Mompreneur is not a four-letter word

In the world of startups, referring to someone’s business idea as a “mompreneur model” is usually intended as a slight. Mompreneurs are seen as business-light, hobbyists or bored “housewives” who take on a little side project to keep themselves busy. The reality, of course, couldn’t be further from the truth.

I recently interviewed three very smart women—all mompreneurs—whose recent ventures have taken off for them and who all have a history of successful enterprises behind them. Their businesses may be different, but fundamentally the three women share a number of common threads: they’re smart business leaders, determined entrepreneurs and stunningly successful.

First I met with Jaime Martin, who was bitten by the entrepreneurship bug when she bought her mother’s retail store at the age of 19. While she owned the business, she won recognition awards and became a speaker for the local economic development office. The accolades were free flowing. Her store was turning a profit, but it wasn’t big enough to enable her to hire additional staff to help free up some of her time so she could focus more on her family.

After five years, Martin decided to sell the business. Following a year at home with her first child, she took on a secure full-time job at a local hospital. After her second child was born, Martin realized that due to her lack of seniority in her job, she was missing out on events in her children’s lives, like her daughter’s first birthday. That’s when her priorities started to shift. It was during her last maternity leave that she knew she needed to make a change.

Martin was invited to an Arbonne party hosted by a friend—a senior graphic designer who had a secure job and who was also on maternity leave, but “was selling lipstick” on the side. Martin couldn’t figure it out. Multi-level marketing was something that she was very skeptical about, but after being sent home with a sample pack she became a serious fan of the products. That’s when she considered Arbonne as an opportunity for her to “play business again.”

It took Martin only six months to replace the income that she was earning from her full-time job, enabling her to focus on Arbonne full time. Now, 19 months later, she works her business 90% in “nap time” and is a regional vice-president. Some months she can earn anywhere from $5,000 to $10,000. She is successful beyond what she ever thought possible with this business model.

Next, I met with Kristina LaCourse, who also started her entrepreneurial career in the traditional bricks and mortar retail model. She and her husband self-financed and opened up a children’s consignment shop. For almost four years, the award-winning business grew and it came to a point where the business needed to “go big or go home.” LaCourse knew she had to make a decision about whether she would tie herself to a $40,000 line of credit and expand the scope of the business as well as its size. After not feeling well for a consistent period, she realized she was pregnant again. She couldn’t fathom being able to afford having four kids in daycare, so she decided she needed to sell her business, which she did, for a profit.

LaCourse stayed in the vertical she had just left and worked from home for the next three years as a sales rep for distributors of children’s products. A changing marketplace made it more difficult for her to make a consistent income and she realized that she needed to make a change for the sake of her family’s financial well-being. She took on a full-time, community-based role that had her spending time away from her family too often on evenings and weekends, and that took its toll on her own emotional well-being. She wasn’t happy.

It was a friend from her former network of consignment store owners who introduced LaCourse to Stella & Dot. LaCourse thought that “she was pretty much crazy for getting involved in direct sales,” but saw that this friend was making up to $5,000 each month from her own sales and the sales of those women on her team. LaCourse loved the jewelry and was initially looking at the business as a “fun hobby” and a way to get free goods, but within three months, she was able to quit her full-time job.

Now she builds her business mostly around her husband’s schedule and she has never needed child care to support her Stella & Dot venture. Due to LaCourse’s success in her retail and social selling businesses, she splits her time between coaching and managing a team of stylists, as well as acting as a business consultant for entrepreneurs of all stripes through her local economic development office.

Finally, I spoke with Julie Cole. A lawyer by trade and a mother of six, Cole is the co-founder of Mabel’s Labels. She and three friends created the company when they saw that there was a clear need in the market for their product. These moms saw that families were using permanent markers, masking tape and other less than stellar solutions to tag their children’s clothes, sippy cups and toys before sending them off to play dates, school and camp. Mabel’s Labels are well known for being dishwasher, microwave and laundry safe, ensuring that the multitude of children’s items that leave home actually return.

It took Cole and her partners about a year and a half from concept to launch, with many iterations of product testing. “I had items sitting in my dishwasher for over a year!” Julie told me. “It was a good idea that kept nagging at us, and we were all looking to leave the traditional workforce and try to find some flexibility in that ever-elusive quest to balance family, work life and professional aspirations.”

Like many startups, they weren’t able to immediately leave their full-time lives. Two of the founders were on maternity leave and the other two were still working full time. In the early days, “there was a lot of working full time, raising kids and working at Mabel’s Labels from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.” To the startup community, this will sound all too familiar.

Before you’re inclined to dismiss these businesses overall, let me share with you the following statistics.

  • In 2010, Arbonne had almost 669,000 independent consultants globally. They paid out $21 million to those consultants in Canada alone.
  • In 2011, Stella & Dot received a $37 million investment from Sequoia Capital, one of the world’s leading venture capital firms. The company started in 2004. In 2010 their revenues were $104 million, and they have paid out commissions to their stylists in excess of $50 million.
  • Nine years after launching, Mabel’s Labels has been profiled in Forbes magazine, and in 2009 reached revenues of $9 million.
  • According to the Direct Selling Association, $28 billion is spent annually on products sold directly in the United States, and there are 16.1 million sales people, of which 81.8% are women.

There are a number of reasons why these businesses are successful. Social selling is the main driver here. “Moms talk about the products like it’s their job. They talk about it when they do the school drop off, they do it at the sides of the soccer fields,” said Cole. Word of mouth evangelism is as strong a movement as ever, especially now with the advent of social media. You can read more about the impact of social selling in the MaRS series “Merchants of Social.”

This is how all of these female entrepreneurs have built their businesses, both on the micro and macro level. They’re successful because they love their products; they are the ultimate brand ambassadors. And so are their customers, both in real life and online. What other factors affect their success? They’re all smart managers—not only with their time and resources, but also in how they support their networks. They schedule regular coaching calls and, when they can, meet up face to face. And they’ve smartly integrated social media into their business strategies.entrepreneur, funding

Why do these women consider themselves successful? Because they’ve met their goals of maintaining the integrity of their commitment to their families, as well as driving substantial incomes that enable vacations, renovations and savings.

“I’m supporting a family of three and helping 50 other women support their families,” said Martin.

This idea of women leading differently and shaping a better experience is explored in another female entrepreneur’s venture, Natalie MacNeil’s She Takes on the World. If these stories resonate with you and you feel you are ready to take the first step in changing your own future, MacNeil’s book is a great resource to help you get started in taking those first steps.

Clearly, there are worse things to be referred to than a “mompreneur.” Really, you should be so lucky.