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4 Moms Who Run Successful Family Businesses

As any seasoned entrepreneur will tell you, passion and drive will only get you so far in the business world. Goals and start-up cash figure in too—as does plenty of help. When it came time to hire, the moms leading these creative companies turned to their kids, siblings, even parents. They've proven that when more family members pitch in, everyone profits.

By Ellen Parlapiano

Johnson Family/Coton Colors
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Johnson Family/Photo by Scott Holstein

Company: Coton Colors, Tallahassee, Florida

Biz whiz: Laura Johnson, 49

Works with: Daughters Kyle, 21, Sara Kate, 20, and Mary Parker, 17; Laura's mom and dad, Dee and Bud Blank; Laura's sister, Marcie Parks, 51, and her daughters, Courtney, 26, Taylor, 24, and Logan, 22

Big idea: Colorful, brightly painted ceramics and housewares

Founded: 1995

Sales: $5 million annually

Inspiration: Seventeen years ago, Laura was at a ceramics studio having her baby daughter Mary Parker's handprints preserved as a keepsake when she saw unfinished clay plates she thought would look great personalized. The admittedly "artsy" mom bought six, painting them in vibrant hues for her daughters and nieces. Family and friends went wild for her handiwork, and Laura was inundated with requests for similar dishes. She already had a home-based business selling hand-painted cotton clothing called Coton Colors, so she decided to incorporate ceramics into the mix.

Teaming up: While Laura, as she puts it, "painted frantically in the garage" during her kids' naps or when they were at preschool, her parents, Dee and Bud, transported pottery for firing and boxed orders. Big sister Marcie accompanied Laura to home parties, her initial method of selling, throughout Florida. Husband Milton built displays and manned the home front while Laura worked. Soon the ceramics were so popular locally that Marcie convinced Laura to move into studio space so she could hire help, produce more, and eventually go national. Laura coaxed Dad into becoming CFO, appointed Mom head of shipping, and used a $25,000 loan for rent and equipment. The first Coton Colors studio opened in early 1997, and the tableware earned rave reviews from buyers nationwide.

Growing strong: As the company expanded, family members assumed new roles. Marcie took over the ornament division, which she still runs. Laura's daughters remember blasting music while packing boxes. Thanks to the joint effort, Coton Colors products are now available at over 3,000 retailers, and the company has two stores of its own—one managed by Dee in Tallahassee, and the other by Marcie in Tampa, with help from her daughters. Kyle designed last year's Christmas line and will join the company full-time after graduating from college with an art and marketing degree this spring. Mary Parker and Sara Kate work in the stores and showrooms on weekends and school breaks. "People often ask me, 'How can you work with your family?'" says Laura. "My answer is, we just really enjoy each other's company."

McIlroy mom and daughters
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McIlroy Family/Photo by Margaret Lampert

Company: FashionPlaytes.com, Beverly, Massachusetts

Biz whiz: Sarah McIlroy, 40

Works with: Daughter Madeleine, 9

Big idea: Customizable clothes for girls ages 5-12

Founded: 2009

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."

Weems Mom and Daughter
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Weems Family/Photo by Mark Peterman

Company: Origami Owl Custom Jewelry, Chandler, Arizona

Biz whiz: Chrissy Weems, 38

Working with: Daughter Isabella, 15

Big idea: Custom-made lockets

Founded: June 2010

Sales: $300,000 in 2011

Inspiration: When Isabella mentioned that she hoped to receive a car for her 16th birthday, her parents, Chrissy and Warren (who have four other children, Warren, 12, Brandon, 10, Weston, 8, and Addie, 5), proposed she launch a business to earn money to put toward her own set of wheels, promising to match any cash she raised. Isabella trolled the Web for big-bucks ideas beyond babysitting. She zeroed in on jewelry after seeing a YouTube video about a tween who made over a million dollars selling bottle cap necklaces. She remembered admiring a glass locket a family friend wore and told Chrissy that she'd like to do something like that, but with charms. Her vision: see-through lockets that could be filled with trinkets meaningful to the wearer. Her goal: earn $2,500 in two years for a used car.

Teaming up: Isabella withdrew $350 from savings—doubled by her parents—and partnered with Mom, who had entrepreneurial experience. They purchased lockets, charms, and chains from a wholesaler and made samples, which sold immediately at a friend's salon. "People really felt a connection," says Isabella, remembering how one woman filled hers with angel wings, a birthstone, and baby feet to memorialize a lost child. "The dream of buying the car made Isabella super driven," adds Chrissy. "I'd pick her up from someone's house and she'd say, 'I just sold another $1,000 worth of lockets!'" Fans constantly asked how they could order more.

