Lily Winnail homeschools her two daughters and son because “we like to go places and see things,” and because she’s not afraid to be afraid. Although she says one daughter is already testing at MBA level, the decision to homeschool was rife with apprehension: “I was so scared. I was very hard on myself, and I pushed them really hard at the beginning.”

In April 2007, three months after giving birth to her son, Winnail’s heart was pounding as she walked into Mud Pie Monograms in Charlotte. A month earlier, weary of the pain and bruising caused by carrying an infant car seat in the crook of her arm, she had conceived and created a 6.5-by-11-inch wraparound, decorative foam pad that would fit all baby seat handles.

“I was excited that as far as I could tell, this product did not exist,” she says. “But walking into that first store with my basket of handmade Padalilys, I almost didn’t get out of the car. I thought, ‘What are they going to say? What are they going to think? I’ve never done this; I don’t like sales; I’ve never sold anything.’ I was just so scared. But thankfully, I walked into the right store because they were just going crazy over it. There was a mom in there with a car seat and she said, ‘I want one!’ I said, ‘I don’t know if it’s legal for me to come in and do business in the store.’ One of the store owners was laughing. I ended up selling one right outside the door of the store.”

The owners were ready with advice. “They said, ’You’d better get a manufacturer. Are you making these yourself? What’s your wholesale cost?’ I said, ‘I have no idea.’ I basically got a two-minute education on what I needed to find out about, and we’ve become friends since then.”

Winnail became a quick study despite the inevitable hurdles along the way. She says that today, the Padalily (means “Lily’s pad” in French) and its line of sister products have amassed $2 million in sales, with a net of $1.2 million. The brand has sold in about 2,500 stores in the United States. She savors the satisfaction of developing a product that has helped mothers and families—while proving a godsend for her own family.

A Husband’s Help

The Winnails’ spacious, elegant home in a Charlotte suburb reflects a family with high standards. Lily isn’t embarrassed about liking nice things. “I sewed practically everything in here,” she says with a laugh. “I want everything to look great.”

But in 2010, the family’s comfortable lifestyle seemed in jeopardy when Lily’s husband, Shaun, was laid off from his sales job. He was out of work for three years. “It was scary until we realized that with the money from the Padalily, we could pay ourselves,” she says. “It sustained all of our needs and more. Everything stayed the same. It was just really cool to realize we could work together on this, and we could rock it.”

Now back to work in medical sales, Shaun says Padalily “is pretty much all Lily now.” But his three years working on the business proved invaluable: “I kinda dealt with the operations side. I worked with the manufacturing plant, helped with sourcing, helped with sales, helped get national distributors on board.  One of the biggest pushes was getting a couple of the big sales distributors on board in some showrooms in Atlanta and Dallas and then working the shows quarterly.”

In retrospect, Lily says Shaun’s availability was sweet serendipity. “People wanted me as the face of the company. But a lot of the buyers are women, so a lot of them gravitated toward Shaun with his 15 years of sales experience, these women who’ve owned boutiques for years. So there’s this young guy who’s super friendly. … Plus, I felt like it was easier for him to talk me up than toot my own horn.”

Start-up Trials

In the early stages of a shoestring operation, Lily made six to 10 Padalilys an hour when she reached her top speed. “I probably made 300, and I had a girlfriend in Texas who made about 300. She made the cases. She would sent them to me flat, and I would put the foam in them and sew here at home.”

Through random searches including Google, the Winnails found a manufacturer in Wisconsin but soon cut ties. “They started to double our prices because they knew we were doing well,” Shaun says. That led to a local cut-and-sew factory in Monroe, N.C., in 2008.

Lily designed the packaging, which enables the consumer to see the product inside. “For me, marketing was just innate. I know what looks good. I know what looks pretty.”

There was no formal marketing, either; sales came largely via word of mouth. Then the Winnails found a sales representative, Anne-Marie Davis of Lemonade Stand Showroom, who brought in a lot of volume for the business at stores and large trade shows that resulted in national exposure.

“I was a one-hit wonder,” Lily says. “I was finding with the sales rep, who works on commission, that a lot of people want you to have a large line of things. But the Padalily was such a hot item, it ended up being worth it anyway.”

Growing Joys and Pains

By 2009, business was soaring in major showrooms—even as the second-worst recession in our country’s history was taking hold. “Four million babies are still being born. People are still buying baby gifts,” Lily says. “It’s a $20 impulse buy (retailing at $20-$25, wholesaling at $10-$12). Not many people will say, ‘You had a baby? I can’t afford to buy you a gift.’ No, people still buy the gift.”

Lily got a call from the New Jersey headquarters of Buy Buy Baby, a national big box chain. “They wanted to place an order. I asked, ‘How did you hear about me?’ He said, ‘We’ve had so many moms coming into our store asking for your product. We really didn’t even know who you were.’ So I had this naturally organic call-out from moms.” Padalily eventually got into Toys R Us and FAO Schwarz.

Momentum also got a big boost from finding the right distributor, Shaun recalls. “It took a lot of persistence. Eventually we showed the Padalily to Gib Carson of Gib Carson & Associates in Atlanta, and his wife loved it. He and his father have been in the showroom gift industry for 30 to 40 years.”

