Long before a woman named Marion Donovan invented the first waterproof diaper by sewing a piece of shower curtain around a cloth nappy, mothers have been coming up with creative ways to solve domestic challenges.
And like Donovan, who first sold her baby “Boaters” at Saks Fifth Avenue in 1949 (and later her patent for $1 million), mothers have been turning their ideas into businesses.
You might call them mompreneurs. Their companies are based on market needs discovered while mothering. They are their own target market, and Westchester is full of them. Every day, moms in the county are funding, managing, and growing promising businesses, while changing diapers, driving carpools, and helping kids with homework.
Elina Furman, a Dobbs Ferry mompreneur with several businesses, says, “Mothers are almost uniquely suited to the startup lifestyle. It is chaotic with no set hours; you are working all the time and receive no tangible rewards for many years.”
As demanding as startup schedules may be, they are dictated by the entrepreneurs themselves—a bonus for multitasking moms. Some are corporate dropouts while others have traded in their stay-at-home status to start their own companies.
Here are five Westchester mompreneur stories.
Sleepy Hollow’s Eleni McClung, a mother of three swimmers, often found her children struggling to pull clothing on their still-wet limbs after swim practices.
On a lark, she asked her mother Kiki, a lifelong seamstress, to sew two pairs of pants from towels. The result was so fun and functional—with pockets to hold swim caps and goggles—other kids on the swim team began requesting them. At swim meets, families from competing teams wanted some too.
On went the light bulb. McClung soon convinced her sister, Freda Bateman, to quit her office manager job and help create Kiki’s Nation Inc. in 2005.
Because their mother owned industrial sewing machines, the sisters were able to start their business from home with a few thousand dollars, mostly to cover legal incorporation fees. They bought towels with their credit cards, paying themselves back as soon as they sold enough garments. Friend Martha Klein soon became a partner. The three—all mothers of swimmers—started selling through swim clubs, swim stores, at holiday fairs, and in 2008, on their own website. Today the 10-year-old company offers pants, shorts, and skirts through several websites, including Amazon, and a growing list of retailers in the Northeast.
Kiki’s Nation pulled in $150,000 in sales in 2013 and projects a 20 percent increase in 2014, to $180,000. The greatest barrier to expansion has been the supply of affordable towels. Buying straight from a manufacturer costs around $9 per towel because their orders are relatively small. So the mompreneurs buy them in bulk for about $1 each from discount stores such as Target and Kmart.
Workdays for these mompreneurs can be very long, and McClung’s mother and aunt still do all the sewing. But she says, “I love going to work because I love who I work with.”
Elina Furman founded her first company, A-List Mom, a luxury goods email newsletter, shortly after moving to Dobbs Ferry in 2009. She was on the verge of new motherhood, having left her Manhattan apartment, fashion magazine editing jobs, and authorship of 20 books behind. Furman spent $5,000 in personal funds to start the advertising revenue-based newsletter, relying on overseas talent for website design and programming. She added A-List Mom Travel to her offering and now has a combined 77,000 subscribers.
By 2012, mountains of Legos in Furman’s living room inspired her to co-found Pley Inc., a Netflix-like service for Lego sets. Parents pay a monthly fee to borrow—and return—an unlimited number of sets. The startup raised $6.75 million in venture capital last year. The mother of two served as Pley’s chief marketing officer and is now a senior advisor.
This winter, Furman is launching two new companies: Ardsley-on-Hudson, a line of luxury jewelry for women (a market she says is exploding due to the popularity of “push presents” husbands give their wives upon the birth of their children), and Prynted, a content creation and marketing agency for parenting lifestyle brands, with Ardsley mom and writer Melissa Schweiger.
Rebecca Schleifer’s entrepreneurial “aha moment” arrived with her oldest daughter’s third birthday.
“The party guest list was 32 people long,” recalls the Dobbs Ferry mother of three. “I looked at my playroom and said, ‘How I am going to fit 32 more presents in here?’”
Schleifer asked guests to tone down the gifts and bring a baby rattle to be donated to children’s hospitals instead. A garbage bag was stuffed full by the end of the party, inspiring guests’ interest and praise. Soon after, she began brainstorming business possibilities.
The result in 2012: Shareyourwish.com, a birthday party invitation website that helps guests donate to one or more of the child’s chosen charities. A portion of the payment goes to the charity; the rest goes to the child’s gift fund. Children learn about giving and can buy something they really want, while party guests skip the hassle of shopping for a gift. Share Your Wish receives a $2.50 fee for each transaction.
The site hosted about 240 parties during the first eight months of 2014, raising more than $33,000 for charity—both figures roughly double the same period in the prior year.
To start the business and keep it running, the Schleifers raised about $70,000 from friends and family. The largest cost: website design and ongoing maintenance.
You might say Patricia Butter founded her company, Buttercup & Jake Natural Skincare, to scratch an itch.
In 2009, after 20 years in the fashion industry, Butter yearned to work for herself. She did some of her best thinking in her Pleasantville garden, where she began to notice that the calendula flowers she was picking for her salads eased the eczema on her hands. Butter thought she might be able to soothe itchy patches on her daughter’s skin as well.
Butter’s homemade, all-natural, organic lotions and creams such as Cocoa Calendula Balm helped her daughter and soon attracted the interest of friends.
In 2009, she created Buttercup & Jake. Her self-employment itch was scratched.
Butter invested about $30,000 to cover start-up costs such as package design, raw materials, web hosting, and securing a global trademark. The mother of three brews the lotions in a spare room in her home and does a lot of “boots on the ground” marketing at fairs and other events. She is seeking a manufacturing partner to increase production.
Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture’s gift shop was her first retailer, and the farm still supplies most of the flowers for her creams.
In addition to various websites, Buttercup & Jake products are sold in select Whole Foods stores in New York and Connecticut and at a handful of natural pharmacies.
Bedford’s Jodi Greene was happy to send her three children to sleep-away camp but less than thrilled to buy their required official camp clothing each summer—including $60 raincoats—because her kids outgrew them so quickly.
So last year, Greene created Camp Clothesline, an online consignment shop for camp-branded sweatshirts, T-shirts, and other garments. Greene, a former national sales manager for a children’s clothing brand, said it cost her less than $2,000 to launch, design, and host her online store.
Through her website, people can buy and sell gently worn camp duds. Greene has merchandise from 54 camps so far and has sold each of the 1,000 garments on her site. Her biggest challenge is securing enough clothing to meet demand. That promises to change this summer, she says, because nine camp directors recently signed on to support her. They are sending excess camp supplies and interested families her way. •
Adrienne Sanders has written about entrepreneurs for Forbes, TheStreet.com, the New York Observer, and the San Francisco Business Times. She lives with her family in Dobbs Ferry.