Working With My Mom
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
Total honesty and perfect trust. That's what mothers and daughters who own businesses together say their partnership allows them. "I couldn't imagine being in business with anyone but my mother," Brita DeBrest says. "No one knows you like your mother."
"I think it goes to a trend of women really enjoying starting businesses in partnerships in general. It seems more doable that way; it's fun," says Beth Schoenfelt, who co-founded Ladies Who Launch along with Victoria Colligan.
Ladies Who Launch conducted a recent member survey. Of the nearly 300 who responded, approximately 34 percent of women-owned businesses are partnerships, with 15 percent of those partnerships comprising mothers and daughters.
Look to the entrepreneurial stories that follow to find heartwarming examples of mothers and daughters who share their workaday worlds--and wouldn't have it any other way.
Gwen DeBrest, 67, and Brita DeBrest, 43
Venture: Veggielicious Cookies and Cakes Inc.
Location: Reston, Virginia
Veggielicious Cookies and Cakes Inc. was born in 2005 when Brita DeBrest's mom, Gwen, challenged her to make a cookie out of vegetables. Brita went home that night and made sweet potato cookies, which she brought to work the following day. The response was gratifying, and a new business was born.
Over the next three months, the pair developed six cookie flavors and launched the Veggielicious brand in Reston, Virgnia. "I couldn't imagine being in business with anyone but my mother," Brita says.
The business encompasses a 2,200-square-foot warehouse and three employees, in addition to Brita and Gwen. Sales in 2007 totaled $80,000, and with an influx of funds from a recent investor, Brita hopes to increase that to $250,000 in 2008. "What makes us work," Brita says, "is that [Gwen] has trained her children properly, and she's smart enough to stand back and let her teachings take place."
Gwen has four children. "Their father died when they were very young. We all struggled, and I'm thankful they've seen the sacrifices I've made, Gwen says. "They all are hard workers. They do appreciate my sacrifices, and they don't let me want for anything."
Isabelle Villasenor, 62; Lisa De Bono, 39; and Jenny Briones, 36
Venture: 7 McDonald's Franchises
Location: Southern California (Artesia, Cypress, Newport Beach, Norwalk and Cerritos)
Isabelle Villasenor purchased the first of seven McDonald's franchises after her divorce in 1981. Her daughters, Lisa De Bono and Jenny Briones, were 7 and 10 years old, respectively. It was a logical choice for Villasenor, whose in-laws had been franchisees since 1968.
The girls literally grew up in the business. "We say we were born with ketchup in our bangs," Briones says. "When Ronald McDonald came to visit, we wore tiny management uniforms and handed out balloons and tray liners." Today, the trio oversees 300 employees.
Briones always knew she wanted to be an owner/operator. DeBono, who went to UCLA, worked for a literary agency for several years. "Every time I'd come back to visit my family, we'd start talking about McDonald's. As time passed, I realized I was more stimulated by what was happening at McDonald's than by what I was doing for a living."
"We all work as a team," Briones says. "There's so much respect and trust," De Bono says of working with family members, including Briones' husband. "We can vent to one another. We finish each other's sentences. We know exactly what the other person is thinking."
"We're each others' best friends," De Bono says. "We've grown up that way because [Villasenor] was a single mom."
Briones and De Bono have five kids between them. "If they do come into the business, they would be fourth generation," Villasenor says proudly.
The trio's advice for others: Villasenor: "Be honest and maintain your integrity." De Bono: "Set very clear parameters and priorities. There should be no guesswork on the direction we're headed as a family." Briones: "Never let anything get in the way of family."
What do the daughters' kids think about McDonald's? "That's the first place they want to go, and we're happy to take them," Briones says.
Kim Madden, 39, and Heather Madden, 10
Venture: Sassy Tails
Location: Greenville, South Carolina
Six-year-old Heather Madden hated hair bows. So Kim Madden started making fancy ponytail ornaments for her. When Heather's classmates began clamoring for hair accessories of their own, Madden realized she had a product that girls around the country would want.
So in 2004, the mother-daughter team created Sassy Tails together, with Heather taking on the role of vice president. It's not just a title. New styles and designs are inspired by suggestions from Heather and the company's informal Junior Advisory Board. In addition, Heather travels to trade shows with her mom and gives speeches about the company and its products. Recently, she helped write the script for a video e-mercial. "The morning of the filming, she sent me away," Kim says proudly.
Having Heather involved in the business gives Kim and her daughter time together. "We automatically have something in common to talk about," Kim says. What's more, Kim has a platform and a venue to teach Heather some life lessons. Kim finds it natural to explain everything about the business world to Heather. "At this age, their brains are so open and they have so many ideas. When we hit age 13 and up, we get that spirit crushed."
