Moms with a mission build a business along with a family By Angela Schneider and Cindy Jacobson
Jennifer Dodge needed a good, simple blanket for when she nursed her infant son in public. But all the breastfeeding blankets she found were bulky, fuzzy and decorated with teddy bears and rattles-not exactly Dodge's style. The novice seamstress bought some fabric and created the Undercover Breastfeeding Blanket, a cotton garment that slings over the mother's shoulder and her opposite leg.
"When you're sleep-deprived, you get a lot of crazy ideas in your head," she says, grinning. Three years later, her blanket sales make a profit.
Parenthood changes your sleep schedule, your priorities, your social life and your capacity to love. But it can also change your livelihood, inspiring some parents to change their careers and start a business.
Madonna is not the first mom to take the giant leap. It seems just yesterday the megastar was donning a pointy silver brassiere or jumping naked in front of traffic. But, after giving birth to two children, she reinvented herself as a children's book author. Her first storybook, The English Roses, was released in September.
Starting a business with young children? Are these mom-preneurs out of their minds? No, they have found work they are passionate about. And because of that and because they have zeroed in on a strong consumer need, they have a better chance for success than many other new start-up companies. And yes, there are dad-preneurs too. But with Mother's Day here, we thought these extraordinary moms deserve a moment in the spotlight. Make an opportunity Michaela McGill's big idea came in 2002 when she and two fellow German- and Swiss-born friends had trouble finding the wooden toys that they played with growing up in Europe for their children. "Over the years, the selection has shrunk on educational, creative, everlasting toys that you can hand down to your grandchildren," says McGill, a Gurnee mom of two toddlers.
So, the three moms started Hopscotch Kids, a business that sells imported toys.
Starting up is not easy. One third of all businesses-not just those run by stressed-out parents-close after less than two years. Half close in the first four years, according to You Need to Be a Little Crazy: The Truth About Starting and Growing Your Business, a new book by Barry Moltz that offers advice for first-time entrepreneurs.
But parenthood is all about beating the odds-ask any sleep-deprived mother with a newborn.
In fact, parents might have the best shot at success as small business owners, says Barry Merkin, professor of entrepreneurship at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University.
"Successful start-ups revolve around a person who, through their experiences, perceives a need in the market," Merkin says.
A year ago, Palos Heights mom Dina Kriescher took the need she saw in the market and created Noah's Ark Animal Workshop. It takes the wildly popular Build-A-Bear concept a step further by allowing participants to make their own stuffed animal without leaving home.
"The whole thing started when I realized that there was a need for something new in the way of birthday party services," says Kriescher, the mother of three. "It is a very fun market."
Prices range from $13 to $15 for the collectible, custom-designed animals. After hand-stuffing their selection from among 11 choices, children color and decorate a take home bag, create a birth certificate and dress the animal in a Noah's Ark original outfit.
Before Noah's Ark Animal Workshops, Kriescher had tried various business ventures, none of which provided her with satisfaction and the opportunity for expansion. Kriescher is bringing what she calls independent crew members on board. In the first month she signed on more than 20 crew members, who pay a fee to her for the products and the concept, then make money by conducting parties and recruiting other crew members, a la the marketing concept used by Pampered Chef or Amway.
"I could see how successful it was for me, and I knew that I could help others be successful, too," Kriescher says. "It's a career opportunity that can be done from home. You can be a mom and still make good money doing something that brings a smile to so many faces."
With the assistance of her father's direct sales company newsletter this spring, word of Noah's Ark Animal Workshop will reach 6,000 outlets in 50 states.
Spilled milk? Twin sisters Karen Kuhn and Karla Scanlan have had similar success with their invention, the NoThrow, which they created in 2001. The patented tether secures a child's bottle or "sippy cup" to a stationary object, such as a stroller. Ten prototypes and three years later, the business continues to grow-in 2003 Jewel-Osco granted NoThrow end-of-aisle displays at 168 Chicago-area stores. In the world of products and grocery stores, that is prime real estate. "We accidentally took a lot of right steps," says Kuhn of Elmwood Park.
Founding a new business can be a logical step for new parents adjusting to a new lifestyle.
"The schedule is more flexible," says Anne McCarthy, a Chicago native and dean of the Merrick School of Business at the University of Baltimore. "Sometimes it requires more hours, but the hours can be more family friendly."
When McGill and her friends, Heidi Kühn and Maria Alleman-Rodriguez, both of Grayslake, decided to sell European toys, they originally wanted to open a store. They made a checklist of start-up costs: rent, insurance, marketing and supplies.
"It would be a huge financial investment and a time commitment that we were not willing to make," McGill says. "Our priority was to spend as much time as possible with our families." They decided to postpone the store and started Hopscotch Kids from home.
Working parents should make sure to carve out family time, agrees McCarthy, who specializes in entrepreneurship. "The business can take off with such popularity it can overwhelm parents." Remember, your kids inspired your business in the first place, so involve them as much as possible, she advises. "It's good for them and you. It's like being in a learning laboratory."
