The Highs and Lows of Launching a Business

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Former teacher Whitney Reeves is the co-founder of Bitzy Baby,  a juvenile safety product company with a mission to instill confidence in parents that when their babies are put to bed they’ll sleep safely. Bitzy Baby’s signature product offers a solution for parents seeking a safe alternative to the traditional crib bumper. Reeves reflects on her experiences of starting a new business. 

You’re Never Ready

“You’re never ready” is something I heard a lot before my husband, Seabren, and I had children of our own. It’s a phrase I also said as a former Bitzy Baby Cribelementary teacher to parents as their children went off to the next grade. And it’s what I say to anyone with an idea that they are passionate enough to explore further. And yet, that phrase is a reminder of how “never being ready” means be brave anyway! Have the courage to jump in because you learn more from experience than anything else and because no one else has the exact same experiences as you. You’re the only perfect fit for that next adventure!

The Birth of Bitzy

I have a rare genetic gene that made my pregnancies high risk and, facing our infant’s potential fragility, we wanted the safest environment possible. It was during this time that the idea of Bitzy began. Safe sleeping shouldn’t be complicated. As a problem solver and believer in figuring out what you don’t understand, I felt compelled to do what I taught my students every day: be brave and try. After analyzing all the critical features needed for a safe sleeping environment, I designed the crib bumper solution. A product that provides not only modern, collapsible and preventative features but also creates a cushioned, breathable environment essential for infants sleeping up to 16 hrs/day.  What began for Seabren and I as a product has transformed into a mission advocating for the safe sleeping of all infants.

When you’re an entrepreneur, there are moments when you’re deciding if the best choice this week is to allocate this week’s grocery budget and scour your shelves for meals so you can utilize those funds for your start up.

Recognizing a NEED

Bitzy Baby Nursery RoomAs consumers and producers, we don’t make a purchase without an emotional connection. It may be the specific scent of a shampoo, the texture of a shirt, or the desire to be part of a group of consumers. And that is often the exact reason why entrepreneurs create something. Because they ARE the consumer wanting what isn’t available yet. As parents of a newborn, with busy careers and a new home, we were expected to do the traditional thing and settle down. But Seabren and I aren’t the conventional type so we took on the birth of an additional “baby” and launched a company.

A Supportive Cofounder Does Matter

My husband and I are opposites but our differences make for a perfect fit in our business relationship. Unlike most start-ups, we’re able to pause to focus on our family time and then dive into projects after our boys’ bedtime until the wee hours of the morning. Our “meetings” consist of nachos, dreaming big, finalizing priorities, and winding down with a favorite rerun to cap off the night.

Because we’re opposites, Seabren knows not to speak only in numbers and I don’t need to explain why I chose a specific color or graphic. We respect our different areas of expertise and challenge ourselves rather than each other and, because of that, we are the perfect cofounders. And although we’re opposites, we’re both dreamers and doers, so it’s key that we support each other in our strengths but, more importantly, our weaknesses.

Start-up Goals Outweigh Challenges

There is no manual! You’re signing up to start something that will require some creativity to make it a reality. You’ve got to have a passion that’s rooted in something so much more. When you’re an entrepreneur, there are moments when you’re deciding if the best choice this week is to allocate this week’s grocery budget and scour your shelves for meals so you can utilize those funds for your start up. It’s in those moments that you have to feel passion for what you are doing rather than simply wanting to produce something or make money.

Whitney Reeves Bitzy Baby with a Crib on the Beach

Three Invaluable Words: Focus, Framework & Finance

As someone with a newborn infant diagnosed with a rare genetic disease, in the throes of renovating an old home and starting a new company, there are three important words I have always kept in mind: finance, focus, and framework.

No matter what you are balancing at home, launching a startup takes guts and it’s tough to find the financial resources to make it a reality. You have to make sacrifices. Every day, you must focus on your business and carve time out, trading sleep for extra coffee. But developing the right framework for converting your idea into a business will make things easier and that requires planning. You must become an expert in your field.

Overall, you have to recognize your success is based on your strengths and weaknesses. Establishing a support network that helps you succeed, finding creative financial resources, and having the drive to continue when things become challenging are ingredients for creating your perfect career 2.0.

Lucinda Snyder: Finding Solace in Sewing

Luc044Lucinda Snyder imagined she’d lead the life of an academic. With two Master’s Degrees, a job at Rochester Institute of Technology, and plans for a PhD in political science, she was pretty well on the right track. But life had other plans for her, and while the road has been extremely painful at times, she feels certain that she is now exactly where she is supposed to be.

