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.

Babou Olengha Aaby: Building a Crowdfunding Business around her Authentic Self

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Babou Olengha-Aaby at Crowdsourcing Week Europe 2014. Courtesy of Sebastiaan ter Bur

Babou Olengha Aaby is convinced the biggest market opportunity lies not with India, China, or Brazil but rather women. But she wants to be clear on one thing: female entrepreneurship is not a gender issue, it’s an economic one. Women-owned businesses make for good business sense and smart economics: they start small, grow slowly, and fail less. And yet they attract only 1/3 of all venture capital. The Norwegian-based Olengha Aaby wants to change all that with her new crowdfunding platform specifically aimed at what she calls “mumpreneurs”.

“My big fat dream with Mums Mean Business is to provide all entrepreneurial mothers with a triple A service: access to finance, access to mentoring, and access to inspirational role models. Our goal is to provide aspiring mothers with start-up ambitions much-needed guidance in their critical first year of business to help get them to the next level.” (more…)

Alice Shepherd: When the Need to Create Triumphs

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“When the horse dies, get off.” Strange as it seems, those six words may have changed the course of Alice Shepherd’s life.

At the tender age of 19, Shepherd began her career in bookkeeping in Nashville, TN, where she was born and raised. It wasn’t long before she had worked her way up to a position in public accounting and also became a certified QuickBooks Pro advisor, leading classes and instructing others in the use of the accounting software. When asked why she chose accounting, Shepherd replies in her lilting Southern accent, “I was good at accounting, plain and simple. It didn’t have much to do with liking it or not liking it; it served me well.” (more…)

Kathleen Marinaccio: The Art of the Matter

KathleenThe old saying goes, those who can, do; those who can’t, teach. But that’s not quite the way it worked out for Kathleen Marinaccio who had a full and prosperous career as a corporate creative director before eventually opening her own art school. Not only was she ready to be the boss, but she was also drawn to the idea of encouraging others to entertain the idea of a career in the arts.

But it didn’t always look that way for Marinaccio. For as long as she can remember, she wanted to be a nurse. “My father had MS and I thought if I was a nurse I could cure him,” she says. Marinaccio would watch the nurses taking care of him then she would paint pictures of herself as a nurse, also taking care of her dad. “I have tons of pictures of me in all different scenes, making my Dad better.”

But when she was 12, her father died, and with that so did her dream of a career in medicine. But her love of art didn’t, and Marinaccio continued to paint from 12 on, expanding beyond the nursing pictures.photo (4)

Her focus on art continued through high school, and when she was considering college, Marinaccio’s high school art teacher encouraged her to apply to the renowned Pratt Institute in New York City.  Knowing she would have to bear the financial weight of college on her own, she applied for the Pratt Scholarship. Although she didn’t win, she placed 13th, still quite a feat, and enough to push the college to entice her to come with other grants.

So in 1987, when she was 18, she packed her bags for Brooklyn. “At that time, Brooklyn wasn’t the best place but I loved it.  And I decided early on to become a graphic designer. I knew I couldn’t paint the rest of my life and needed to make money.”

Her senior year at Pratt, she did an internship for NBC studios, a stint where she was producing ads for Emmy-nominated shows and logos for sports events.” She loved every minute of it. From NBC she jumped to Harper Collins the book publisher as a graphic designer.

It was not the pay or the job description that sealed the deal for her: “The woman who was interviewing me couldn’t find a pen to write notes, so after looking all over, she picked up a purple crayon – which happened to be attached to my coloring book resume – and took notes with that. I just thought that was so awesome and funny, and clearly there was some sort of chemistry because at the end of the interview she said you’re hired!”

It wasn’t just interview chemistry. The woman became a mentor to Marinacco, and the two struck up a lifelong friendship as a result. “She always wanted me to strive for the best and always try to do as much with art as I could. It’s hard to believe an art director I met almost 23 years ago is now one of my closest and dearest friends.”

Marinaccio stayed at Harper Collins for a year and a half when she moved to take a position as a junior designer at The Lotus Group, a NYC design firm. “I was just 23 at the time and was supposed to be out partying and doing real life stuff, but yeah, I wasn’t doing that. I was working.” Six months into her job at Lotus, she moved into the senior designer position, and then a few months after that she heard from a Pratt friend who was working with Marvel Comics that they were looking for a freelance graphic designer. Marinaccio had the skillset and the work sounded interesting so she took the position … as a night job.

