Bright idea: Chewbeads teething jewelry ($16.50 to $38.50)
Lightbulb moment: Whenever Greenwald picked up her infant son, he'd stuff her necklace into his mouth. Concerned it would break or leach toxins, in 2009 she dreamed up Chewbeads, fashionable nontoxic, BPA-free jewelry that can go in the dishwasher after use as a teething toy. Greenwald fine-tuned sketches with Adobe Illustrator and sent them to a manufacturer she found through Alibaba.com. Several revisions later, she was satisfied.
Lesson learned: Read up on regulations. The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act requires gear for children under 12 to meet tough safety standards. Greenwald spent over $10,000 on independent testing before placing her first order.
Success! It was a Facebook fan who helped Greenwald land her first account by pitching Chewbeads to a small Atlanta store. Greenwald got shelf space by offering her product on consignment, which helped her develop a sales track record. Now, Chewbeads is in 2,000-plus retail locations in the U.S. and Canada, and Greenwald has expanded her offerings to baby teethers, bracelets, kids' jewelry, and other accessories.
Her advice: Find supporters to cheer you on. Says Greenwald, who often works until midnight: "You think, 'Is it worth it? I'm so tired.' You need someone to say, 'Yes.'"
Lightbulb moment: Fazackerley's three boys constantly dumped their bins of Legos in search of pieces hidden at the bottom. Tired of picking them up, she envisioned a portable and washable activity mat that cinches into a storage bag. She and her husband, Adam, hired a seamstress to make one in 2011. It was a success. Says Fazackerley: "The kids could play for hours, and we could clean up in seconds."
Lesson learned: Finding a manufacturer isn't easy. Producing Lay-n-Go locally proved too costly, and sourcing it overseas seemed risky. "I'd have to pay 50 percent up front and didn't know what I'd get shipped in return," she says. After she asked around, a neighbor referred Fazackerley to a friend in the textile business, who helped her find a manufacturer.
Success! At her first trade show, Fazackerley sold more than 200 mats. Encouraged, she exhibited at the International Toy Fair in New York City, where Lay-n-Go was picked up by specialty stores including Fat Brain Toys and Learning Express. Sales grew by 400 percent during the first year.
Her advice: Start small. "Display at only a few shows where the buyers are truly your target market," Fazackerley says. "That way, if you don't get the orders you expect, you've invested time and effort, but not a lot of money."
Lightbulb moment: Tired of cleaning her kids' food-caked booster straps, homeschooling mom Tracy Rickstrew decided to create a vintage-inspired booster seat, with a wide circular base designed to sit on the floor or on a hard, flat-seated chair. (Rickstrew recommends it for self-supporting children 18 months and older.) Her husband, Thomas, a carpenter-electrician, built a prototype in the barn of the family's farm in 2010 and Rickstrew stitched the easy-to-wipe laminated-cotton covering. After using it with their kids, they gained confidence when fellow restaurant diners expressed interest in trying it.
Lesson learned: You can't wear two hats at once. Running the business from home while raising little kids was overwhelming at first. "I felt like I wasn't giving adequate attention to either my work life or my home life," Rickstrew says. Now she wakes early and stays up late to get her work done so she can spend the bulk of her day with her kids. "When I'm with them, I'm 100 percent there, and at work I'm 100 percent there too," she says.
Success! SweetSeat is sold online and in more than 150 retail locations, with annual sales of around $100,000.
Her advice: Believe in and pursue your idea. "As a mom, you know best what would make your life easier," Rickstrew says. Also monitor your start-up costs: Because her family did the designing, she spent less than $500 on prototypes. "Put what you can into it, and then see if it grows," she adds.
Bright idea: Mabel's Labels personalized labels ($10 to $48, depending on design)
Lightbulb moment: When it came time to clean up after group playdates, Julie Cole found the children's belongings were all mixed up. "We were always wondering, 'Whose sippy cup is this? Is that your lid?'" This sparked her idea: personalized reusable labels that could attach to almost any kid item. Cole (a lawyer), her sister, Cynthia Esp (a teacher), and their friends Tricia Mumby (a graphics manager) and Julie Ellis (a financial planner) teamed up in 2002 to create Mabel's Labels. To save on start-up costs, they leased printers and cutters, setting up shop in Esp's basement.
Lesson learned: Marketing takes effort, not money. Cole and company believed their product would sell, but at first they couldn't afford a traditional ad campaign. Instead, they sent labels to moms they knew, asking for support. Then with the rise of social media, they spread the word that way and pitched bloggers.
Success! Mabel's Labels has relocated from Esp's basement to a 14,000-square-foot facility manned by a 40-member team. Its product line now includes bag tags, iron-ons, and shoe labels. The company can afford ads now (they advertise in Parents!) and annual sales are more than $8 million.
Her advice: Look for a compatible business partner(s) to share the costs, work, and rewards. The Mabel's Labels team may not always agree about a strategy but they let market research guide them. "Once a decision is made, we present it as a united front," Cole says. They also have a profit-sharing plan (all full-time employees are eligible); it builds worker loyalty and provides an incentive to meet sales goals.