When Mackenzie Wright Sullivan joined forces with her mom, Sandra Wright to found I’mStillMe!, she was simply in search of a more sophisticated diaper bag she could call her own.
Little did she know her child gear company responsible for such fanciful, but highly practical creations as PiggyBack Diaper Bags, LilyPad, DadPad and the super popular Oopc!, an all-in-one bib and burp cloth, would become a huge hit with A-List Hollywood moms such as Gwyneth Paltrow, Angelina Jolie and Liv Tyler. Mackenzie, who lives in Sandy Hook, Connecticut with her husband and two young daughters, has since left her job in human resources now runs her thriving business full time.
Modern Mom’s Sophfronia Scott talked to her about the highs and lows of being a successful Mompreneur.
1. What were you doing before you started I’mStillMe?
I was working in human resources at Tufts University. I graduated from college with an Art History/Anthropology degree and ended up in HR, which needless to say was not my first love. My mom, Sannie, had her own antique business for over 20 years prior to starting I’mStillME!
2. Why did you start I’mStillMe?
My mom and I are in business together and started the company by accident. We did not intend to start our own company, but lucky for us it ended up that way! After I had my first daughter, Casey, in November 2002 I couldn’t find a diaper bag that didn’t scream diaper bag, i.e., Winnie the Pooh, so my Mom made me one for Christmas. It was a simple tote on the outside with all of the necessary pockets on the inside. It had a poem that she wrote attached that said:
“Awake at four
No time anymore
Then a baby smiles
and I remember
HEY, I’m still ME!”
People liked the bag and she started sewing more and we sold them on eBay very successfully for about one-and-a-half years. I then started a very simple website for people to see our other fabrics and designs and from there our company was born. Our name came from the original poem and the fact that we wanted new moms to feel like themselves, not just a mom. After my Mom sewed the first 1000 bags by hand we outsourced the sewing overseas. After the bags came changing stations, called DadPads and LilyPads, and clutches. Once my second daughter, Addie, was born in 2005 we invented our OOPC!, a burp cloth that converts into a bib. The Oopc! has been a huge success for us and it is now patent pending. As my kids grow so does out business. Our new Let’s Play Mail set debuted to rave reviews and we quickly sold out of our first shipment. This has been our best seller and we hope in 2008 to expand the series with new toys and games.
3. What was the inspiration for your earliest products?
My kids/my mom’s grandkids are the inspiration behind every product. Addie was the messiest baby ever, thus the invention of the OOPC! Casey loves the mail, thus Let’s Play Mail 🙂
4. How did you finance the start up?
HAH! You quickly realize that even after five years in business you still need to find ways to pay for things! Our costs were minimal to start. They have grown incrementally as we have grown. We have sold stock, scrounged savings, etc., to finance our business. We also bought another company, Toddler Treads in 2007. We knew this was a great business that had great potential so we again scrounged some cash together knowing that it would pay off in the long run and luckily it has already. We are now the US/Canada distributors for Gucio Shoes, an amazing toddler shoe, handmade in Poland.
5. How did you find your first customers?
Word of mouth and eBay! Word of mouth still drives a lot of our retail business. Having said that the biggest part of our business today is selling wholesale shops and boutiques. We attend trade shows regularly in the baby/children’s industry to show our line. We are now in over 250 shops across the country and internationally.
6. Was there ever a moment in the business when it seemed like it was all too hard and you wanted to give up? If so, how did you get through it?
I think we are fortunate in that my mom and I have each other. I know for a fact that I could not be doing this alone while raising two kids. My mom does most of the design, sewing and shipping while I do the computer work, website maintenance and customer service and process the wholesale accounts. I can do most of my stuff at night while the kids are asleep. When we do have trade shows that last a few days my husband will take a few days off from work or the in-laws will come down to watch the kids. We are lucky that both of our families are very involved with the kids. Thank God!
7. What was it like to open a magazine and find a celebrity’s child wearing one of your products? Did that happen by chance or was the product sent to the celebrity?
We did some celebrity gifting when we had a public relations person about a year and a half ago. Then one night I almost fell off my chair when I got a call from Gwyneth Paltrow’s assistant. She said, “Gwyneth loves the Oopcs! that you sent for Moses! We are now in London and she left hers in New York so we need to buy a dozen — six for New York and six for London.” She also bought some for shower gifts. I was amazed! We also had a Hollywood grandma buy 63 Oopcs, nine for each of her seven houses! Again, I was blown away. The celeb stuff does help business, but we don’t push it. If they like it they will buy it, just like the rest of us.
8. Any tips on how to balance a growing family with a growing business? Or is balance a non-existent fantasy?
I have to keep it balanced. Kids and family come first, then the business. We have been growing slowly and steadily so that has helped. When it’s super busy the kids might watch a bit more TV than usual, but I do what I can. 🙂
9. How big is your company (ballpark dollar figure)? Does the money you make from your venture cover the loss of your former salary?
I’mStillME! is now a six-figure company. We quadrupled our growth from 2006 to 2007 and are looking forward to more growth in the coming year. Neither of us has actually drawn a salary. Every penny to date has been re-invested in the business. So no, I have not had an actual salary in five years. Someday!
10. Do you miss anything about your old life? What is most difficult about being a Mompreneur/having your own business?
I do not miss anything about my old life. I set my own hours. I don’t have to sit in Boston traffic to get to a job I don’t love and I get to be with my kids all day. But the fact that I get to be with my kids all day is also the hardest part of having my own business. I get an important phone call and, low and behold, one girl hits the other or someone needs something. All moms out there know exactly what I am talking about. It’s not always easy, but I wouldn’t trade my time with them for anything.
11. What’s next for I’m Still Me?
Hopefully, big growth in 2008. We will be expanding our toy division (2 Big Kids) and will be debuting new products at the 2008 trade shows. We hope to open some large accounts in 2008 as well.
12. What’s the best thing about owning your own business?
Being able to be a stay-at-home mom and still do something that I love. I never imagined my mom and I would have started a successful company, but I am thrilled that we have and I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else!
13. What advice would you give to other Mompreneurs just starting out?
Just go for it! Maybe not the most prudent advice, but we started from nothing, no business plan, no money, just an idea. We just went for it. The way we went about it we didn’t really have much to lose. We learn as we go. Try to start small. Don’t invest a huge amount of money before doing your market research and knowing your product or service will sell. Invest more money later on when you are more confident that you can actually make money.