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Melanie Patterson: Paper bibs and this mother of invention Featured

9:37am EDT July 22, 2002

Some call it the "Eureka! experience," others the "Aha! moment."

Though few of us have known it first-hand, Melanie Patterson experienced it -- and she's changing the way babies are fed as a result.

Her simple invention, PIBS (paper bibs on a roll), does for parents, grandparents and caregivers of young children what paper towels did for cleaner-uppers: It makes the entire messy, but essential feeding business faster, easier and a little bit of fun.

Did somebody say "Doh! Why didn't I think of that?"

PIBS are sturdy, soft, one-size disposable paper bibs dispensed on a roll. PIBS goes on baby, baby slops food and other substances on PIBS, PIBS goes in the trash -- germs, mess and all.

Although it sounds like a natural winner and is almost as brilliant in its simplicity as The Pet Rock, Patterson says the inspiration was the easy part. Going from concept to product to distribution and revenue has resulted in a harrowing couple of years.

Innovation born of necessity

"PIBS is a product designed by a working mom for working moms," Patterson says. "My son, Cody, [now 5 years old] needed fluoride supplements, and if you've ever tried to feed an infant droplets of fluoride, you know it's a pretty messy ordeal. I was going through cloth bibs like crazy. To me, the perfect solution was a disposable bib.

"I thought, 'Surely somebody makes those.' But after searching high and low, I couldn't find them anywhere. That's when my husband, Bob, said, 'Why don't you make your own?'"

Why not, indeed?

"A little light bulb went on in my head," she says. "If we'd known then how complex a process it was going to be, I'm not sure I would have pursued it. But I did -- so here we are."

Now a full-time entrepreneur and still a full-time mom to Cody, Patterson was no slouch before Cody and PIBS came along. A native of the Belle Vernon area, she attended high school locally and earned bachelor's and master's degrees at California University of Pennsylvania.

She enjoyed a 10-year career as an educator, specializing in early development, and implemented federal grants to establish innovative pilot programs for young children in two suburban school districts.

But this is not your stereotypical kindergarten teacher. Patterson ran for and was crowned Mrs. United States in Las Vegas in 1993. She jokes, "When Cody was born, I traded tournaments and tiaras for diapers and dishes."

No substitute for hard work

The common notion is that one dreams up a nifty invention, tosses on a patent and sells the whole deal to an multinational corporation for eight figures and moves to Palm Beach. But it's just a notion.

"I learned quickly that the big companies are inundated with people's bright ideas," Patterson says. "Plus, they have their own employees hard at work to develop new products in-house. So if I wanted this to become a reality, I was going to have to do it."

The first step was meeting with patent attorneys and engineers to determine if the PIBS idea had already been accomplished elsewhere. When a patent search showed the coast was clear, Patterson began the long, tedious search for a materials supplier and a manufacturer to make the product. After searching North America, she wound up doing business with Berkley Medical Resources in Uniontown, just a few miles down the road. Berkley produces PIBS with the same high-quality, sterile paper used in surgical masks and hospital supplies.

For the past year, PIBS has been marketed via the Web and toll-free fax. This month, a regional television commercial debuts, and PIBS hits the shelves of Giant Eagle supermarkets in Southwestern Pennsylvania. Then, she says, she plans to roll out a national campaign and develop production and distribution capabilities to serve a wider market. Naturally, she will still entertain offers of eight figures if, say, Procter & Gamble comes calling.

She says advertising will stress hygiene and convenience and suggest PIBS as ideal gifts for young mothers, especially in welcome-home-from-the-hospital packages. Because of the low cost and convenient packaging, Patterson thinks customers will buy several packages and keep them in strategic locations -- car, home, grandma's house and day care.

Like one well-accustomed to receiving accolades and making gracious acceptance speeches, Patterson is quick to credit her supporters along the entrepreneurial trail -- from Cody and her husband to her banker, lawyers, suppliers, manufacturer, consultants and everyone else who helped make PIBS a reality.

Asked if there is any special quality about herself that brought the venture this far, she muses: "Two things -- sheer, utter tenacity and the willingness to let the experts use their expertise." How to reach: Melanie Patterson, PIBS Paper Bibs on a Roll, (877) 930-PIBS (7427) or www.pibsonaroll.com

William McCloskey is a Pittsburgh-based free-lance writer.