Gift stores represented a lucrative new frontier, Lily says. “I was focusing on baby (stores). Well, there are about 100,000 gift boutiques in America, and maybe a tenth of that are actual baby specialty boutiques. Most gift stores have a little baby section. They’re in every town. So with Gib Carson, we were getting orders from Ace Hardware. From pharmacies. Tons! Also from hospital gift shops. Of course we want these in hospital gift shops.

“Then the international distributors, they contacted us. … We got Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Canada. We went to China and the Philippines for manufacturing because we thought that if we’re going to have all of these international distributors, we have to get our prices down—and we were getting knocked off by people who were making in China.”

Because they had yet to be issued a patent, the Winnails had little recourse about the knock-offs. They did reduce prices but weren’t happy with the results.  “People like having the superior brand,” Lily says. “That’s when I realized how important the foam was. I ordered cheaper foam—not as resilient, not as dense—but didn’t find it was as good of a product. That was very short-lived.”

They’ve also gotten an education about the numerous laws and processes involving child products. The Padalily had to undergo rigorous tests for lead content, potential fire hazards and more. In addition, the Winnails learned that you can’t sell to some of the big box stores for babies without at least $5 million in liability insurance.

In light of all of this safety scrutiny, the Winnails are especially proud to have the endorsement of Charlotte physician Aviva Stein. After her first pregnancy, the doctor developed De Quervain’s tendinitis—an irritation and inflammation said to be caused by overusing her hands. When she discovered and began using the Padalily following the birth of her second child, she said it reduced her hand pain.

“I recommended it to my patients,” she says. “The whole transfer of infants in and out of anywhere is so cumbersome, particularly post-partum when you’re more vulnerable to physical compromise. I also like the designs, the fact that these aren’t just baby blue or black. There are zigzags and colorful designs that moms like.”

Patent Patience

The Winnails’ persistence in finding the right manufacturer and distributor was further rewarded when applying for their patent. “They say that any good patent will be rejected at first,” Shaun says with a smile.

The Winnails originally filed for a provisional patent, Lily recalls. “I had a patent attorney do a search, which came up with a bowling ball bag handle from the 1970s. His invention would pretty much not allow me to have a utility patent on the Padalily because it was the same concept.

“But then my attorney said, ‘Have you thought about improving your product?’ I said yes, I wanted to add a second tab, do some other things for better comfort. He said, ‘If you want to make changes in the design, why don’t we apply for a design patent on your final product?’”

The patent was rejected by the examiner the first couple times before it was approved in 2012. “There was also something to do with a pad that would go around the arms of a wheelchair, something about it in the prior art that the examiner was rejecting it,” Lily says.

Patent No. D 667241 is a source of great pride for the Winnails, but they’re realistic about what it means. “A patent doesn’t do very much unless you have the money to fight knock-offs when you have to,” Lily says. “Some people will do research on you to see if you’re so small that you may not have the money to fight in court.”

On the other hand, she’s happy to see evidence that the product has legal standing. “When you go on YouTube, you see people talking about making your own DIY Padalily—not a DIY arm cushion but a DIY Padalily. That proves people see we have trade dress rights. It shows the strength of our brand.”

Making a Line of It

That strength was solidified when the Padalily won the $15,000 Huggies MomInspired Grant in 2012. Lily took advantage of the money to make more product, update the website and design new styles.

She’s still amazed by her invention’s widespread appeal. Her January 2015 appearance on “The Steve Harvey Show,” which featured inventions by moms, was the result of the show’s producer being given a Padalily when she had a baby. After the show aired, “our sales went crazy,” Lily says. “Then in June, orders were suddenly flying in all over again and I didn’t know why. I found out they had run the show again.”

She knows the importance of avoiding complacency and is driven to provide more for mothers who want higher-quality products. So she added accessories. The highlight of the rest of her line is another invention, the Poche (French for “pocket”).

The Poche is a higher-end Padalily for moms who want to multi-task. One side is foam, the other side a pocket. Inside, there’s a place for a travel-size wipe and a couple of diapers. “That took off really well. Our boutiques really loved it because when the baby is ready to outgrow the car seat, you can just toss the foam and you’ll have another full section for your wallet or whatever. Her best seller that isn’t the Padalilly, the Poche sells for $35.

The line also includes a canopy/blanket, a pacifier loop built into a bib, and a pacifier/toy pouch. There are plans for a juvenile line; samples are being made, but nothing specific has been decided. “I want to be in on the cusp of new trends,” she says.

One trend that both Shaun and Lily notice is how their sales are increasing on This leads to even more of an emphasis on the Padalily website. “When people come in organically from direct to consumer, there’s a higher profit margin,” she says.

The website shows her determination to show gratitude by helping others. She oversees Lily’s Loving Arms to help those in need and supports causes that include Life Outreach International, Samaritan’s Purse and the Pure Religion 5K. She’s proud of her strong spiritual and religious background: “I asked God for this idea (the Padalily). People think I’m crazy. One of my friends said, ‘I’m just glad you asked.’”

After her appearance on national TV, Lily talked to many creative people who didn’t know how to proceed with their ideas. “I tell them to do your research. Make sure the item doesn’t exist. If it does exist that’s OK, but you’re going to have to work harder. You’re going to have to market the product as why yours is better and different. Stay persistent. Focus on gaining knowledge. Talk to people. Be willing to take advice. And get a patent attorney.”

The nicest surprise of her journey has been “the connection with people and their kindnesses, how they helped me. Hopefully, sharing my story has been inspirational for other people who want to do something better with their lives.”