Maggie Gerth’s idea for an innovative suitcase that could stand on its own four legs began as a sketch on a napkin. A cliché? Maybe. But what happened from there is uniquely Gerth’s own story.
|Maggie Gerth, the inventor of PROPS® luggage.|
She is the brains behind PROPS®, the hottest development in the luggage industry since the advent of wheeled suitcases.
PROPS® is a carry-on with built-in legs that travelers can easily extend to have a convenient surface for their laptop or a place to put their meal – no matter where they’re sitting in an airport.
Though the product is literally taking off among travelers and airline professionals, Gerth, who lives in Hinsdale, Illinois, is not far removed from the early days of development – something she looks back on with wonder.
“I was someone who really liked to be organized when traveling and, from that, it evolved to what you see today,” she said. “Going into this, I knew nothing of product development. But during those four years, I learned each phase and surrounded myself with people who did know the industry. Over the years I learned a tremendous amount and found my confidence to trust myself.”
Recognizing a gap in the marketplace
Entrepreneurship usually begins with the idea of solving a problem. The genesis of PROPS® was no different.
Gerth and her husband, Bob, loved to travel with their four daughters. Each summer they took their annual trip to Walt Disney World, sharing two hotel rooms. Suitcases would be everywhere on the floor because each room only had one luggage rack. She found herself kneeling on the floor helping the girls dress for the day. There had to be a better way.
Years later she began working on a design team for a housing development firm. With this position came quite a bit of travel and staying in hotel rooms, many with no luggage rack at all.
It was less a lightbulb moment than a gradual dawning.
“My husband and I were sitting and literally sketching on a napkin. What if a suitcase had a built-in rack, like golf bags where the legs come out when you pushed on it? It started there,” she said. “I gave up on the organizational idea when everyone came out with packing cubes, but the idea of a built-in luggage rack stayed.
“As a mother of four daughters, I always taught them to go after their dreams. There wasn’t anything they couldn’t do if they put their minds to it. So now I had to lead by example. ‘Mom, you need to do this,’ one of them told me.” And so, the journey began, and what a journey it was.
Building industry knowledge
Gerth said she never would have started down the road of creating PROPS® if it hadn’t been for Bob, her husband of 36 years, who is experienced in the manufacturing industry. “He was and still is my unwavering support through this process,” she said.
Needing to find a way into the crowded luggage industry marketplace, they attended the Travel Goods Show in New Orleans in March 2020, just as COVID-19 was beginning to make headlines. Great, Gerth thought. I’m starting a travel-related business while travel is shutting down.
Nonetheless, they made contact with an industry consultant with 40 years of experience. “He was super excited about our ideas,” she recalled. “He gave us two or three names of luggage engineers and designers. He led us down the path.”
Sticking with it through failure and frustration
The consultant also introduced the Gerths to several different factories. “After deciding to move forward, we began the development,” she said. “Because of COVID restrictions we were not able to travel, and the entire process was done over Zoom. That first year, I sat quietly but then realized later that asking questions was the only way to grow.”
The first manufacturing prototype failed miserably, and many more prototypes followed. “There were so many points where I wanted to quit. It was one thing after another,” Gerth said. “But as they say, if it were easy, everyone would do it.”
She gained inspiration from listening to other entrepreneurs on “How I Built This,” a podcast about entrepreneurs and innovators hosted by NPR’s Guy Raz. She realized that “so many successes experienced huge setbacks and it took years.”
Finally, a prototype emerged that met her specifications for operation and design.
Marketing a new product
Once she had a working prototype and a timeline for the product’s availability, Gerth began working with a marketing firm that had been recommended by a friend. That was an exciting time.
“We worked with them on the branding, the logo, the name, the colors,” she said. “They helped us with the initial website and photos.”
The name PROPS® was on a list of a couple dozen names the agency proposed. “I literally stared at these names for two weeks and started eliminating the ones I didn’t get,” Gerth said. “PROPS® stood out because it’s easy to spell, easy to pronounce – and it says what the product does.”
And she entered the world of social media.
“When I got into the marketing aspect, I knew nothing about social media. I didn’t have an Instagram or a Facebook, and suddenly my whole business is reliant on social media? It was just fascinating.”
PROPS® sells direct to consumers on their website. Those who own PROPS® Luggage and travel frequently love the product. It has been called their go-to bag. “We have realized it is an innovative product, and people are apprehensive about something new and different – unless they see it in action. But we remind ourselves that everyone was apprehensive about wheels, too.”
As for the future…
Each day brings something different, and Gerth knows to keep her options open. “We have had a lot of customers asking for a larger size case and we have the plans,” she said. “One step at a time.”
Whatever happens, the knowledge and confidence she’s gained in a whole new arena will stay with her. “It’s definitely been about learning and growth,” she said. “And when I am faced with the frustration of other things I do not know, my husband is quick to point out all that I have learned in the last five years.”
At 60, Gerth said, “I’ve met so many fascinating people of all ages and interests. I just love that. I am sure to many it seems strange for a woman to enter such an unknown arena at my age. I must be honest — I have never really given my age any thought. This has been such an incredible part of my life, I would not change a thing.