Jennifer St. Jean worked 60-plus hours a week on Wall Street and went back and forth between New York City and Connecticut on her lunch break to breastfeed her younger daughter.
When her older daughter was starting kindergarten, she realized just how much she was going to miss out on, and left her job on Wall Street to become a stay-at-home mom.
But she didn't sit still for long, though. St. Jean formed the Itty Bitty Bag Company soon after and has been balancing life as a mom and a business owner ever since.
Darien Library hosted a panel on Sept. 20 that featured St. Jean and four other local mompreneurs about the hardships and rewards of starting your own business as a mom.
Particia Cobe and Ellen Parlapiano coined the term mompreneur back in 1996 when they co-authored their first book, "Mompreneurs: A Mother's Practical Step-by-Step Guide to Work-at-Home Success."
"Back in '96 when we took a survey, 90 percent of women started their business for family flexibility," Parlapiano said, "To be their own business, to make their own decisions."
Since the inception of the term, the network of working moms has grown exponentially.
According to the Center for Women's Business Research, as of 2008, there are 10.1 million women-owned businesses in the U.S.
Parlapiano said specific percentages are hard to come by, but one thing she has noticed is a change in acceptance.
"When we were just starting to write the book, the women who worked from home were really kind of nervous or reluctant to reveal [the fact that they were working from home] to clients," Parlapiano said. "They tried to mask that fact, but now there's much more acceptance. It doesn't really seem like a big deal."
Holly Hurd, Darien resident and founder of venturemom.com, a website that every week profiles a new mom with a business, moderated the panel. Hurd told the audience five commonalities that her successful "venture moms" have had in common.
The moms generally start a venture around a passion
The moms use friends and family. "If you tell everyone you know, people will want to help you," said Hurd.
98 percent of the women don't have a business plan
98 percent of the women used little to no startup capital
They didn't wait until things were perfect
"As women, sometimes we like everything to be right," Hurd said, "Well, I've got to have my business cards, I've got to have my logo, I've got to have my name. What I've found with the successful venture moms is they sort of just get started."
OUT WITH THE OLD, IN WITH THE NEW
After 17 years as an art director in New York City, Bewkes left in favor of settling in southeast Connecticut with her family. Bewkes, a self-proclaimed recovering perfectionist, was "the person with too much information."
"I was the person everybody used to come to because they knew I'd know," she said. "I don't remember when or why I started reading blogs, but I did. And I thought, wow, this is fun. I told Holly if I had shown my husband one more thing and said `oh look, isn't this cool?' I think he would have killed me, so I needed another outlet, someone else to show my cool things to." Thus, Quintessence Blog was born; a blog for "living well with style and substance."
St. Jean started Itty Bitty Bag Company, her own Etsy shop, kind of by accident. She made a bag for the bridal party for her college roommate's wedding, small enough to carry only a cell phone and a lipgloss tube, and before she knew it everyone was asking her for one.
"I started with the making a clutch for all the bridesmaids, but my obsession with sewing started long before that," St. Jean said. "My mother was a seamstress; my great-grandmother was a seamstress. I remember when I redecorated my whole room and I couldn't find curtains to match my linens, so I hand-stitched them. I was in my freshman year in high school."
Covello said her business began in her brain -- on Nov. 25, 1997, the day she came home with her son Christopher.
"Giving birth is probably about the most empowering thing a woman can do, in my opinion," Covello said. "I was so full of love for this little boy that I wanted to write down everything that had happened from the time going up to labor until the moment I got home, so I grabbed a composition notebook, because it was all I had, and I just started writing every single detail about him, and I didn't stop." Covello said she did the same for her daughter when she was born in 2001.
Covello started Frittabello.com, a place where you can purchase your own baby journals, after she couldn't find a baby book she wanted. She even attempted a prototype with an old baby book that she didn't use and it sat on her mantle for six months. And then she thought, "this is not going to work," took the whole thing and threw it in the garbage.
"I walked over to my computer and I went back to the one thing that I know how to do, and that's write," Covello said. "And I sat down and I wrote the journal from start to finish. I wanted this to be personalized so that it would reflect my own journey of being a mom."
Covello also teaches classes to parents on how to start their own baby journals.
Tibbetts and Riegel had been friends for a long time before they began their business, RT Pictureworks, which creates videos for any occasion, such as graduation parties or the end of a sports season. They both had full-time jobs, but realized that once they had kids they couldn't afford to give their jobs that much attention anymore.
"We were unaware of each other's passions," Tibbetts said. But both women agree they love having a partner.
"I think it's more fun to go through it with someone else and get excited together," Riegel said.
WHAT'S IN A NAME?
All six women have very different businesses, but all six agreed that a name should be as simple as possible. The name of the company or brand or blog should "just say what you are," according to Tibbetts.
Covello said the name for Frittabello.com came from her son Christopher.
"It's really fitting. He couldn't pronounce his name when he was younger, Chris Covello. He said `Frittabello' and it just kind of stuck," Covello said.
St. Jean said she couldn't take credit for the name of her company, as it came from her husband.
"He was the one that came up with it because the first one was so `itty bitty,'" St. Jean said with a laugh.
Tibbetts and Riegel's name is also simple.
"Pictureworks was the name Bambi was using at the time. R for Riegel, T for Tibbetts," Tibbetts said.
Bewkes said she obsessed over her name, "naturally."