Snyder comes from a long line of doctors – four generations to be exact. She was good in school and grades came easily but medicine didn’t call to her. Some of her college professors suggested she would make a good professor herself, so she opted for that route.

But when Snyder’s contract at RIT was up, she felt like she was ready for a change. She was an avid knitter at a time when the knitting trend was heating up, and Snyder made the difficult decision to indulge her creative side and open a yarn shop. She knew it was a risk, but also figured that she could go back to the academic life later if necessary. The business endured for three years, but in 2006 Snyder decided that it no longer made financial sense to keep the store going, especially as she was getting married and planning to start a family.

On November 27, 2008, Thanksgiving Day, Snyder’s son Cooper was born. Unbeknownst to Snyder and her husband before his birth, Cooper had a IMG_0287congenital heart defect, sometimes referred to as a hole in the heart.

“In terms of heart defects, it’s really not a big deal,” Snyder explains. “It’s normally an easy repair. He had surgery when he was three weeks old. But we were in that one or two or three percent they talk about. He survived the surgery, but the following morning he went into cardiac arrest and died shortly thereafter.”

Snyder found herself desperate for a way to channel her grief after Cooper’s death. “Knitting didn’t do it anymore. I needed something that challenged my mind and gave me something to focus on. I started looking at fabric and was really drawn to color and design.” She thought she might try to make a quilt. But she didn’t know how to sew.

“I borrowed a friend’s sewing machine, took a class at JoAnn Fabrics and basically taught myself how to sew.” From there she started making and selling her creations, both quilts and other handmade items, usually on Etsy or at craft shows. She also wanted to have another baby. “The sewing kept me from obsessing on that topic as well,” she laughs. In 2010 her second child was born, and in 2011 she made the decision to turn what had been a hobby into a real business, or, as she puts it, “I decided to become legitimate.”

lucEnds-May2014-051And so her line of handmade fabric goods – called Lucends – made the leap from hobby to business.

“I wanted something that was exclusively mine. I got tired of going to craft shows and three booths down somebody would have the same fabric as me.” She started exploring ways to change that. “Now, the fabric that I use, nobody else has.” She works with a surface designer to achieve this. “Every season we brainstorm, look at trends, color palettes, see what’s on the fashion design radar. Once we nail it down we use a company called Spoonflower in NC. They digitally print fabric on demand, so I have my fabric printed as I need it. I’m not committing to thousands of yards of fabric not knowing what’s going to sell.” This spring she’ll debut her 4th fabric collection. She uses these fabrics to make a variety of handmade items, including handbags, scarves, pillows, and custom-made quilts.

Snyder probably could have found work at an established design firm, but that wasn’t for her.  “There are big fabric companies that take on designers and produce their fabrics and sell it mainstream, but that’s not really my mission. At this point, every single thing has been done by me. I create every piece that I sell, and that’s important.”

Snyder is surprised at how many people she met and connected with through her business. “Do I have a great product? Yes. But I also think it’s my story DSC_0148that a lot of people can connect to, and feel like they’re part of my journey.”

“I see this business as Cooper’s gift to me. And so it’s very important for me to stay connected to that. It continues to help heal me and gives me motivation to move forward. I think this is how it was supposed to play out for me.”

When asked what research she did before starting her business, Snyder laughs. “Absolutely none. I just jumped. I just did it. I was lucky because I didn’t need to make money to pay the bills, so I could just grow and experiment and see what worked and what didn’t work. I guess that was my research – I knew enough to know that I needed to build the brand, to have an identity, and the rest would fall into place.”

“I joke that 2015 is going to be the Year of my Empire. I have this vision of where I want to go and this empire I want to build for Lucends. This year is the first year that I’ve taken what I’ve learned and gotten my ego out of the way to say okay, these are the things that sell, and these are the things I’m going to make. It’s trial and error. And my gut. I rely on my gut a lot.”

lucEnds-May2014-074It seems to be working. Her sales have doubled every year, though they gotten high enough now that it’s very unlikely they’ll continue to double.

As far as advice for other women considering a career change, the 41-year-old Snyder says simply, “I think you just have to go for it. If it’s on your mind all the time, then that’s what you need to do. I think a lot of people are afraid to take the risk. It is risky. But if it’s something you love and are passionate about, do it. We can be so fearful of change. We think, what if I fail? Well, what if you do? You’re not going to die from it. So you fail, you get up and start something different, or you try again. There isn’t any reward for not trying.”

