Shelly Fisher's world is dominated by the unfashionable. Not people, but the illnesses and other medical conditions that plague them.
Diabetes, heart disease, peanut allergies. There's nothing stylish about any of it. Except, perhaps, for the contributions the Villanova mother of three has made over the last nine years on her way to building an internationally known company.
Hope Paige Designs L.L.C., operating out of cluttered third-floor space in a West Conshohocken office building, creates medical-identification bracelets with a twofold purpose: to save lives and be chic (or cool, depending on the targeted age group).
"The whole trick of what we try to do is make things that are stylish so people who wear medical bracelets ... don't have to necessarily feel branded by the disease," Fisher said as she showed off some of her company's roughly 170 offerings,
A variety of looks filled bin after bin in a crowded stockroom, including the more traditional wristwear made of metal as well as trendier bangles, such as Pandora-like beads and colorful silicone strands. On Monday morning, Fisher was especially charged up over a sports band made of black-and-red titanium fiber. It had just made its debut over the weekend on the company's website (www.hopepaige.com) and Facebook page.
"We sold over 200, which is a lot," Fisher marveled. "This is going to be crazy big."
Actually, that's also an apt description for Hope Paige's growth since its founding in December 2003. In just the last 2 1/2 years - amid a field of three major U.S. competitors - its payroll has grown from five to 15 employees, and its bracelets will soon have a presence in 10,000 pharmacies, under the business name Medical ID Marketplace.
Though Fisher, president and CEO, would not disclose annual sales, she said they were under $7 million and had doubled in each of the last two years.
Quite an evolution for a company founded by friends - Shelly Hope Fisher and Lisa Paige Hobyak, who originally had set out to make just a single bracelet.
Hobyak's mother was a breast-cancer survivor, and Hobyak was going to order a $120 bracelet made of pink crystals she had found online honoring the cause - until, Fisher said, she urged Hobyak to hold off and let her teach her how to make one. Fisher had been making beaded jewelry for fun since college and during the time she owned a gym on the Main Line, first known as the Exercise Center and later as the Fitness Factory.
That bracelet for Hobyak's mother led to orders from her friends - and a company was born. Soon after, an official from the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation who had a teenage daughter with Type 1 diabetes urged Fisher to make a medical-identification bracelet that teens wouldn't mind wearing. Thus began the company's focus on ID jewelry.
A friend's son designed a website, and the orders haven't stopped since. Products evolved from pre-engraved to being engraved at Hope Paige's headquarters. Most of that work now is done in Michigan because the volume of orders has become so large, Fisher said.
Not one who sees logic in reinventing what is already out there, Fisher instead has pursued partnerships. That led a year ago to the purchase of Merion resident Robin Davison's company, Statkids, which produced youth-size wristbands that identified the wearer's food allergies. Davison is now head of marketing at Hope Paige.
Another partnership this year has helped Hope Paige reach a new group: those enrolled with the online emergency-medical registry Icedot.org in Tulsa, Okla. Fisher worked out a deal with Icedot.org to engrave on Hope Paige bracelets its customers' personal PINs - which enable first responders to get each patient's emergency information online or by text.
"They have a high-quality product, and they're just good people," Casey Stowe, vice president and chief operating officer of Icedot.org, said of the decision to team up with Hope Paige. "And so much of how we do business is about the relationship and about the people."
It's a philosophical page out of Fisher's book. Half of Hope Paige's employees have or have had medical problems, including Fisher, 53, who found out a little more than a year ago that she had breast cancer. She is now cancer-free and believes her employees' personal experiences with health issues have enabled them to have empathy that enhances customer service.
Hope Paige's work, she said, is "done with strong heart and soul toward the people who need to wear these products."
So insistent is Fisher on the business importance of the personal touch that she ended an outside company's management of Hope Paige's Facebook page after a month. "The voice wasn't us," said Fisher, who now administers the site along with three employees.
Among those on the payroll is Matt Tutelman, assistant director of operations. But first, he was a Hope Paige customer. Tutelman, 22, is a Type 1 diabetic who "for years didn't want to wear , didn't want people knowing."
He "grew out of that" in college and now participates in monthly "forecasting" meetings to help design new products, or, as Fisher sees it, to "bring in new ways to make people safe."
Much of Hope Paige's merchandise is made in China and finalized and engraved in the United States. There have been some bad product choices over the years, Fisher acknowledged, such as the silicone bands decorated with little white hearts that were undisputably adorable but that broke easily.
More common have been the hits, such as the "I'm pregnant" stainless-steel bracelets, engraved with a pink or blue stork and the cellphone number of the person the wearer wants called when labor pains start.
The challenge now, Fisher said, is growing, which requires investments, but not too fast to lose profitability or the company's personal culture. For the first time in five years, she has raised prices on some bracelets, in the range of 5 percent to 20 percent.
"I don't want to take advantage of people with medical conditions," she said, explaining her reluctance to do that sooner. She prefers a revenue-growth strategy centered on increased sales.
"You take me to Wharton, and they'd probably look at me cross-eyed. But it works."