Sonal Gerten: Making a Business of Being Playful

KFP_6974_v2 (1)Over the sound of her baby’s gurgles and giddy shrieks, Sonal Gerten acknowledges she never expected to be an entrepreneur. Even today, three years into her Indian-inspired, vibrant play-friendly kids’ clothing line, the Pittsburgh native and mother-of-two is surprised at how far she’s come. “I’m risk averse and not adventurous by nature, so starting my own business was not something I remotely considered …  Even today, it still feels very overwhelming to call myself an entrepreneur,” she laughs.

So, how did she end up here? At the start of her career, Gerten had two great passions: marketing, which tapped into her creative side, and education, which fulfilled her love of working with and improving the lives of children. A graduate of Johns Hopkins who had tutored young children during and after college, Gerten initially followed the education path and moved to Arizona where she was involved in the establishment of charter schools. From there, she went to Los Angeles to do an MBA at UCLA. Specializing in marketing, Gerten lent her skills over the summer to Head Start, the early childhood education program, “I loved contributing to their work. The fact that I was applying my business school skills to helping children was a great motivator for me.”

The experience was so fulfilling in fact that she found herself at a crossroads after graduation, still torn between marketing and education. But love stepped in to offer some guidance, and Gerten followed her now husband, Allen, to Minneapolis where they both took up positions at General Mills. Working as a marketing manager for three years, Gerten learned the nuts and bolts of the business, but felt something was missing.

She welcomed a second chance to return to the education field when an opportunity popped up to work for Teach for America managing a team that focused on recruitment partnerships. “It felt like I was making a big leap from corporate America to non-profit, not only a different career trajectory but a financial one too. But it seemed like the right opportunity at the right time, especially working with an organization that aims to close the achievement gap.”

While Gerten loved her time at Teach for America, she found that period of her life challenging. “I had my son, Deven, then and found it increasingly difficult to be ‘in the moment’. I was so wrapped up in work and thinking about the future and then this little person came along who taught me how to be playful again.” Her new role of mother provided lots of food for thought about her lifestyle and more generally how to “let go” more in the parent-child interaction, she wondered if there was an opportunity there somewhere.

The busy new mom started looking into ways to integrate spontaneous play into family life and, driven by her interest in education, did some research on the benefits of unstructured play. As her own mindset about having a more open and playful parenting style evolved, Gerten had her eureka moment while out shopping for baby clothes one day. She found the clothes so dull and traditional and couldn’t find any organic fabrics or unique designs. “It was kind of disappointing. Shopping for clothes adds to the fun quotient of having a small baby and I couldn’t find anything that I loved. Organic clothes that would let my son crawl and move around unhindered. I knew there was a niche there, I just needed some time to figure it out.”

In the last year of the three she spent with Teach for America, Gerten mulled over the idea of starting an eco- and child-friendly clothing line. She held back and forth conversations with herself and discussed her idea at length with her husband, friends and even colleagues.

Her ideas and vision came together slowly. “I wanted to merge the concept of a clothing business with unrestricted playfulness. The clothes should facilitate movement and freedom, be comfortable, organic, colorful and easy to wash.”

She found a creative designer, a friend of a friend, who helped visualize her thoughts. She hired a graphic designer to create the logo and branding elements, but mostly she turned to people she trusted. “One of the best things I ever did was to enlist my family and friends. For my first kick off meeting, I invited my ten closest friends for Indian food and a brainstorming session. It served as a way for others to get invested and for me to get inspired and motivated but more importantly it made me feel accountable … I had a deadline to work towards.” Assembling a bunch of magazines, they talked about the name and vision of living in the moment and celebrating the joys of parenthood.

And so Tumblewalla  (Hindi for “the one who tumbles”) was born.

Hedgehog_revisedThe feedback from her friends was so positive, it gave her the confidence she needed to move forward. “That was the springboard. I thought, ‘OK, I’m going to do this. I can do this.’” Gerten recalls.