Heather spends as little or as much time on the business as she likes, Kim says. But if she makes a commitment, she has to keep it. "If she says she's going to work a holiday fair with me, she has to do it, even if she changes her mind," Kim says.
Sales last year totaled $250,000. Sassy Tails now has Disney licensing and licensing from Warner Bros. to sell Harry Potter-inspired hair accessories. Kim is also seeking $5 million in funding to ramp up production. With the funding and commercial tie-ins, Madden says she's on target to reach $1 million in sales this year.
Kim says she managed to secure the licensing because she didn't know she couldn't. Her advice to other entrepreneurs is: "Believe that anything is possible. Expect a lot of resistance, whether it's from the market, your family or naysayers out there. Stay focused on what you're trying to achieve and move on in spite of them."
Leslie Haas Clanton, 46; Emily Clanton, 16; and Mary Clanton, 13
Venture: Boberry Designs
Location: Glen Allen, Virginia
When Leslie Hass Clanton started Boberry Designs, it was natural to pay her girls to work with her in the venture. "I used to work for my dad, and I loved getting paid for doing work that I thought was kind of easy," she recalls. The company, originally named It's In the Bag, was renamed Boberry Designs after younger daughter Mary (as in the children's rhyming game, "Mary Mary bo-berry bana-fana fo-ferry," also known as "The Name Game"). Boberry Designs produces and sells gift bags, towel bags, and a wearable beverage holder.
Boberry, established in 1997, is presently a side business for Leslie, who co-owns Plastic Lumber Inc., which sells maintenance-free building materials. Even as a hobby business, Boberry made $270,000 in sales last year. With plans to focus on Boberry Designs full time this year, Leslie hopes to increase sales significantly.
The work isn't always easy, especially when it comes to setting up or breaking down a booth. "Sometimes it can get really, really stressful, and we'll get on each others' nerves," Leslie says. "But at the end of the day, we appreciate each other and the job that we're doing."
Emily adds, "It definitely feels good at the end of a weekend when you see how many sales you made."
Leslie admits that being in business with your daughters can make it difficult to navigate between the roles of mother and business partner. "I'm constantly having to negotiate. We do make lots of compromises . . . because we're close and we work as a team. But I do put my foot down on certain things."
Nevertheless, when it comes to business, Emily sometimes finds herself advising her mother. Says Leslie, "Sometimes I'll have what I think is a really good idea, and she'll knock it down and tell me why it's stupid. She keeps me balanced." Mary has a special role to play, as well: "I tend to get messy with the store or the booth," Leslie says. "Mary keeps it neat and tidy." Mary has just started doing shows, and she runs the cash registers. "I can't hire anybody as good as Em and Mary are," Leslie says.
Emily warns mothers who have businesses not to push daughters into working with them. "They have to want to do it," she says.
Mindy Alperin, 54, Jamie Lazar, 28, and Lauren Alperin, 26
Venture: Zakkerz Inc.
Location: Jamie and Lauren live in New York City; Mindy lives in Atlanta
Zakkerz Inc. was born out of frustration. Sisters Jamie Lazar and Lauren Alperin walked to work in New York City in sneakers, then switched to heels at work. But their pants dragged on the ground during their walks. They kept complaining about it to each other and to their mom, Mindy Alperin.
One day, Mindy said, "I've got this idea." She bought some magnets, sat down at a sewing machine and created the Zakkerz prototype. That was August 2006. By November, the trio had incorporated and by July 2007, they were selling Zakkerz online. "Sales started slow but have continued to grow every month," Lazar says. Although Mindy lives in Atlanta, the trio stays in constant contact. Lazar and Lauren retain their full-time jobs as CPAs, but Mindy works full-time on the business, with some help from her husband.
They handle any conflicts in a straightforward manner. "I think we're close enough that we all understand everybody's weaknesses and strengths," Lazar says. "It's OK for us to get into an argument; we argue it out. Five minutes later, we're fine."
If a decision isn't reached immediately, they come back to it after everyone has a chance to think it through. Typically, the solution combines everyone's ideas. "Or someone wins and someone loses, and we move on," Mindy says. "One of us will eventually just let it go. That's the nature of how we work together."
The advantage of working with family members is that they can be honest with one another. "These are people that I trust completely, and we all have the same goal in mind," Mindy says.
Lazar says she learned persistence from her mother. "My mom is one of the most determined people I know. She sets her mind on something, and she's going to get it done." The girls are the same way. "We both did incredibly well in school. If we're going to study for a test, we do it all the way. That's just what our mom has taught us to do."