Samantha Razook Murphy: Creating a Movement from a Summer Camp

Beth_Samantha_Melisa_SillyThey say that necessity is the mother of invention, and no one knows better than Samantha Razook Murphy.

Running a residential summer camp for teens, far from family and friends, this creative mom launched her own day camp for young girls to occupy her daughters while she worked round the clock. With a focus on hands-on science and project-based fun, Curious Jane was an immediate success and has evolved today into a highly successful camp, after-school, and community-events business aiming to empower girls to solve problems and experiment in unexplored subjects.

“We take a STEM approach but it’s also creative. Really my goal with the girls is to remove fear of failure as they tend to have greater internal and external pressure to get something right. I want girls to fail. I want them to see it’s totally fine and they can learn from it. I want them to use their hands, look at the world in a different way, open the kitchen drawer and see tools and resources for their creativity, and, best of all, know they can do it themselves,” she explains with enthusiasm.

A native of Atlanta, Georgia, Razook Murphy always did well at school. Academics were a top priority, and she didn’t disappoint when going to Yale. But her choice of major – graphic design – at an ivy league school was non-traditional. Graduating a year early, Razook Murphy moved home and did some work in the field only to discover it wasn’t really her thing.

She married young, at 23, to an entrepreneur who was building a computer camp business in which she was very involved. But the day after her honeymoon, the newly pregnant Razook Murphy was initiated into the very grown-up world of financial strain and endless worry: “My husband, Doug, was in a very serious car accident. He survived but the recovery process took a year. The business went into Chapter 7 bankruptcy. We were wiped out and basically had nothing.”

With her options limited, Razook Murphy felt her best shot was to retrain and – thanks to her parent’s support – she returned to school to get a Masters in industrial design. With their one-year-old daughter and not much else in tow, the couple moved to Brooklyn, NY, where she started studying at The Pratt Institute and Doug began to rebuild his business. “It was pretty tough going. We were lucky enough to have a lovely older woman across the street who looked after Eleanor while I studied and worked on Doug’s business. We had to take a lot of loans and drained our financial resources, but we managed.”

With her degree in hand and another baby joining the family, Razook Murphy ramped up her involvement in the business. While this was the family’s main bread and butter, she still found time to teach at Pratt and do some industrial design freelance projects.

Fast forward a few years and with the recession going strong, Razook Murphy and her husband needed to get a little more creative about making money in order to stay in their increasingly expensive Brooklyn neighborhood. The plan was to establish a new overnight program – Blue Tree Camp – for teenage girls on the Bryn Mawr campus outside Philadelphia that Razook Murphy would run while her husband remained in Brooklyn.

But what about her daughters? What to do with them while she worked?

LivvyGrace_Samantha_Eleanor_Sitting
With her daughters Livvy Grace and Eleanor

“I didn’t have anything in my mind. I was in pure panic mode. I was only thinking, ‘We have to be able to pay the rent so we’re going to call Bryn Mawr and rent space there to run a teen girls’ summer camp. Maybe I can set up a day camp on the side for younger girls where I can put Eleanor and Livvy Grace while we work and work and work. Curious Jane is a fun name. Yeah, let’s go with that.’ It was as simple as that,” she laughs.

And so Curious Jane was launched purely out of necessity, as so many service-oriented business are.

Before taking it to Bryn Mawr campus later in the summer, Razook Murphy rented some space in Brooklyn, signed up a few of her friends, and got started. “We ran a few weeks of Curious Jane in early summer then I packed up my kids, packed my stuff, moved to Bryn Mawr, lived in the dorms for six weeks, ran Curious Jane there and then ran the teen overnight program,” she recounts breathlessly.

Starting small, Razook Murphy hired one teacher and did everything else herself, from driving the camp van to designing the classes, all the while being responsible for Blue Tree. She created an umbrella entity, Girls Dream Out Loud, to house Blue Tree and Curious Jane. “So I won’t lie, it was incredibly stressful that first summer. My kids were there, other kids were there. I look back on it and it creates panic in my stomach. But you put one foot in front of the other and just keep going.”

The following summer, she saw the pay-off. While the Bryn Mawr Curious Jane camp remained small with the focus being on the teen Blue Tree program, the1973956_10151955129636516_1973352057_o Brooklyn camp took off. “We went from 78 camper weeks in 2009 to 520 one year later … 700% growth! What happened was that the girls came, they loved it, their moms loved it and we had an audience.”