When Dodge first sought retailers to buy her nursing blanket in 2001, she brought baby Drew along for the business calls. He got to spend time with his mom and helped demonstrate the blanket. The Hopscotch Kids owners all have children under age 4, who help their moms by testing the toys. Kriescher uses her own children and their friends as her advisors to select stuffed animals and outfits that will be most appealing to customers. "Children of entrepreneurs are more likely to become entrepreneurs," McCarthy says. "They absorb by osmosis what their parents do."
Plan it out Aspiring parent entrepreneurs should put together a business plan first, McCarthy says. "First, assess the market. Is it big enough?" Kuhn, co-inventor of NoThrow, adds, "You do not want to invest a lot of time and money if it isn't really a good idea." She and her sister were encouraged by family and friends to sell their product, but first they needed to test the market. They made 250 NoThrows by hand and brought some along to the mall, the zoo and the park. When they saw a parent chasing a dropped bottle or cup, one of the sisters walked up and offered a free sample.
The Hopscotch Kids owners started selling toys to friends, then moved on to bazaars and children's expositions. But the simple, relatively expensive wooden toys did not seem to appeal to the mass market. "Is this the right approach?" McGill remembers thinking. "It's probably not targeting our specific audience." The next step, she says, will be to approach Montessori schools and homeschooling groups.
To help make the big decisions, seek out trusted advisers, McCarthy says. Bounce ideas off friends, lawyers, accountants and successful entrepreneurs. "Know your resources and create your own network," she says.
When Dodge set out to sell the Undercover Breastfeeding Blanket, she solicited a lot of opinions. "I got feedback from a lactation consultant, inventors, other parents and the U.S. Patent Office," she says.
Dodge was a newcomer to the textiles industry, but she already had one important skill-marketing experience. Before Drew was born, she was a marketing director. "The experience was one of the major reasons I succeeded," she says. "It was a big bonus." Many entrepreneurs use skills from previous jobs.
The Hopscotch Kids moms pooled their small business expertise: McGill is a home-based computer programmer while Kühn is a technical writer. "Our experiences helped greatly in setting up paper work and working out legal issues," McGill says.
Entrepreneurs may face skepticism about their ideas, too. Cherie Mondrella, whose three boys inspired her to become a preschool teacher, founded B4K Active Early Learning Programs last year to try to improve on her own school's curriculum. She had trouble convincing veteran teachers to embrace her unorthodox phonics curriculum, though, which uses active lessons such as letter bowling. Instead of being discouraged, she takes the opportunity to share her beliefs. She argues that some early childhood classrooms do not have enough hands-on activities. "Why are we sticking to the old ways?" Mondrella asks in a professional workshop for teachers.
Despite some criticism, she still feels her program is beneficial.
"All children learn better by doing," says Mondrella, who teaches the program at the Lockport and Lemont park districts and the 9th Street Fitness Center in Lockport. "I feel like I am making a huge difference."
Who said it'd be easy? Dodge also faced some obstacles when trying to sell her Undercover Breastfeeding Blanket. She had chosen black and gray-subtle, non-distracting colors-for the cotton blanket. This initially scared retailers, who are used to pastel pink and blue baby items. "I had to convince them it would sell," Dodge says. "I wanted it to look and feel like a T-shirt." Now, one of the blanket's buyers orders only black because it is that buyer's best seller, she says.
And just when Dodge's business was taking off in 2002, her husband's job required them to move from Monterey, Calif., to Arlington Heights. Dodge transplanted her family and her business to Illinois. The move actually boosted sales, she says. "It's more metropolitan here; there are more families and there are more shopping resources for mothers," she says.
None of it is easy because a great idea even mixed with a lot of perseverance, will not pay the bills. Karen Kuhn and her sister borrowed money to get started. Because of their inexperience, they paid some unnecessary fees. Inventors can register online for a provisional patent. The process costs about $200, but they hired a lawyer to do it. "We didn't know that initially, and we threw away about $3,000." A final patent or trademark can cost thousands of dollars, plus supplies, manufacturing, insurance and, in some cases, payroll and rent.
McGill advises aspiring entrepreneurs to hook up with someone they trust, like the Hopscotch Kids trio of owners did. "I would not have done this by myself," she says. When Karen Kuhn and her twin, who lives in suburban Detroit, invented the NoThrow, they signed a contract splitting the business. "Nine to five, we are business partners," she says. "Personal and ‘sister' issues are never allowed to interfere."
Being flexible, creative and determined are characteristics of not only a good business owner, but also of a good parent, McCarthy says. Raising a child and nurturing a new business require common skills that parents develop. "Having a child teaches you to let go, trust and allow mistakes," she says.
For example, Mondrella says she never let her sons use children's scissors before she began teaching-she was afraid they would cut themselves. "But now I know that it is important in the development of fine motor skills," she says. Before her three boys were born, Mondrella worked on a database of frequent Hyatt hotel customers. Now, her priorities have changed. "People do a self-evaluation after they have children," she says. "It clarifies your perspective of the world."
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