Company: FashionPlaytes.com, Beverly, Massachusetts
Biz whiz: Sarah McIlroy, 40
Works with: Daughter Madeleine, 9
Big idea: Customizable clothes for girls ages 5-12
Sales: Approximately $1 million in 2011
Inspiration: Sarah never forgot her sixth-grade graduation dress, just one of several she sketched as a child for her mother, Rosemary Baldwin, to sew. "I loved picking out fabrics and trims and having outfits unlike anyone else's," says Sarah, mom of Madeleine, 9, Liam, 7, and Maeve, 6. But it wasn't until Madeleine began collaborating with Grandma on one-of-a-kind clothes that Sarah wondered if the concept was marketable. She believed that parents of tween girls wanted age-appropriate alternatives to stuff that seemed "too teenager-ish" and envisioned a website where girls could design clothes that looked cool but would also be mom-approved, a win-win. They'd pick from high-quality basics like tops, bottoms, and dresses, then add appliqués, jewels, ribbons, and other trims to end up with something unique.
Teaming up: Madeleine helped choose base pieces and embellishments while Sarah searched for manufacturers to produce the clothes, but learned it would cost a fortune. Needing someone with industry experience to figure out an affordable strategy, she hired an expert. Together, they decided to produce the unadorned garments overseas and customize them in the U.S. Sarah worked on her business plan to prove need and profitability, interviewed developers to create the website, and left her full-time marketing job in May 2008 to focus on getting funding. She shopped the concept to investors with PowerPoint presentations and giant paper dolls, swapping out Velcro trims to show how girls make an outfit their own.
Growing strong: In March 2009, Sarah secured $1.5 million from two venture capitalists, both dads of tween girls. The cash infusion allowed her to start production and develop the website. Madeleine recruited friends to join her on the Fashion Advisory Board, weighing in on styles in exchange for site gift certificates. Since FashionPlaytes.com launched in November 2009, more than 800,000 unique garments have been created. Avatars and a Runway Challenge game are now popular as FashionPlaytes.com expands into an online social community. Madeleine's role has grown too. "It's fun and makes me feel important," she says. She blogs, models, tests games, and suggests new lines (like PJs and rompers). "Through working together," says Sarah, "I've watched her blossom from a reserved young girl into an independent, confident young lady."