And who wouldn’t love classes with names like Guerilla Art, Spa Science, and Gadgets + Gears. You can even learn how to create your own graphic novel or made quiz boards with conductive paint in Wired 101.

Growth came mostly through word of mouth and there was a huge response from the community. Within another summer, Curious Jane opened a Manhattan location and today offers its camps in eight locations.

While it initially subsidized Curious Jane, after six years the Blue Tree teen residential camp has run its course and this summer was its last. “Basically Curious Jane proved to be the much stronger brand. It was able to support itself. It’s unique in that it’s all girls and based on themes like toy design or electronics. These 6-11 year olds are so jazzed to be in the classroom working on their projects because the staff is just so awesome. Curious Jane’s approach has attracted the most phenomenal young women as staff members. It’s a very collaborative and inspiring environment,” Razook Murphy explains.

Curious Jane got a big boost in 2014 when it won a generous small-business grant as part of a nation-wide competition. “It was tremendous! There were CJ_Mag_Cover_BlackOutlinesome debts that needed to be cleared but most importantly we were able to engage a business development group. We’d always grown organically and didn’t have a strict game plan. Frankly we were a little all over the place and they helped us narrow the areas we wanted to move into, to lay a path should we wish to pursue additional funding. We also secured a new office space which allowed us to accommodate more staff and supplies and therefore do more outside of the office. And finally we launched a magazine for cool creative girls. It’s advertising free, full of fun stuff to create, and just awesome!”

And how does she feel now from those heady camp days in 2009? “I’m thrilled, I love waking up every single morning and coming to do what I do. That’s an enormous blessing. I love the people I collaborate with and the fact that I do something good for girls, especially my own girls. They can see a role model, a strong confident woman. Success for me has been being able to grow and develop resources at every state, and frankly to have developed a little bit of grit. People respond so positively to Curious Jane and I get to make a living from that. How great is that?”

Tips from Samantha Razook Murphy

  • Don’t let fear of failure hold you back.
  • Connect strongly with your first customers, value them, learn from them, serve them, they are by far your best tool in growing your business.
  • Mind your time and your energy — throw yourself in but take a moment to step back
  • Reach out for feedback — it’s scary but critical
  • Put one foot in front of the other
  • Remember that “balance” has no momentum… chaos does. Get comfortable with that, use it!

Rebecca Klemm: Counting Her Way to Entrepreneurship

Rebecca KlemmWe all know that the Statue of Liberty was a gift from France and that Lady Liberty carries a torch, right? But quick, can you tell us how many spokes the crown has, and what that number represents?

This might be a simple one… the answer is seven, representing the seven seas and seven continents. The single torch represents unity. The date on the book is the birthdate of the United States. So collectively, the symbols tell the story of people from all around the world coming together to the United States – immigration. But this is just one of many stories that Dr. Rebecca Klemm gets excited about telling children and adults as part of NumbersAlive!, a small business she started quite by accident in 2011 at the age of 61.

Forty years prior, Dr. Klemm was a junior in college preparing to teach math. She secured a position teaching 9th grade while still in her final year as an undergraduate. At the end of that year, she was admitted to the PhD program in Statistics at Iowa State University. (more…)

Susan Fletcher: From Writing Algorithms to Nurturing Absorbent Minds

tophatHow would personality-typecaster Briggs-Meyer classify a problem-solving, puzzle-loving woman who spent 20 years in computer programming only to leave the sector in her early 50s to open a Montessori childcare center? Is there a personality that combines being analytical, systematic, and detail-oriented with a sensitive, spontaneous and playful side? If so, then Susan Fletcher surely would fit that bill.

“I loved working in IT but I’ve gone from logical and impersonal to warm and intensely personal. I get such a kick out of watching the children learn and grow. It’s not just about reading and writing. Little kids are learning to put their dishes away when they are finished eating. They are learning about nature, geography and art. I had to smile the other day when the mother of a 3-year-old told me the response she got to ‘How was school?’ was ‘Great! We painted Starry Night by Van Gogh.’ We are accomplishing what I want. The parents are seeing it and they are excited by it.”

Fletcher’s career in IT got off to an early start. In the 9th grade, she joined her father after school in his lab at a hospital where she programed a new computer they had just purchased. “Keep in mind this was the 1970s so I’m talking the early days of computing. I would sit and write programs to teach the computer to draw graphs. I just loved it, it was so much fun.” Fletcher’s path was clear and she went on to study computer science and mathematics at DePauw University in Indiana.

