Emily Vaca was blazing a career path in the ad agency world when she gave it all up for swimming pools.
A DePaul graduate in art and design, the Chicago-based Vaca was 15 years into a career of creating advertising, marketing and package-design work for big-name brands including Nike, Kraft and Anheuser-Busch. She could easily have continued that career track, too, had it not been for a rooftop party in 2013.
Vaca had always cherished the childhood memory of splashing around in a galvanized metal tub in her St. Louis backyard. But a washing tub wasn’t appropriate for a swanky adult party and neither, as it turned out, were the inflatable pools that she found for sale—most of them flimsy donuts imprinted with grinning animated characters.
“There was literally nothing in the market that wouldn’t have been the eyesore of our party,” she recalled. “The only options were sad blue pools or ones covered in cartoon fishes.”
The companies that made these pools, it seemed to Vaca, were ignoring a huge swath of potential customers: Not just people who didn’t have suburban back yards, but adults, period.
After a few years of turning over the idea in her head, Vaca decided that if someone was going to create a sophisticated inflatable pool for urbanites, it might as well be her.
Fortunately, Vaca wasn’t only a designer; she also had years of branding and marketing experience under her belt. She drew up motifs that walked the line between playful and glam, sketching palm fronds, watermelon seeds and rose-gold confetti. She handcrafted each pattern and designed all branding. That included the brand name, too: Minnidip, an adroit, mellifluous and punny moniker that’s easy to remember and, of course, ripe for trademarking.
In addition to the tony designs, the pools were big enough (5½ feet in diameter and 1½ feet high) to accommodate three (seated) adults while also fitting on the balconies and terraces found in city apartments.
Figuring she’d work on the business as a sideline, Vaca launched her first design—called That’s Banana(leave)s!—in June of 2017, promising to “bring tropic vibes wherever you dip.” She sold 500 pools that year. In 2018, she sold another 2,800. Target picked up the line and, in time, so did retailers including Aerie and Bloomingdale’s.
That’s when Vaca decided to ditch the day job.
Minnidip sold over 100,000 units in 2019. Some of that volume stemmed from Vaca’s appearance on QVC (the banana-leaf pool sold out in nine minutes), and some of it came from the “tufted” design she introduced that June. Rather than being constructed from stacked innertube-like rings like most inflatable pools are, Minnidip’s new model featured a scalloped design inspired by the channel-tufting that’s become trendy in headboards. The Blushing Palms pool for 2020 continues the signature design, and its popularity is one reason Vaca says her sales might well double this year.
And, as the summer season heats up concurrently with social-distancing mandates, Vaca stands to benefit from Americans who’ve cancelled vacation plans in favor of going swimming at home.
But the underlying reason for Minnidip’s popularity is the fact that it fits into a niche that Vaca might not have created, but certainly spotted. To be sure, there are other brands of adult-sized inflatable swimming pools on the market. Googo, Homech and Intex all make them. And the adjacent category of swimming pool inflatables (whimsical floatation devices shaped like pizza slices, toucans and unicorns) has been huge since 2015, when Taylor Swift posted an Instagram photo of she and then-boyfriend Calvin Harris floating in one. But Minnidip united the functionality of cooling off with the trendiness of a home accessory, then packaged it up for the urbanite stuffed into a small apartment. Bingo.
What’s more, Vaca recognized that there was room in the segment for something that didn’t fit the standard definition of pool. Swimming pools are a billion-dollar industry in the United States, but also an exclusionary one. In-ground pools cost an average $22,000 to install, which is why only a little more than 4% of American homes have them. (Above-ground pools are less expensive, but still average over $6,000 apiece.) That means that tens of millions of Americans who feel like taking a dip—but don’t want to visit to a public or health-club pool—are simply out of luck.
An inflatable piece of non-toxic vinyl wouldn’t seem to lend itself to selfies, but Vaca’s skill for staging a good photo shoot has made many Instagrammable moments out of her pools. A pic of the coral-colored tufted model featuring three young women in pink bathing suits notched nearly 12,000 likes on April 28.
Minnidip’s fortunes are also lined up with larger demographic trends. Not only are urban centers continuing to gain population, cities are undergoing what one urban planner has referred to as “youthification”—the millennials moving into downtown areas in search of space, independence and career opportunities.
And given that the average city apartment is now 941 square feet (and statistically getting smaller), the sort of rooftop and terrace splashing that Vaca’s friends were doing at that 2013 party is only likely to increase.
“We truly have a wide range of buyers,” Vaca said. “We see them ‘minnidipping’ on rooftops, on balconies shared by roomies, in big backyards for birthday parties, in apartment building parking lots during heat waves, in living rooms filled with pillows.”
And what about Americans forced to cancel plans to visit the beach this summer? No worries. Vaca said she’s seen customers fill her pools with saltwater, too.
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