"I wanted something simple, but meaningful. My friend has a blog called All The Best, and I wanted something similar, but something simpler, so I chose Quintessence," Bewkes said, adding that some people on Twitter call her Q rather than Stacey.
All six women agreed that social media, and how it's used, is really important.
"If you want people to look at you as a professional, you need to make everything look professional," Bewkes said.
Hurd added that a lot of the venture moms she profiles have their website domain be something simple, like theirname.com.
As if starting your own business isn't daunting enough, each of the women had to overcome some kind of learning curve in order to get it off the ground.
St. Jean had to decide where online she would sell her itty bitty bags, and then she, once she chose Etsy.com, she had to figure out how to open her own store, and how it all worked.
"For me, Etsy seemed like the perfect fit, since it's a hand-made goods online store," St. Jean said. She's now a certified Etsy store instructor and can help others set up an Etsy store.
Bewkes had to learn all kinds of coding when she first started.
"Had I known all the people I know now, I probably would have asked for help. But I learned all kinds of codes and that took ... months," Bewkes said, "I literally lived in the Apple store for like, three months."
Tibbetts and Riegel have to keep up with the latest video-editing software.
"We started out with iMovie and now we're using Final Cut Pro ... and talk about fired up. We'll leave the Apple store and I'm just like `That is SO cool!!'" Riegel said.
THE "YOU" FACTOR
Many people create business plans and do research before they begin a business venture, but Hurd said too much research can be a bad thing.
"Doing research can be intimidating, seeing all of these other products or blogs like you out there. But I'm a firm believer that everyone has their own voice and can speak to their own unique audience," Hurd said.
She also told them that research can be helpful, so long as you don't allow it to intimidate you.
"Do research; it will give you ideas. Find out what you like so much about a product or a blog and make it your own," Hurd said.
Covello said she did research and agreed that it was intimidating.
"There were so many baby books out there, but none of them were what I was looking for. I thought, `I can make this unique in my own way.' Don't let doing research stop you. You have to get over that fear," Covello said.
St. Jean said you have to differentiate yourself.
"There are a lot of bags out there," she said. "And it can feel very daunting. You might think, `does there really need to be another purse or bag out there?' Yes!!" St. Jean said, adding that people have to get to know who you are.
"People do business with you for three reasons -- they know you, they like you, and they trust you," Covello said.
Once the panel was done discussing, the audience members had a chance to pitch their ideas and receive feedback.
Abigail Daley and Katie Mitchell, both of Darien, were the first and only brave souls to really pitch their idea, standing up and proclaiming that they had designed the dress that Mitchell was wearing. The audience ooh'd and ahh'd, and they explained that, while they were pleased with their dresses and a few blouses they made, they felt kind of "stuck."
"We're just kind of like, now what?" Mitchell said.
They said their primary goal was to show the dresses at trunk shows. They said a family made them the dresses, but would only be able to make two dresses per day, which in the long run isn't profitable. They were searching for some kind of startup capital.
All of the panelists were against startup capital, and so was Hurd.
Audience members suggested they could bring their dress to other kinds of manufacturers, and other stores that might be able to help them out.
Mitchell and Daley said they wanted their name to be the Italian word for sparkle, brillare.
Covello said you shouldn't make it hard for people to figure out who you are and what you sell.
"Make your name what you are," Covello said.
St. Jean suggested some sort of simple name like "X" dress company, but then quickly added that the women didn't want to pigeonhole themselves.
"I'm guilty as charged. Itty Bitty Bags. Say you make your name `something' dress company, but then you want to make pants. You can't make pants. You're a dress company, so be careful of that," St. Jean warned.
Another woman, Jennifer Roh, stood up and told the panel she already had a business, Diaper Bag Dailies, which provides pre-packaged kits that fit into diaper bags and provides essential items for diapering, feeding, changing and playing with your baby or toddler. Currently, Roh offers eight kits ranging in price from $30 to $40 with categories from sick kid, to airplane, to twins, to sun and swim.
Roh wanted to know how to get her name out there.
"Show your product to all the big baby blogs and all the big baby stores," Hurd suggested, and Bewkes quickly nodded in agreement.
"You will get so much exposure so quickly ... if they like your product," Bewkes said.
MONEY, MONEY, MONEY
For each of the women on the panel, they said there was no comparison between the money they make with their businesses and what they made previously. The time they spent with their kids, to them, is more valuable than what they made in their previous careers.
All of the panelists agreed that they'd never come across a venture mom who made "Wall Street money."
"It will probably take three to five years just to get started," Covello said of making money.
Hurd disagreed, saying that some of the successful venture moms she's dealt with have made a profit within the first month. It really all depends on what you sell and how you market.
"How you present yourself on every platform is very important. A lot of blogs make money through selling ads," Bewkes explained, adding that she does not do that. Currently, she gets paid by "Cottages and Gardens" to write for them, but makes no income from ads on her blog.
Bewkes said the first time you hit submit is the scariest, but, once it's done, you feel better.
"I actually get scared every time I put something in the mail," St. Jean jested.
Another benefit the women agreed on was the fact that at this job they receive all the revenue, they receive all the thanks. This is their business. They are the face of their business, and they have the ability to work with customers on a private, more personal level. Rather than having the thanks go to someone above them, they get the thanks, every single time.
"It's great when you get a video sent to you by a woman in Australia because a hand-written note just wasn't good enough. It's great to have that kind of thanks go to you rather than someone some CEO," St. Jean said.
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