Within a few months, then 34-year-old Gerten left Teach for America to focus 100% on the business. Despite claiming to be risk adverse, the decision was not an uncomplicated one: “You know, it’s so easy to get comfortable. If we don’t challenge ourselves, we never know what our potential is. I don’t want to have that regret. I finally got comfortable with the idea that if I failed, it would be OK. It gave me the freedom to say, ‘I can do this now. What’s the worse than can happen?’”

After six months working on Tumblewalla, Gerten was taken aback by how much capital and time was needed. Having invested her own money and taken bank loans, she decided to return to the job market to bring in more funds. She took a marketing position at Activision, a video-game firm, figuring she could work on her clothing line at night, but after one year she realized the impossibility of the situation. “I had ordered my first inventory from India but quickly saw I didn’t have the capacity to build my fan base, call on boutiques, or go to events. So all my inventory was literally sitting in my basement. I just had time to maintain the website and answer emails but I was clearly not moving forward.”

Becoming increasingly frustrated, Gerten finally understood that if Tumblewalla was going to succeed as a business she would have to devote herself 100%. “Starting a business is so challenging. I understand why I did things the way I did and to some extent I’m even glad. It’s like dipping your toe in the water to make sure the temperature is right and this is what you really want to do. But there is no way I could have gotten to the point where I am today if I was still working. If I was ready before, after one year of holding down a full-time job and trying to run my business, I knew I was really, really ready,” she laughs.

Gerten worked out of her home in the beginning but as the inventory took over the house and the line between work and family time became blurred, she decided to rent a space in Minneapolis’ art district with some other artists. Now she works with a Minneapolis-based designer and hires interns from the Apparel Design program at the University of Minnesota. It works so well that Gerten hired her first intern as her creative manager and right-hand help. “Working with interns has been a great asset and wonderful discovery. They bring passion and fresh perspective. They are very familiar with the industry and even teach me about new stiches, cuts, and trends. We are building this business together.”

Sonal Gerten -- Amelie2
Here’s a sneak peak from Tumblewalla’s new Fall collection which features more traditional Indian-inspired prints and recalls the flavors of an Indian bazaar … paprika, nutmeg, mango.

And she has been resourceful in growing the business in other ways too. Last Fall, she reached out to MoolaHoop, a crowdfunding platform by and for women, to help produce her Spring line which had to be pre-ordered and paid for before it was sold. Moolahoop were great in coaching her through the process, and Gerten not only exceeded her $9000 funding goal but also got the word out about her business.

The design-for-play Tumblewalla is not just about creating joyful clothing for kids. Gerten and her team work with non-profit partners to eradicate what they call “the play deficit” globally, 5% of sales goes directly to these projects. They also develop free parent resources and offer easy playtime activities and tips for parents. This includes workshops on why play is critical to a baby’s growth and development. And the company is committed to sustainability. Gerten sources her organic cotton-based materials from a supplier in India and works only with small manufacturers to produce the garments. Her family in India found an intermediary who serves as Tumblewalla’s advocate. This woman ensures all suppliers meet high the company’s standards in terms of quality and employee working conditions. “There’s been a lot of trial and error, but I think we finally got it right,” Gerten admits.

Three years in and Tumblewalla continues to blossom. Orders and sales are increasing each season and while there is always more she wants to achieve, Gerten acknowledges she feels excited “about what we’ve accomplished so far. I say ‘We’ because it’s not just me. We are a team. I might be the one carrying the risk but together we carry the business.”

Sonal Gerten’s Tips to Starting Your Own Business:

  • Understand your strengths but more importantly your weaknesses and find people to fill that gap. Enlist people who can offer good ideas because you’ll never have all the answers
  • Be prepared for the highs and lows. They are so much more extreme than in the corporate world because they are personal.
  • You are going to make mistakes, there are never enough hours in the day. You need to know where your priorities are. Don’t forget your family. You will regret the cost in the long run. You don’t have to run on a treadmill and work yourself crazy to be successful.

Have we tickled your fancy? Check out Tumblewalla’s Fall catalog.

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