Thursday, April 11, 2013

Miss Representation: A Moving Film

This is a different kind of post.  It's not an interview, but it's something I think my readers will appreciate.  The other night, I was lucky enough to attend a screening of the moving documentary, Miss Representation.  Here's part of the description from their website:

In a society where media is the most persuasive force shaping cultural norms, the collective message that our young women and men overwhelmingly receive is that a woman’s value and power lie in her youth, beauty, and sexuality, and not in her capacity as a leader. While women have made great strides in leadership over the past few decades, the United States is still 90th in the world for women in national legislatures, women hold only 3% of clout positions in mainstream media, and 65% of women and girls have disordered eating behaviors.

Stories from teenage girls and provocative interviews with politicians, journalists, entertainers, activists and academics, like Condoleezza Rice, Nancy Pelosi, Katie Couric, Rachel Maddow, Margaret Cho, Rosario Dawson and Gloria Steinem build momentum as Miss Representation accumulates startling facts and statistics that will leave the audience shaken and armed with a new perspective.

If you can find a screening near you, I highly recommend going.  The statistics and commentary were so thought provoking.  I went in with a somewhat defensive mindset, thinking to myself, "Look - women have been valued for their looks throughout history.  How can we expect to change human nature?  Men's appearances matter too (albeit admittedly less.)  Let's grow a thicker skin and just stick it out.  Women can succeed if they just try hard enough."  
But after watching the film, I was swayed by just how pervasive the conscious or subconscious war on women is - and I'm not talking about what's been in the media recently regarding healthcare choices and coverage etc.  Women are depicted in all forms of media as beings whose worth and accomplishment are inseparable from their appearances.  
One memorable montage showed a cavalcade of female newscasters and pundits - people who are supposed to be delivering intelligent information and analysis - in progressively skimpier outfits more appropriate for a 21 year old to wear to a bar.  And let's not forget the 2008 election when Hilary (let's start with the lack of respect displayed even by just calling her by her first name, something we'd never do to a male politician) vs. Sarah Palin was shorthanded by countless media outlets into "bitch vs. slut."
The difference between past generations and this one is that the media presence now is so insidious and inescapable.  As an adult who grew up without a cell phone until after college graduation, I have the capacity to enjoy screen-free time and I recall school days and nights without screen presence or even any interaction with my peers while I was doing homework isolated in my room.  I feel it's important to raise our kids with this same ability to disconnect periodically, but I understand it's not the reality for most kids and teenagers.  They're going to be surrounded if not with their own tablets, phones, and computers, then by their peers'.  
And the proliferation of catty celebrity tabloids with daily or even hourly updates on female celebrities' appearances is mind-boggling.  I may have fun reading a shared paper copy of a celebrity weekly once or twice a week at the gym or nail salon, but kids don't have the brain development to tune this stuff out.  Their filters aren't advanced enough to fight what the media's conveying through every surface they see throughout the day - TV, websites, even supposed "News" channels.  When even female supreme court judicial candidates, politicians and newscasters are judged by their appearances before their intellect, think about that message.
All of this contributes not only to a lack of self esteem and role models for girls, but to the dangerous perception by males of all ages that females deserve less in every way - less respect, less money, and less value.  We've created a monster and thoughtful discourse and action are needed to counteract it.  Seeing the film is a first step in raising awareness.  
Aside from accomplishing as much as possible in the workplace, women can vote with our wallets by not supporting media networks and advertisers who use male-targeted advertising or programming that belittles women.  That's challenging, and many times it's unavoidable.  Try to support women-helmed movies and companies.  The more vocal people are - both men and women - about their feelings on these issues, the more change we might see.
P.S. - If you see an offensive or demeaning ad depicting women, you can use the Twitter hashtag #NotBuyingIt.  Here's a compilation of some #NotBuyingIt items other members have posted.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Spotlight: Entrepreneurship: Fun Parent-Tot Lessons

The MileStar Babies Logo Dog

I recently spoke with Chelsea Duggan, Director of MileStar Babies.  MileStar subscribers receive a lesson in their inbox each day tailored to their child's age and development.  Chelsea came up with the idea as an educator frustrated by the lack of an organized resource online that would give families a fun way to share learning experiences with their kids in short daily bursts suitable for the attention span of a newborn-to-three-year-old.  

In speaking with Chelsea, I not only learned all about the development of MileStar (a play on the word "milestone" that, as parents, we hear all too often when it comes to our kids' development), but also about how she manages to get her work done efficiently as a working mom.  And boy, does she have some great expertise to share in this area.  