The danger of working with family members is the tendency to let the business take over your life. "Sometimes," Mindy says, "you have the start the conversation with, 'What can we talk about that doesn't start with a Z' "?
Rosemarie diSalvo, 63 and Annemarie diSalvo, 38
Venture: diSalvo Interiors
Location: New York City
Rosemarie and Annemarie diSalvo had always talked about opening a business together. "We have a very close relationship, which is very special," Rosemarie says. Finally, in 1996, Annemarie quit her job with an interior design firm, Rosemarie left the legal field--where she specialized in liquidating estates--and they opened a shop selling antiques.
Annemarie had said she'd never go back to designing again. But then customers who bought their wares, especially antique sofas, began coming to them with questions, such as "How do I re-upholster this?"
Soon diSalvo Interiors morphed into an interior design and project management firm. "Clients leave their home for six months, and we hand them the key when they come back," Rosemarie says. Annemarie focuses on architecture and building codes. Rosemarie prefers the "fluff stuff," such as window treatments.
Sales last year totaled $2.7 million, and the pair expects that to hold steady in 2008. Around New York they're known as the "naked designers" because of an ad chosen in a national contest to appear in Times Square.
"I learned more about design from Annemarie than I did in school," says Rosemarie, who had gone back to school to earn a design degree. In turn, Annemarie learned the ins and outs of running a business from her mother.
The biggest advantage to working together, they say, is trust. "I don't have to think twice about anything she's doing," Rosemarie says. "And we always know that any decision being made is not from a personal agenda.
"There's never been that tension where I know better because I'm older or she's been doing this longer and perhaps her ideas are better. We fight more with our husbands," Rosemarie says.
Susan Stoneburner, 57, and Kristen Stolle, 32
Venture: Pacific Design Directions Inc.
Location: Anaheim, California
Susan Stoneburner started the interior design firm Pacific Design Directions Inc. in 1979. She soon focused on commercial design, and today owns an $18 million firm with four divisions: Pacific Interior Design, Pacific Interior Electric, Pacific Construction and Pacific Electrical Engineering.
Daughter Kristen Stolle was working in the legal arena when she came home seven years ago for knee surgery. Bored during her recovery, she started helping out at Pacific Design "and learned that I really loved it."
It wasn't always easy, she says. "Because we are the boss's kids (her brother, Reed, heads the electrical division) there is the perception that things are handed to us. We have to work 10 times harder and prove day in and day out that we've earned the right to be here."
Stolle says the advantage of working with her mother is that they think alike. "We have the same ideas about how to resolve [a problem] quickly and effectively." Adds Stoneburner, "Kristen is much more current in building codes and what cities require, and she remembers all the details of the scope of work. I'm more big picture. With that, we complement each other."
Stoneburner's advice to other mother-daughter teams is unequivocal: "The elder person needs to shut up and listen to the younger people because they have some pretty good ideas."
But Stolle adds a caveat: "Children, at the same time, need to shut up and take a lesson from their parent. They don't know everything. My generation seems to think we can solve the world's problems in a minute. We also need to step back and listen."
Patty McDonald, 55; Robyn Dague, 36; and Aimee Guentert, 27
Location: Santa Ana, California
Patty McDonald started Saf-T-Co in 1987 after she was frustrated in her efforts to rise in the ranks of the male-dominated underground utility industry. Saf-T-Co Supply distributes underground utility and electrical supplies and manufactures PVC, steel and fiberglass fittings and bends. Sales last year totaled $24 million, and McDonald is projecting $25 million in 2008.
Informally, McDonald's daughters have been involved since Saf-T-Co's inception as a home-based business. More formally, they started working in the business as teenagers, and each left for a time to explore the world beyond Saf-T-Co. Both, however, were inexorably drawn back. McDonald's husband also works at Saf-T-Co, as does Robyn Dague's husband.
Says Aimee Guentert, who returned to Saf-T-Co a year to the day after going to work for a lawyer, "A big advantage is that I get to work closely with my parents. I like having somebody I'm comfortable with to talk with and figure things out."
For McDonald, the reward of working with her daughters is clear: "What's better than seeing your kids every day?"
They can't remember the last time they had an argument. "We listen to each other and talk about issues and things, but we always walk away feeling comfortable without being argumentative," McDonald says.
Guentert advises other mothers and daughters to know where to draw the line between business and family relationships. "When we walk out the door, we try to leave as much here as we can, and we can all go home and be a family and still sit down for dinner Sunday night."