Lemonade Stands and the Kit Kat Club (AKA How I Became an Entrepreneur)
I thought it would be fun to share with you how I got to this place...starting my own small business. For the last 15 years, I've worked in and led national nonprofit organizations. And I had a really cool idea about a better breast pump bag. But let's back up a little bit.
I think I started my training to become a small business owner as a kid. I definitely didn't know what "entrepreneur" meant back then, and it wasn't in the popular lingo as it is today, but when I think about it, I was becoming an entrepreneur from the start. I was creative and curious as a kid. But the thing that stands out in my mind as the first signs of where I was going in life was my ability to convince people to follow me and my ideas. My poor younger sisters (I have two). They were my subjects and guinea pigs for a lot of years.
There was the Kit Kat Club. I charged my sisters dues. To hang out with me. Yes, I actually convinced them to do it. All with the intention of saving up money to buy a cat. But it was more complicated than just that. My mom insisted we could not have a cat. I protested (enter my other love, advocacy); literally, I made protest signs "We demand a cat!" and hung them all over the house. I have a vague memory of a "march on the living room" too. When my mom was out of town, I convinced my dad to get the cat. I was selling people on my ideas, right and left. Loved that cat.There were the lemonade stands. Had one every chance I got. Thanks to my neighbor Nicole for being my sales partner.
Then there was politics. My mother was mayor of our town for a bit. That was awesome; but wasn't enough for me, I had to be involved too. Along with some other politically-interested teens, I brought the next mayoral campaign into our high school. I remember feeling simultaneously like a geek and so cool when I was called over the loudspeaker to come to the main office because there was media there to interview me.
I didn't work a summer fun, chill job as a lifeguard or serving up food. As a teen I worked for the county economic development office. I AM a geek. Wow.
I came to Washington, DC for college; DC, home of activists, politicians, lawyers, wonks. Lots of self-starters. Perfect. I fell in love with the city. It most definitely has its annoying political downsides, but it's also a town of extremely ambitious, competitive, energetic people. Very east coast, very me.
Coming off my interesting experiences with local politics as a teen, I majored in Political Science. I became interested in women's health, so I added another major in women's studies. Continued into graduate school in public policy and women's studies. Found my first full-time job in the nonprofit world, working on a variety of women's health issues. Learned a lot about running a nonprofit; including fundraising, which is like the charitable equivalent of selling your product or service. Progressed from there to the top spot leading a national organization. That experience is where I gained the most formal business training. I helped move the group from a major financial deficit to a financial surplus. Achieving success involved creating a business plan, convening stakeholders for strategy meetings, raising lots of money (selling funders on the organization's mission), coalition-building; all of it, you name it.
Throughout all this time, I was constantly telling my husband, mom, dad, anyone that would listen, "I have this great idea for XYZ" or "That product or service is cool but I think it should be changed like this." In 2011, I finally hit on the right idea, derived from personal experience (and frustration). An awesome breast pump bag. I nervously told a few folks about it. They were excited. REALLY excited. Over the course of a couple of years, I ramped up. And here I am now (I'll write another blog soon about the process of bringing the Sarah Wells "Maddy" Breast Pump Bag to market!).
Being a small business owner is really the most thrilling thing I've done so far professionally. It's also the scariest. A friend of mine sent me this great quote that really helped me understand why going out on my own was the next step, "If you don’t build your dream someone will hire you to help build theirs." I have been incredibly lucky to be hired by people and organizations that had some amazing dreams; but now it's time to make my own happen. Here we go!