Read on to learn about how MileStar lessons incorporate cutting-edge research on multiple intelligences, how the British education system might differ from the States' in early childhood (from Chelsea's experience), and how Chelsea uses Timothy Ferris' "4 Hour Workweek" plan to get it all done.
Chelsea and her older son

ES: Hi Chelsea!  Let’s talk a little bit about MileStar Babies – I’d love to hear about how you decided to start it and what it’s like being an entrepreneur.

CD: Well, I’m an educator by background.  I had my first son back in 2008, and as he was getting bigger, I was trying to keep him interested and keep him developing.  The government kind of outlines all the things your kids should know by the time they go into school, and I definitely wanted him to go into his first school experience already knowing his alphabet. 

I think they have a huge confidence boost when that first school experience is a little bit of review, especially if you have a child who might be a little bit on the shy side and is unsure about being left somewhere without you.  I just wanted him to feel confident.  So we did little games and activities. 

We were in a couple different playgroups, and I would always ask my mom friends, “what do you do?”  There’s always this talk when they’re little babies about the milestones they reach – are they sitting up, are they crawling?  MileStar Babies is kind of a play on that – it’s more academic, are they reaching those “MileStars” – are they able to know their colors and shapes and alphabet?  And how can you get them really thinking about things and about the way the world works?

MileStar Babies is kind of a play on that –
 it’s more academic.  
Are they reaching those “MileStars” – 
are they able to know their colors 
and shapes and alphabet?  
And how can you get them really 
thinking about things 
and about the way the world works?

I realized when I was doing my own research to find activities that there’s a lot of free activities out there.  There’s a lot of information available.  The problem is, just like you said yourself, that you’re busy.  It’s hard to find time to go through a lot of the information that’s out there. 

And a lot of what I was finding, especially on some of the more educator-centric sites, were lesson plans, which from a parent’s perspective, if you don’t have a teaching background, can be a little confusing or overwhelming to get through. 

MileStar babies is the culmination of that – it’s about building creative and confident kids, and building learning memories so that when your kids look back on your childhood, they say to themselves, “Oh yeah, my mom and I used to do this and it was so much fun.”  And it’s a learning memory.

Currently my kids and I are having so much fun with this one: every night when it’s bathtime, we play “sink or float.”  We choose an item each day, and we sort of vet it to be sure it’s okay, and we throw it in the bath.  And we make a hypothesis – will it sink or will it float?  And we have a little chart on the wall that we keep, and we note, “Hey – these are similar – they both floated.”  Or, “These are different – one floated and one sank.” 

They make their opinion of what they think is going to happen and they throw it in.  Well you know, that’s scientific inquiry, and it’s so easy to do.  It didn’t take me any extra time in my day.  That’s why at MileStar babies, we’re looking to make it easy.  We’re not looking for burned out babies and “drill and kill” worksheets. 

We’re about making those moments where you can really connect, because I’m sure you’ve had this happen, where all of a sudden it’s dinnertime and you think, “Where did the day go?”  It was just so busy and so crazy, and we have to be careful that our days don’t all turn into that.

So we say, “Here’s this 15-minute thing you can do with your kid today to engage them and to have fun, and not have a pressure-filled situation.”  That’s really where MileStar Babies came about.

On the entrepreneur side of things, I had no idea what I was doing.  So I reached out to some friends who had started businesses and started conversations, and I started my research and put together a beta test.  And again with my education background, I understood how curriculum works and I built the curriculum, beta tested it, and got some good feedback. 

And through my connections, I built a good team to work with and we built the site and put it out there.  That’s been scary.  It’s been a big risk to say, is this something people really want? Will they use it?  And even if you have a really positive beta test, you kind of never know.

Then we officially launched in September 2012, and it probably took about a year building it prior to that – in terms of building the curriculum and the site and all that.  So far it’s going really well – we’ve had great feedback, people are really excited about it, and we’re just pushing forward, taking steps each day.

ES: What is your primary age target for kids?

CD: Right now, our system is for 0-3 year olds.  Once you hit that third birthday, you’re sort of cut off.  We’re planning to expand up to 6 years old and we’re hoping to have that launch before the Summer holidays.  We don’t have plans to go beyond 6 years of age for the reason that the curriculum diversifies too much for us to kind of customize it.  So we’re really trying to reach those pre-school age children.

ES: Do you literally have a lesson for every day, if someone wanted it, from the day a child is born up through age 3?

