Women always ask Ingrid Carney how she came up with the idea for her product, the BellaBand, a simple-yet-ingenious elastic band that allows pregnant women to gracefully wear their favorite clothes as their bellies expand. Like so many creators before her, Ingrid says that necessity was the mother of her invention. “I was newly pregnant and my belly popped,” says the mom of two daughters, Isabel, 6, and Sasha, 3. “I wasn’t big enough to fill maternity wear yet there was no possibility of buttoning my pants.” Out of desperation, she reached for an old tube top and found that it did the trick.
“I un-tucked my blouse, left the house, and no one knew my pants were undone,” she recalls. Ingrid wore that same tube top until it could no longer accommodate her blossoming belly, all the while wishing she could find something similar – although bigger and stretchier –to wear throughout the next few months. “It made me wonder if other women might want something like this,” she recalls.
The stay-at-home mom, who had previously worked as an executive in marketing and advertising, decided to go for it. “I did some research and my husband and I concluded that this could be a smart investment.” She took $30,000 from her personal savings and launched her company. With BellaBand in hand, Ingrid hit the pavement, visiting maternity boutiques throughout San Francisco, and challenged pregnant saleswomen and storeowners to try it for themselves.
Some seven years after starting up, BellaBand is a seven-figure company whose products are sold in 800 boutiques throughout North America and abroad. For many such stores, it’s a top-selling product. Ingrid lives with her advertising executive husband, George, and Isabel and Sasha in San Francisco, working out of an office in Pacific Heights. Even though she’s the boss, she finds that balancing family and her own company is not always so seamless. “Absolutely, there are time when I’d like to give the whole business up,” says Ingrid. “But luckily, the storm always passes.” Here, Ingrid shares her secrets for becoming a hugely successful Modern Mompreneur.
What was the inspiration for the BellaBand?
My “a-ha moment” happened when I was desperately trying to find something other than a safety pin or rubber band, not only hold up my pants, but appear smooth under a blouse. In a rush, I thought (without clearly thinking) a large band-aide would do the trick. Once I reached the first aide kit, I quickly realized it wouldn’t adhere well too clothing, but next to the large bandages was an ace bandage. This was my first leap from a localized solution to something actually wrapping around my body. The ace bandage wouldn’t stay in place as it was too narrow but I immediately considered tube-like items, like the top portion or hosiery or tube tops. While neither was perfect, they did the trick in the short term. Soon, I realized I was wearing my less-than-perfect, makeshift maternity accessory often.
What were you doing before you started Ingrid & Isabel, the company behind the BellaBand?
When I thought of the BellaBand, it was February 2001. I was shutting down a venture-backed start-up I co-founded with two women. We’d raised $6 million in financing, employed 20 people for nearly two years and created a great business. However, our business wasn’t lucrative enough to capture investor interest for a second round of financing in a failing market so we closed our doors early enough to offer severance and help some of our people find new jobs. I personally chose to not work, take it easy, enjoy my pregnancy and have my baby as a non-working, relaxed new mom.
What made you believe you could turn the BellaBand into a business?
The BellaBand solved a problem; it was an unmet need women had been living with for years and self-remedying with rubber bands, safety pins and upsizing to ill-fitting clothing alternatives. My training taught me to test a market prior to determining a market need, as I was merely a test market of one. So, I tested among many women in the Bay Area. The results were overwhelming. I knew I had something that would more than solve a need. It could help anyone who was pregnant and it would sell.
How did you finance the start up? What was your initial investment?
Ingrid & Isabel was self-financed with about $30k. With an invention, there were added costs such as patent research, application and prosecution. Having done the research to show a potential success, my husband and I concluded it could be a smart investment, and it was.
How did you choose the name BellaBand?
This is a funny story. When I was considering names, I first thought of “Belly Band” because it made perfect sense. However, when I Googled “Belly Band,” two subjects would come up: 1) a body harness to conceal weaponry often used by undercover officers, the FBI and so forth and: 2) a garment for dogs in heat. Needless to say, I had to move beyond the obvious and be more creative. When I considered my brand elements — including “Isabel” incorporated in the company name, the tagline (“Yes, you look beautiful”) and what women told us of how they felt or wanted to feel when pregnant — “BellaBand” was a perfect choice.
How did you find your first customers?