Growing strong: With $30,000 saved from sales, the pair rented a mall kiosk during the holidays. It opened on Black Friday 2010, grossing $26,000 in five days. They signed a yearlong lease, and Mom took over full-time, with Isabella helping after school and on weekends. In January 2012 they closed that space and took Origami Owl (named in honor of their favorite things) national, shifting to a direct sales model, where mothers and daughters (ages 14 and up) sell at home parties. Chrissy runs the company, with her brother-in-law, Jeff Reinhart, now on board as chief operating officer, and her sister Jessica Reinhart handling marketing. Isabella fits trend forecasting around homework, piano, and theater practice. She looks forward to speaking at their sales conference, a motivational event for company consultants, and to finally buying that car. "The teen years can be a time when kids pull away from you," says Chrissy. "But this business bonds us together."

Rosell Family
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Rosell Family/Photo by Erin Patrice O'Brien

Company: Bombinizz, Pelham, New York

Biz whiz: Maria Rosell, 47

Works with: Daughters Erika, 16, Katie, 13, and Kimberly, 10; Maria's mom, Betty Rodriguez, 78

Big idea: Bags large enough to hold bed pillows to take on sleepovers

Founded: 2010

Sales: $7,000, since late 2011

Inspiration: When Maria's girls packed for sleepovers, the pillows that never fit in their backpacks or duffles ended up on the floor of the car—which made Mom crazy. Aiming to keep their gear together and clean, Maria sketched a long rectangular bag with handles on a Post-It note and asked her mother, Betty, to sew some before an upcoming Girl Scouts overnight. Betty created lightweight, roomy red bags big enough for the pillows, adding extra pockets for toiletries and cell phones. "Where'd you get those?" asked troop moms, offering to pay $30 for one. Maria realized they just might have a business.

Teaming up: Betty was willing to make more for test marketing, and Maria's daughters picked fabrics based on personal preference and friends' feedback. They gave bags as birthday presents, which led to calls for more. We'd better give this thing a name, thought Maria. She settled on Bombini—a scientific term for "bumblebee"—after one buzzed by her window. The girls suggested adding two z's at the end to signify catching zzz's, and pronounced it bom-BEAN-eez. Erika, an aspiring graphic designer, created the logo. A lawyer buddy filed for trademarks and patents, and a photographer pal shot publicity photos of Katie, Kimberly, and friends with the bags. Betty kept sewing so they'd have enough to sell at the 2010 Pelham Fall Fest, a new neighborhood street fair.

Growing strong: Holiday boutique organizers and a local retailer expressed interest in Bombinizz. But to be able to fill bigger orders, Maria knew she'd need a manufacturer and more business knowledge. She spent most of 2011 doing research and using ThomasNet.com to find a reliable production facility. That Christmas season Bombinizz sold briskly locally. In early 2012 Maria debuted the bags at an Atlanta trade show, attracting attention from monogramming stores and hospital gift shops. Her wish is for the bag to be carried in Bed Bath & Beyond, with a line of travel products—and her kids are committed to getting her there. "Though junior year is really busy, I love that I can use my graphic skills to help Mom while building my college portfolio," says Erika. According to Maria, the key to getting the kids' cooperation is to ask, not demand, and involve them in decisions. Kimberly agrees. "This is our company," she says proudly.

Read more of these families' tips and success secrets here.

Help Is at Hand

Think you have a workable concept that will stand out in the marketplace? These websites offer solid advice for turning today's dream into tomorrow's reality.

U.S. Small Business Administration

A well-developed home page with topics including Starting & Managing a Business, Loans & Grants, Counseling & Training, and links to local business development centers.

 
Fambiz.com

Information on hiring, taxes, estate planning, sibling rivalry, and other key issues.

 
The Family Business Network

Connects members through chapters, networking events, internship programs, and advocacy initiatives.

 
Family Business Magazine

Assorted articles, blogs, and information regarding conferences.

 
Another Helpful Resource Mom, Inc.

Authors Meg Mateo Ilasco and Cat Seto have written a book about juggling work and parenting that is easy to pick up, put down, and get right back into later—in other words, ideal for a busy mother. Topics explored in Mom, Inc. (Chronicle Books) include figuring out what you want to do, pricing products or services, launching a website and blog and more, plus interesting, honest-sounding interviews with successful entrepreneurs. Never brain-numbing the way traditional business books can be, this cheerful pick offers a great mix of practical info and inspiration.

 

Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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