One thing I love about my work is learning about and supporting local mamapreneurs. Since leaving academia 9 years ago, it's been amazing to see so many moms take the leap. So I was thrilled to have an opportunity to interview Erin Condren last week at Staples. Erin started a design business out of her home after her twins were born, and in the last 10 years has grown into a company with 250 employees. And now you can find her bright and cheerful work at Staples!
In my interview I wanted to focus on best mamapreneur business takeaways because, well, I want to help any of you who are looking to start and/or grow your business! Enjoy!
QUESTION #1: KEYS TO SUCCESS + GROWTH
Christine Koh: Your story is like so many moms -- what I call mamapreneurs -- you had a traditional job, left it, and then wanted to land an idea that you could work on from home. You've clearly blown it out of the water -- what are one or two keys to your success and growth?
Erin Condren: My business partner for sure. I started on my own, and then became partners with a man named Al Marco. He was an incredible business coach and then we became business partners. He's said that many people can be entrepreneurs and have a good idea or a dream, but it’s very difficult to take that jump from being a successful entrepreneur to being a successful business person, and I don’t think people realize that when they’re starting out. Also, I don’t need a lot of sleep. People always say that when the kids nap, you need to nap. I didn’t and I couldn’t! To get this going, once the kids went down for nap or bedtime I was in my office printing and designing.
CK: So part of it’s partnership, part of it’s personality.
EC: Yeah, I think realizing what your own strengths are, and your skill set, and then asking for help, that’s the thing that was really foreign to me. I’m a control freak, I have to have hands on everything. But learning to actually let go and ask people for help...I didn’t have that capability until I had twins.
QUESTION #2: STARTING A BUSINESS
CK: A lot of women ask me for advice about starting up their businesses. What's your top tip for a mom who wants to start a business on her own?
EC: There are a couple of things. I’ve been on panels where people say, “If you don’t love what you do, get out of it,” and I’m not sure that’s the best advice. Sometimes you can’t just quit your job or start your company -- you have to be realistic and start things on the side or after hours. In Cheryl Sandberg’s Lean In, she says something along the lines of, “We all know that marriage is the most important personal decision you can make, but it’s also the most important career decision you can make.” I couldn’t do any of this without the support of my husband, and her whole messaging in the book is let’s not make concessions for women in the workplace, let’s raise our boys and our brothers and our men to be more helpful at home.
QUESTION #3: STARTING ADVICE
CK: Looking back, what’s one thing that you wish somebody had told you when you were starting out?
EC: I don’t know that I would’ve/could’ve/should’ve named the business after myself. I mean, obviously there are powerful name-based brands like Kate Spade and Cynthia Rowley. But it's so personal. I think that sometimes people think that it is still just me, and they’re like “Shame on you, Erin, my order was late!” I take things personally and have had to grow a thicker skin. On the flip side, I love the boutique feel. There are still moms in our school who e-mail customer service and say, “Hey Erin, my son’s in the third grade, can you leave my order out on your porch?” They still think I’m working from home. And I think that’s pretty cool, but I’ve got 250 employees!
QUESTION #4: PARTNERSHIP WITH STAPLES
CK: We’re at Staples so let’s talk about Staples! Tell me about your partnership with them -- specifically, how you intersected -- and why you’re here.
EC: It was really a bit scary! Staples reached out to my company as they were trying to develop indie, stylish brands. It was super exciting that Staples was interested in my product but I was like, what does this mean for my brand? Will it cannibalize what we’ve achieved online? Can they maintain the look and feel and a special shopping experience? And we worked really hard together to make that happen. So the stores look great, the products look great, all of it is working. What I love about being in Staples is that it’s the same product that we’re making -- this is not a dummied-down version of what we’re doing online. It was really important to me that we work with a partner that knew that brand integrity is everything to me. The paper stock and the quality has to be right, so now people can get it at a better price point, quicker, not waiting for the shipping but they’re still coming back online for personalized stickers and other things. Right now we’re in 208 Staples stores. We’ll be in 400 or more by next June, and really just plan on continuing to grow. But it was really kind of a year of learning about each other. It couldn’t be greater, I’m so pleased with this partnership!
QUESTION #5: ESSENTIAL ORGANIZATION PRODUCT
CK: You have so much to offer in your collection. If someone is new to your work, what’s your recommendation for an essential product for productivity/organization?
