The Making of a Mompreneur
Heather McDonnell knows how to blow up a Twitter stream almost as good as she cooks up impossibly delish Sweet Tea cupcakes.
That's precisely what happened three years ago when she won the Food Network's "Cupcake Wars." The news went viral, and she received thousands of kudos via social media. Of course, using Instagram to post pictures of daily specials and answering customer comments on Yelp is more than just keeping up with technology to her.
"I basically started my business through Facebook and Twitter," says McDonnell, owner of Cupcrazed Cakery in Fort Mill, S.C., which boasts 17,000 followers on Facebook. "It's fun now, but in the beginning, getting started wasn't just hard; it was the most difficult thing I've ever done."
A thorough business plan and subsequent bank loan, too many 20-hour workdays, and a strong passion for her company put Cupcrazed on the fast track. Yet McDonnell still worried that she couldn't afford to pay staff to help with the workload. Most of all, she worried that she was neglecting her four children — now ages 6 to 19 — when she was at the shop.
Striking out on your own
McDonnell is typical of many mompreneurs who struggle to find balance between their family and their business, which most have traditionally started in their homes. It's not a new phenomenon but the term "mompreneur" was coined in the late 1990s by Ellen Parlapiano and Pat Cobe, co-authors of "Mompreneurs: A Mother's Practical Step-by-Step Guide to Work-at-Home Success" and "Mompreneurs Online: Using the Internet to Build Work@Home Success." They also created mompreneursonline.com and actually trademarked the term "mompreneur." Today the term is simply used to describe a female business owner who actively balances the roles of mom and entrepreneur.
Although there are no statistics for the number of mothers who own businesses, the number of women-owned firms has been growing exponentially across the nation and locally. According to American Express OPEN's 2013 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report, it is estimated that there are more than 8.6 million women-owned businesses in the United States, generating more than $1.3 trillion in revenues and employing nearly 8 million people. That's an increase of 5 million businesses in only two years.
North Carolina is in line with that trend. "Most reports show significant increases in the growth of women-owned businesses in North Carolina, including the SBA's Office of Advocacy Report," says Mike Ernandes, public-affairs specialist for the U.S. Small Business Administration's North Carolina District Office in Charlotte. "I think this growth is encouraging for women interested in starting businesses all over the state."
Despite the rising numbers of women opening businesses, they still face the challenges getting access to capital and improving access to markets, including the federal government. The SBA is trying to make that easier. In July, the organization eliminated the requirement that lenders perform cash-flow and debt-coverage analysis on loans under $350,000. The SBA has also implemented a new business credit-scoring model that combines an entrepreneur's personal and business credit scores to make it easier and faster for lenders to work with the SBA.
Many mompreneurs still choose to go at it alone, or with help from family and friends. Others adopt a "if you can't beat them, join them" mentality by accepting monies from female "angels," or firms that invest in women-owned startups. In 2008, Brandi Tysinger-Temple was a full-time mom to her four kids and started sewing clothes for the girls as a hobby. She started selling the clothes on eBay, but within a matter of weeks she had to hire dozens of relatives and friends to help her address the demand. By 2010, she transferred her eBay store to Facebook, and her children's apparel company, Lolly Wolly Doodle, has now moved to a 19,000-square-foot facility in Lexington.
"By creating jobs in our community it not only creates amazing product but amazing opportunities as well," says Tysinger-Temple.
Growing a good idea
When moms develop physical products, as Tysinger-Temple did, there is a period of development each one must navigate. Claire O'Neal, founder of Pogginz bike accessories for kids and an avid biker, looked into plastic injections and foam to make helmet accessories and tried various methods of attaching the pieces to a helmet. She even tried using super-strong magnets but then realized they were not safe for young children.
O'Neal eventually began working with Betsy Hauser Idilbi, former president of a company called Little Idea Product Development, which merged with product development giant Eventys last year. O'Neal says Hauser was instrumental in helping her settle on final designs. Hauser had experience with fabric and suggested O'Neal use fabric. "I fell in love with the glitter vinyl, which is weather-resistant and easy to clean, and now that is a Pogginz trademark," she says.
Then they put the Pogginz designs on Etsy (20 cents per listing) just to see how many people favorited each one.
"It was a simple way to decide what products to produce and which to abandon," explains Hauser Idilbi, who observed that although O'Neal often said she didn't understand business, really she was quite business-savvy.
"Moms who have taken a leave from the business world to take care of family don't give themselves enough credit for how much they already know and how much they have learned as a parent," says Hauser, who recently co-founded Tech Talent South, an intensive web-development program with four campuses across the Southeast. "My advice to new mompreneurs is to be confident in your product and your ambition. You're the one who put tireless hours in developing it and had the guts to get it off the ground. Don't forget that."
Balancing business and family
While building her business, O'Neal was also learning how to pivot fast and go from executive to soccer mom in seconds. How did she strike a balance? She admits that she certainly has not mastered the art of balancing family and business, but she tries to think of creative ways to stay involved in her kids' lives as well as involve them in hers. Her 16-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter help out with everything from packaging to assisting at events. Her daughter handles her Instagram account.
McDonnell of Cupcrazed Cakery says her balance began with a solid foundation in the form of assistance from those closest to her. She says the first year her store was her "new baby" and her husband would take care of their children. Her mother and friends would stop by to help her do dishes at the store and her sister-in-law was her office manager so she could focus on building her business.
"I still have days that I feel like I'm on a teeter-totter, but I've worked out most of the kinks," says McDonnell. "Now I can go home after a full day and make dinner, help the kids with their homework, and the laundry pile isn't as scary as it used to be."
Resa Goldberg is a freelance writer and editor in Charlotte with two teenage boys.