dream, and to know that this group of business moguls not only thought it was a good idea but wanted to join our mission was incredible.
Cameron: Orders definitely increased after Shark Tank aired. Would we have been successful without Shark Tank? Absolutely. We were already enjoying steady growth and our first retail store. I think Shark Tank just confirmed to us that we were on the right path, and catapulted us forward.
Wes: How has being an entrepreneur affected your family life? Specifically, your active duty counterparts?
Cameron: The life of an entrepreneur is a roller coaster of emotions. The life of a military spouse is also a roller coaster. Actually, I think our exposure to the stresses of the military prepared us better to succeed as entrepreneurs.
Lisa: I agree. As for me and my significant other, there are a lot of sharing of duties, a lot of teamwork. I’ll tell you this: it’s never a dull moment. I think that being a military spouse gave us a unique perspective on what it takes to succeed not just in business, but in a diverse range of things.
Wes: Let’s talk about marketing. Is there a platform that you prefer to get the word out about your products?
Lisa: I’m a digital media junkie. For us, email marketing has worked very well. Our online store lives on Shopify. Of course, social media advertising has given us a great ROI. Lastly, we keep close to our roots in the military community. As you know Wes, it’s a great community to be a part of.
Wes: If you had the chance to start the business over again from scratch, is there anything you would do differently?
Cameron: (Laughs) Nope, we nailed it the first time. Just kidding. There were so many lessons learned. For me, it was getting proficient at quickly navigating problems when they arise.
Lisa: I would advocate patience. Not trying to do everything all at once.
Wes: What books are you guys reading right now?
Cameron: “The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business” by Charles Duhigg
Lisa: “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up” by Marie Kondo
Wes: And finally, I’d like to ask how R.Riveter gives back because I think empowering military spouses is huge. So, can you tell me about some of your partners?
Lisa: We make an effort to partner with likeminded Veteran Owned, Military Spouse Owned and Non-Profit founded organizations through the R.Riveter Marketplace and other charitable initiatives. We’re actually working on something super exciting this Fall: We’re going to be helping military spouses start their own business by sponsoring a scholarship for $2100. That’s the amount that we started with in the beginning, so there is a special significance to that dollar amount.
Wes: It was fantastic chatting with you both. I hope this inspires other military spouses all over the country to make the jump and follow their dreams as well.
Editor’s Note: R.Riveter was recently ranked number 298 on INC’s list of 500 fastest growing companies in America. Brava to Lisa and Cameron for their success and inspiration to other military spouse entrepreneurs.