It seemed like a stretch--a stay-at-home mother of four who didn't even own a computer launching a Web business selling napkins bearing warm, fuzzy messages. But 35-year-old Melisa Cowden, the owner of Austin, Texas-based Little Love Letters LLC, is wiping the smirk off the faces of those who told her it couldn't be done.
The devoted mother and former teacher was in the habit of writing encouraging words on the napkins she packed in her kids' lunches. The simple messages, like "Don't be afraid to ask for help" and "When you're mad, take time to chill out," caught the attention of other kids and parents. Looking for a way to make money from home, Cowden decided to start a business creating and selling inspirational napkins.
With neither computer skills nor a computer, Cowden did all her initial research the old-fashioned way: at the library, where she found names of potential manufacturers and then called them for price quotes. She also networked with other women entrepreneurs to get the basic business education she needed. "I was the question queen," Cowden acknowledges.
In 1999, she used $50,000 in capital from a home equity loan and from family members to pay for the first minimum run of 960,000 napkins with messages written by her and illustrations created by her father, a retired commercial artist. With characteristic determination, Cowden set about visiting stores and participating in craft and trade shows to get the word out about her line of 16 different designs.
Now Cowden, who employs six sales representatives, has ventured into e-commerce with her Web site (www.littleloveletters.com). Reaching out to children in a simple way, she's donated the napkins to various hospitals, children's shelters, camps and nonprofit organizations.
Although she now has close to 1 million napkins spilling from her garage and various rooms in her house, Cowden hopes to expand her business to include a line of inexpensive theme napkins for all occasions and ages.
Pamela Rohland, a writer from Bernville, Pennsylvania, completes stories for Start-Ups and other national publications with assistance from her four cats.