It was a grueling schedule but she loved it … working three jobs (oh, did we fail to mention the weekly bartending gig?), doing what she loved for great companies. “I didn’t sleep and I worked a ton. I don’t know how I did it all but I just kept working and banking the money.” But at 25, she needed a break, just a vacation really. After meeting someone in a bar who lived in LA and extended her an invitation to visit, Marinacco decided a vacation was long overdue. Her boss agreed and even said, “you need a break. Take the trip, and I’ll pay for it.”

After a week in California, Marinaccio knew she had to move there. She loved the weather and the beach and the laid back lifestyle after seven non-stop years in New York City. “When I got back my boss said, oh my God, did I just pay for you to realize you want to leave your job here?”

Marinacco never had trouble landing jobs. Her work ethic preceded her and when she put the word out that she wanted to move to California, her colleagues at Marvel connected her with people at New World Entertainment (of Wonder Years fame) who were looking for a creative director.

With $6000 in her bank account, the 26-year old headed West.  New World eventually got sold to Fox, a move that led Marinacco to take her design skills in-house … literally. “I realized I really wanted to work for myself and I opened my own design firm, Fishbrain Graphic Design, out of a third bedroom in my house. From 1998 until 2010, Marinaccio ran her business, with her now husband, another refugee from NYC.

In 2010, it had been 12 years since Marinacco had “worked for the man” and when Warner Bros. came calling with the chance to takeover their Media Research design department, she jumped.  But it was that move that really brought it home for Marinacco, “When executives were banging their hands on the table in frustration during meetings, I realized I had been in the game too long.”

photo 1 (3)Those art teachers who had guided Marinaccio long ago must have been speaking to her subliminally because, one day at Warner Bros., it hit her – she had to open an art school.  “I wanted to teach all forms of art to all people. I had had a career already. I wanted to teach other people who liked art how to do it, how to practice it, and to get them to the point where they could have a great career in art if they wanted to.”

At first Marinaccio, started out of her house again, in the evenings and on the weekends. First one student, then three, then four. All of her students were people who had other jobs but wanted to be graphic designers – a challenge Marinaccio was well prepared to teach.

“I couldn’t wait to get home and help the students. It was like THIS – all of this has been for this moment right here. I would go to meetings and I would sketch my students’ projects and try to find solutions for them.”

Even though the writing was on the wall so to speak, it took one of her students to hammer the point home. “She came up to me and said, ‘you need to do this for real.’”

The next day while driving to work, a phrase popped into her mind: Reimagine, Enjoy, Aspire, and Learn. After work she told her husband she had come up with the acronym for the school: REAL. “My husband, who thinks most ideas are dumb just said, ‘brilliant’, and then of course, I said, ‘Shit, I don’t know anything about opening a school.’”

Over the next couple of months, Marinaccio networked like crazy. She reached out to funders, community leaders, teachers and more. Before she knew it she had 15 teachers saying they were willing to teach a class or more if she needed it and a commercial real estate location. She was on her way to raising $30K in crowdfunding through MoolaHoop, a crowdfunding source by and for women. With some money in the bank and her former student and now partner, Tina Cho, on board they launched REAL on March 19, 2014.

“I knew that if I didn’t try it, I would always regret it.”

It wasn’t easy but she kept moving forward. Her motto when she hit stumbling blocks was simply, “I gotta do it.”

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REAL’s 4th of July parade float

Today, REAL Creative Space occupies 1250 square feet in Los Angeles’ Westchester Triangle near LAX. REAL offers workshops and camps for adults and kids ages 5-18, that combine people’s current interests with their desire to learn art. A recent summer camp, MineCraft –ing, which focused on the popular game but combined the artist styles of Mondrian and Picasso was hugely successful. Marinaccio still works at Warner Bros., teaches at Otis College of Art & Design, but now also co-manages REAL and teaches Freelance 101, the graphic design class that launched this amazing art school.

She draws adults to the school with monthly couple’s art nights the 4th Saturday of every month. And importantly, in addition to inspiring others to pursue art, she is committed to donating a portion of all proceeds to rejuvenate art programs at the local schools. Open just since March, she’s already raised $1500 for local schools.

“Its not about us. Its about helping people learn art. I went from corporate to listening to my community, and this is exactly where I’m meant to be.”

Tips from Marinaccio

  • Always be learning. There is never a point in life where we know all the answers, challenge yourself to learn something new every day.
  • Be honest but be nice in the process. The best thing you can do for people is to tell them the truth, but please give criticism without being negative or mean. It’s important to let people know that you care about them and that your notes are meant to be helpful.
  • It’s never too late to try new things or change your life. Over the past 10 years, my students have taught me that if you are not happy it’s OK to make a change. Thank you to all of them for having the courage to make a change and open my eyes so that I could make a change too.

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.”

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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.