She married and, joining her then-husband in Washington DC where he was studying law, Fletcher took a position with government contractor SYSCON developing custom applications for the Navy for five years. “I found out recently they are still using one of the systems we wrote in 1986. I don’t know what that says about the Navy, but for me it was kind of exciting to hear I wrote something they are using today,” she laughs.

Fletcher took a two-year “break” to have kids while doing Masters course-work in computer science from the University of Virginia. From there, the family moved to San Antonio, Texas, where she developed software applications for a variety of mid-sized telecoms, hospitality, and retail businesses. Moving again in support of her husband’s career – this time to Atlanta, Georgia – Fletcher briefly stopped working until her marriage came apart and her husband relocated to Hong Kong following their divorce. “It was tough. I was working as a systems analyst for a large agriculture cooperative and the kids were only 4 and 7 years.

With parents living in DC, Fletcher decided to return to the nation’s capital and look for work. She landed a position with USA Today supporting advertising department applications and, after three years, moved over to the Bureau of National Affairs (today known as Bloomberg BNA) building websites and managing content delivery. Seeking more seniority and a supervisory role, the ambitious Fletcher did an MBA at the University of Maryland while working fulltime.

Anthony Susan at Malia's weddingThe new degree paid off and Fletcher signed on as VP Operations for a small publishing company. It was all going swimmingly until the market crash in 2008 and the 44-year-old mother-of-two-bound-for college found herself unexpectedly laid off. After six months, she joined the Federal Trade Commission as an IT project manager but it was a morale-breaking three-year stint. “All the fun of solving puzzles and writing software that people would use was gone. There was lots of politics, a lot of hand-holding, making sure people were doing their job. It was frustrating. My life had changed. I had gotten remarried and the kids were gone. I wanted to do something more personal, feel again like I was contributing more.”

Searching around for inspiration, Fletcher thought back to earlier days when her boys had attended a Montessori, an experience she loved. But as a busy single mom it has been difficult to juggle before- and after-care, and the spring and summer camps that were always needed while she worked. “I thought if I had wanted the best experience for my children during the day – with stimulating activities and a warm and supportive environment – and without interruption during summer and other breaks then of course others would too. I wanted to have a Montessori like the original founder intended as true childcare facility supporting working families from drop off in the morning to pick up in the evening. Just because you have to work fulltime, you shouldn’t have to accept a lower quality program.”

Fletcher hit the ground running. She did a lot of research on childcare licensing and regulations, and started looking for locations. She finally got to a point where a decision had to be made, one way or the other: “It seemed like the right time. I found a commercial realtor and partnered with a Montessori teacher. But then the hard work began as Maryland has very specific staffing and facility requirements. Ideally I would have bought land and built a school but the cost was prohibitive at $2–3 million. At one point, I almost gave up because I found the perfect location but then ran into zoning issues and had to abandon the process.”

But she persisted and using personal savings, a home equity line of credit, and a loan from her parents, Fletcher signed the lease on an old gym in Gaithersburg, Maryland. While construction got underway, she began recruiting Montessori-certified teachers as state licensing rules require having sufficient staff on hand (1.5 teachers to every child for a 12-hour day). Fletcher kept working at the FTC until the summer before Top Hat Montessori opened in 2012 and since then has been onsite except when out taking courses on child development, curriculum and planning, emergency preparedness, and childcare administration to name just a few. “There’s a lot of training involved,” she emphasizes.

“For my mid-life crisis, instead of buying a sports car, I opened a school. It’s been difficult and I’ve made some expensive mistakes. Even with an MBA, I don’t know anything about running an early childhood education business so I have struggled with staffing, navigating the complex regulations and licensing requirements, and marketing to young parents. In hindsight, I realize I was naïve, but I absolutely love it. It is fulfilling in a way that my IT career never was. Even knowing how hard it’s been, and how little I knew when I started, I am really grateful that I have had this opportunity.”

 

Tips from Susan Fletcher:

  • Be prepared but accept that no matter how many people you talk to, no matter how much you read and how many classes you go to, there are just some things you learn from being in an industry for a while.
  • Use a business consultant from the very beginning if possible. I worked with a childcare specialist to help me turn things around recently but her help would have been even more valuable from the get-go.
  • It’s never too late for a second career. Feeling passionate about my work is rewarding, and makes all the problems seem worth while.

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.