My very first sale to a retail store started with a phone call to a local San Francisco boutique. The owner completely resisted the BellaBand idea, convinced it wouldn’t work or sell so I begged permission to visit in person to demonstrate the product. She agreed so I threw on some jeans and slipped a BellaBand around my waist. When I arrived, much to my surprise, I saw that she was seven-months pregnant. And lucky for me, she was complaining that her maternity pants were falling around the waist and she was constantly hiking them up so she slipped on a BellaBand. She walked the length of her boutique and back and immediately said — her exact words — “This is a no-brainer. I’ll take 10.” The next day, I wrote about 10 top maternity boutiques a letter that included a free sample, and invited them to unbutton their jeans and try on the BellaBand. I think I sold every one of those stores.
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?
Are you kidding? Absolutely. When those moments happened, I would recall a friend’s patient and understanding reaction to his wife’s hormonal mood swings during pregnancy. He’d bow his head, let her rant and say to himself, “This storm will pass.” So far, he’s right. The storm has passed for me, every time.
What is it like to walk down the street and see a pregnant woman wearing a BellaBand?
I remembered the first time it happened. I was driving in Noe Valley when I saw a glorious woman, tall, long radiant hair and about six months pregnant. She wore a black t-shirt, lounge pants and her BellaBand. It was popping out from under her tee. I could see our little label and knew it was my BellaBand. I got teary-eyed, and smiled ear to ear. I wanted to stop the car and ask her how she liked the band. I wanted her to tell me who she was, how she felt, and if she was as happy as she looked. Of course I kept driving, looking in my rearview mirror as she disappeared behind me. It completely brightened my day.
Any tips on how to balance a growing family with a growing business? Or is balance a non-existent fantasy?
What’s funny is that while having my own business allows me to dictate a four-day work-week, work comfortably between 9am to 5pm, see my kids on occasion during the day, attend a dance class Thursday mornings, and occasionally “play hooky” with my husband to visit a museum or see a movie midday, I still feel work has the most of me, mentally. Hence, my lack of balance.
Here’s what I am working on to create balance on a daily basis. Check email less frequently, dissect what causes me stress and find remedies. For example, I don’t have the bandwidth to work AND plan, shop and prepare nightly meals, so I am dedicating a portion of my income to outsourcing meal preparation and grocery shopping. While it’s not the preferred place to spend my hard-earned money, it will relieve stress. Here’s
another: in order to fit in the health club any chance I can, I rent a club locker for my gear so I can avoid preparing a gym bag at home. Combined, my time is spent with my kids . . . or organizing a closet.
How big is your company?
When I started Ingrid & Isabel, I hoped to work during my kids’ nap-time and simply cover the cost of private school in San Francisco. We can agree that I grossly underestimated demand. Our first full of year revenue (2004) was a healthy $90,000. We experienced over 700% growth in 2005, and have grown more than 70% each year since.
Do you miss anything about your old life? What is most difficult about being a Modern Mompreneur?
It’s such a trade off. While having my own business is a luxury in that I am my own boss, I can honestly say the most difficult thing about being a Mompreneur and having my own business is actually being the boss of everything… business decisions, employees, factories, AND home life like dinner, groceries, decorating, gardening, AND the kids such as summer camp, after-school activities, carpool, and so on. So, when my husband asks what we should do for date night, I say, “You pick and that will make me happy.”
What’s the best thing about owning your own business?
The freedom to follow my inspirations and ideas, as well as the experience of it all. I’ve learned so much, gained much –more confidence, a positive attitude towards business opportunities and challenges, and of course, the ability to manage my own time and priorities on a daily basis. It’s a real honor.
Would you ever go back to your old life?
My old lives were working without kids and staying home with kids. First, would I work at a company again? I don’t think so. Would I be a stay-at-home-mom again? Absolutely. It’s the best-kept secret ever. It’s hard but the quality of the reward is superior to starting a company. Even so, I made my choice because the idea was so strong. I have a pretty great thing here: a profitable and growing business that allows me a lot of freedom to be a wife and a mom. I’m lucky.
What’s next for BellaBand? What is the future of your company?
More BellaBands to more women. What we sell reaches only a fraction of the market. We want the BellaBand to be accessible to all pregnant women across the US so we’re working on that. We’ve also received rave reviews about our seamless knit which took us about a year to develop, so we will launch new products for the pregnant mom to help her look and feel beautiful during and after pregnancy. It’s very exciting.
What advice would you give to other Mompreneurs just starting out?
If you want to start your own business or simply work from home, step number one is to invest in a great childcare provider, whether it’s a few hours a week or several hours a day. It allows mom to focus and be productive and gives the children a person that will engage them while mom is busy. Everyone will be much happier.