EC: The life planner, for sure. When I developed the first book in 2007, I realized that I planned morning, day, and night -- in squares almost like a script for the day. I don’t always stick to the script but if I plan it out I feel like I can get so much more accomplished. My motto is, “Let’s get it done so you can have some fun!”
QUESTION #6: THE POWER OF PAPER IN THE DIGITAL AGE
CK: Why do you think your paper planners have taken off so big in this era of digital?
EC: It's so interesting to watch these younger girls who are using my book; they are so tech-savvy but they are also using this book. There is something about physically writing something down, crossing it off, and feeling good about achieving something. It allows you to be a better time manager, and I think more successful and less stressed. My family and I do the same thing, mapping out our week on Sundays with the Oh What A Week planner. Everyone is less stressed knowing what the plan is.
QUESTION #7: DESIGN INSPIRATION
CK: Where does your design inspiration come from?
EC: My business started from home, I printed whatever I could pull through an HP Photosmart! I bought 10 of them from Staples -- I had stickers in one, and birth announcements in one, and so forth. When I became partners with a state of the art printing facility, I wanted to create pretty planners that were cool, inspirational, and customizable. And to be honest, the inspiration now comes from my community -- when I see how people are using the book! People have taken it to that next level, which I love seeing. Instead of scheduling every day, they’re truly celebrating every day, and taking this to the level of a memory book. We have a partnership right now with Polaroid so they have the little pocket printers that we sell on the site. You can print photos off your phone and stick them right in the book. And that wasn’t my idea, I’m learning that from my community. My next thing, I’ve got to come up with a boy’s line, a men’s line, that is on the horizon for sure!
QUESTION #8: CREATIVE BLOCKS
CK: Everyone has creative blocks from time to time. What do you do to get unstuck?
EC: My community is huge. I also love looking at fashion and home blogs. My early career was in apparel, so textiles are inspiring to me. I’m wearing lace today and we’re just coming out with our lace cover for our new wedding planner. I definitely pull from fashion trends. With social media, it’s easy to be inspired.
QUESTION #9: DEALING WITH NEGATIVITY
CK: It’s hard to imagine that you have haters because your work is so cheerful, but what is your best advice for dealing with negativity while you’re growing something?
EC: It takes time, it takes layers of skin to get thicker. That is the hardest part for me. There’s so much public scrutiny and hatred out there, it’s wild. I’m sad when people go after my employees -- like, when an order is late -- or when it affects my daughter because she saw something negative someone said about me on Instagram. But I think it’s about just getting older and growing a thicker skin and realizing we’re working our best to do some pretty amazing things. 99% of the people are really happy with what we do, it’s just the haters who are louder. I always want to be better and 100% on time, but we’re making every single product. There’s pride in what we do, I just have to know that you can’t please everybody all of the time.
QUESTION #10: RESOLUTIONS/INTENTIONS
CK: Given that we’re in the midst of planners and planning awesomeness, I'm curious if you have any resolutions or intentions for you personally or your business in 2016?
EC: Crazy, I was just writing them down last night! I do not take enough time for myself -- as a mom, you don’t! I was just at the eye doctor because my daughter was complaining that she couldn’t see, and I thought, why didn’t I make an appointment for myself? Because recently I've been having some trouble with my glasses. So I’m going to make some appointments. I also love to watch some of these ladies use these planners for fitness goals. I don’t have a fitness plan right now. So I’d love to try and find time. I don’t know that I have patience for yoga, but I’m just trying to find some sort of release. Funny enough, I just saw a working station over there. I might have to go home with one of those! So I think 2016, the beginning of it, is going to be about me.
Isn't Erin awesome? She's so successful and passionate and down to earth! I hope these tips are helpful to those of you who are trying to build your own empire!
P.S. This is sort of related, but how hilarious are these two photos below? The story is that I didn't realize that my blogger friends Audrey and Vera would also be at the Erin Condren event. And man, apparently I approach people I love like a dinosaur -- mouth wide open, ready to devour! Anyway, I wanted to include these shots because Audrey and Vera are -- like me -- independent mamapreneurs. They are incredibly generous and hard working women and as you can see, I am always delighted to see them! (You can see what they look like from the front here.)
Image credits: Gretchen Ertl
Disclosure: This post reflects a compensated editorial partnership with Staples. The interview questions were entirely devised by me and my curiosity about what makes mamapreneurs tick.