Meet the Mompreneurs
Kid-inspired creations are turning a profit for parents with patents
Many an expectant mother has embarked excitedly on her first expedition to a baby-gear emporium only to break out in a sweat at the overwhelming array of must-have products. Blinded by brightly colored plastic, dazed by dozens of strollers and high chairs and cribs, she would be excused for running from the store and hoping for hand-me-downs. Fast forward just a few months, though, and the same mom can be found expounding on the design flaws of her stroller, wishing her diaper bag had a couple more pockets and surfing the Internet for the latest and greatest gear. And if she doesn't find what she's looking for? Maybe she'll make it herself--and make a fortune while she's at it.
Mompreneurs, as they have come to be known, have created an endless variety of kid-inspired products--motherhood, apparently, being the mother of invention. Cynthia Drasler, of Phoenix, Ariz., came up with Organic Excellence hair- and skin-care products because her daughter's skin was too sensitive for most products already on the market.
Narmin Parpia designed Potty Scotty, an anatomically correct male doll that pees water, after struggling to find toilet-training aids for her two sons. Julie Dix was inspired to create Taggies, a line of tactile blankets and books, when she noticed that her toddler son often preferred playing with the tags on his toys to the toys themselves. And Denise Marshall cooked up the Mac & Cool, a bowl that instantly cools a toddler's food, when she got tired of hearing her first child, Scott, shriek impatiently for his meal to be ready.
Most of those women had no idea how to write a business plan, secure funding, find manufacturers or market their wares at a trade show. Many had taken a break from another career, intending to stay home for a while and work just one demanding job--that of mom. But a passion for their products and the realization that others wanted them too led the women to embrace the risks of starting a small business. Along the way, many say, they have found the perfect answer to combining parenthood with an engaging career.
No one has hard figures on the growth of mompreneurs, but they are clearly part of a larger trend of female entrepreneurship. According to a study by the nonprofit Center for Women's Business Research, women are starting new businesses at twice the rate of men and own a 50% or greater stake in 10.6 million U.S. businesses. Organizations and websites have sprung up to serve the women behind these enterprises. Ladies Who Launch, an online, women's-only networking group, offers live workshops to its 25,000 members--40% of whom are moms. Authors Patricia Cobe and Ellen Parlapiano dispense advice and provide message boards on a website specifically directed at mompreneurs--a term they coined to describe moms running home businesses and, in the entrepreneurial spirit, have trademarked. Mompreneursonline.com attracts 7 million visitors a month, they say.
Technology and changing attitudes have made it easier to create home-based businesses, says Victoria Colligan, founder of Ladies Who Launch. "We can have our BlackBerrys and be waiting in line to pick up our child at school. We can respond to an e-mail at 2 a.m., and that's acceptable," she says. "You're taken seriously now if you have a work-from-home business."
And you can make serious money. In 2003, her first year in business, Jennifer Fleece sold $5,000 worth of her fleece--yes, she has the same last name as her fabric--crib sheets. The figure was $30,000 last year. She projects sales of $400,000 this year and has just hired a national sales team. Dads are also getting in on the act. Mike Gatten projects up to $3 million in sales this year for his Miracle Blanket, designed in desperation to calm a colicky infant. Rosie Herman, of Tomball, Texas, worked 15 years as a manicurist before giving birth to twin girls and then noticing that the tasks of motherhood were drying out her hands (imagine changing a dozen diapers a day). She cooked up an exfoliating, moisturizing formula in her kitchen, then juggled eight credit cards and even resorted to bartering to get her One Minute Manicure business off the ground. Back in 1999, a neighbor who owned a computer would place orders and print invoices for Herman and get home-cooked meals in return. Since then, Herman has sold $20 million worth of products, hired a staff of 25 and bought a few computers for herself.
Nowadays, a person with a parenting-inspired business concept doesn't have to take on the kind of start-up risks that Herman did. A mom-run business called Parents of Invention will take the idea, handle all the details of bringing a new product to market and give the inventors between 3% and 5% of the royalties. Los Angeles--based CEO Laine Caspi, who invented a baby carrier, receives about 200 ideas each month and has so far made 10 of them a reality. Projected sales this year: $1.5 million.
Nan Langowitz, director of the Center for Women's Leadership at Babson College, says one of the reasons for the success and growth of women-owned businesses is the focus on client satisfaction. "It's not that they don't care about financial performance, because they do," she says. "But focusing on customer satisfaction is a big driver." Stephanie Allen, whose Dream Dinners company grew out of a monthly date with a friend to cook and freeze nutritious meals for their families, says she receives 400 requests a week for a franchise application. She's sold only 76 because, she explains, she weeds out people who are in it just for the money: "We want people who are committed to the community, to helping moms get a healthy dinner on the table."
Jill Morgan quit her job as a software engineer at Motorola to stay at home with her three kids and started a publishing company purely to satisfy small customers. Fond memories of Mr. Pine's Purple House, her very favorite book as a child, had driven her to eBay, where she was shocked to find a single used copy selling for $300. "I could buy it for my children, but I couldn't let them hold it," she says. So Morgan founded Purple House Press and set about acquiring the rights to republish out-of-print children's classics, such as the Mad Scientists' Clubseries. Mr. Pine's Purple House was released in the fall of 2000, along with two other books, and by June 2003, the company was doing well enough for her husband to quit his job and for the whole family to move from Texas to their dream home, on a farm in Kentucky.
But Morgan has only 25 titles in publication and doesn't plan a major expansion. Ladies Who Launch's Colligan says mothers often tell her they don't want their businesses to grow too fast. "Men would want it to be a $10 million company tomorrow," she says. "Moms have small children. They want to be with them. A steady pace is fine with them right now."
Reese Li couldn't agree more. A former Army officer who longed for a diaper bag with as many pockets as her trusty military knapsack, she decided to make one. Then she sold one on eBay. After hand sewing 500 bags, she decided last year to find a manufacturer and sell wholesale to baby boutiques. She garnered celebrity clients like Cate Blanchett, Gwyneth Paltrow and Courteney Cox, and she projects $100,000 in sales this year. "I seriously don't want it to get too large," she says. "I always wanted to be a stay-at-home mom. I didn't want to go back to work and travel all over the place."
Li, 32, describes being a mompreneur as a juggling act with different kinds of balls. "Some, like family, are glass balls that will break if dropped," she says. "Others, like work, are rubber and will bounce back up. I just try to juggle as best I can and make sure I don't drop any of the glass balls." Although she puts in up to 30 hours a week running Reese Li Baby, Li still has time to volunteer at school, chaperone field trips and gossip with other moms at the playground. "I've learned that I can't be superwoman, so we eat more take-out dinners and the laundry piles up." But laundry, she points out, "is not a glass ball." --With reporting by Cathy Booth Thomas/Dallas
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