CD: We do, but the lessons are 5 days/week, so we don’t have lessons for Saturday and Sunday.  The great part about it, especially with our pricing, is that if you go somewhere like a Gymboree or somewhere you take your child to for classes, what you pay for a term there would get you a full year of our service.  And it’s something to do every day.  So I think we’ve really been able to make it cost-effective for parents. 

ES: Are the lessons available to parents on the computer, or their phones, or what?

CD: The way it works is when you sign up, the lessons are emailed to you each day.  And it looks sort of similar to a newsletter.  So you have a one-page letter saying, “Here’s what you do.”  And, “Here’s what you need to get ready, here’s a good time of day to do it, and here’s what you do.”

We sort of understand that not every child will like every lesson, but you also might get a lesson that your kid loves.  So we have extensions that say, “Hey, if your kid loved this activity, here’s a way to take it a step further.”  So your 15 minutes may turn into a half hour, or it may carry over to another day.  But it’s up to the parents to see what your kid enjoys and if they want to take it further or not.  It depends on your situation.

ES: It sounds really fun.

CD: I think when the kids get to that toddler age, it’s so hard to come up with new things to do all the time.  And I’m not super-crafty – I get a little bit overwhelmed with all the parts and pieces.  So there are different types of lessons.  There are certainly craft lessons in there, and there’s a lot of singing and dancing and just playing.

The great thing about it 
is that the lessons are all built 
to use what you have at home...
If your child really likes cars, 
you can substitute cars in.  
If they like dolls, use dolls.

The great thing about it is that the lessons are all built to use what you have at home.  They’re built so that you can use what you already have.  If your child really likes cars, you can substitute cars in.  If they like dolls, you can use dolls.  It’s really easy to use things you have and not have the stress of “I have to pick up this or that, or I have to glue this here…”  It’s easy ideas.

ES: Do you diversify, like “Mondays are science”, or how do you schedule the different types of lessons?

CD: Good question.  The lessons are built on a multiple intelligence theory structure, and we have to thank Dr. Howard Gardner for that.  Multiple intelligences says that people learn in different ways. 

You might have a very kinesthetic learner, somebody who learns by being very active.  Or you might have a linguistic learner, someone who learns through speaking about it and talking about it.  Or you might have a logical learner, somebody who thinks things through mathematically.  Or a musical learner, somebody who    understands music, songs…  There’s a reason why the alphabet song is so popular – kids really can understand and relate to that.

So really what we’ve tried to do is we’ve taken the content that we feel kids should know by the time they’re school age and developmentally ready to do it, and we’ve approached it so that we’re teaching that content in all of the different multiple intelligences ways. 

What that means is that if you were to do our whole program, you would start to see patterns of how your child learns.  I think what’s really awesome about that is that then when your child is school age, once they start to get into that 8-10 year old stuff, you might start to see that they might start to struggle in a certain area.

If you know your child is a really musical learner and they’re struggling with some science content in school, you as the parent know that you need to present that to them in a musical way.  So you might get together and make up a little song to remember the science information they need to know.  And so then, they’re going to have this confidence because they had success and solved this problem.  They learned it in a way that’s familiar to them.

If you know your child is a really 
musical learner and they’re 
struggling with some science content in school, 
you as the parent know that you need to 
present that to them in a musical way...  
Then, they’re going to have this confidence 
because they had success and solved this problem.  
They learned it in a way that’s familiar to them.

ES: That is so interesting.  I mentioned that my husband is starting this school, and it is focusing on multiple intelligences, but it’s interesting to hear specific examples of how it could apply to different kids.

CD: I remember in high school, going in to see my math teacher every day and saying, “I don’t understand.”  And every day he would look at me and say, “I don’t understand why you don’t get this.”

And it was so devastating to me because I felt so stupid.  And it wasn’t my problem; it was his problem because he could not explain it any other way.  He could only explain it one way, and if I didn’t understand it that way, it was my problem.

But that isn’t really what education is about.  Education is about reaching everyone, and everyone is different.  Everyone has different ways of learning.

I think another benefit of doing multiple intelligences with children is this: I don’t know if you’ve been to any of these parent-child classes, but there’s always that kid who’s racing around…

ES: That’s my kid!  Running in circles.

CD: Those kids who are super-active need active activities, but they also need opportunities for those quieter activities.  Because the thing is, when they’re school age, they’re going to be expected to sit and do circle time.  And if they’re always racing around, it not only affects their education but also all the other kids’.

I think what’s great about this is that, hey, it’s only 15 minutes.  So you’re able to control them and say, “Let’s focus on this and do this short activity together.”

Dr. Gardner is working at Harvard and there’s some really great research coming out right now, but it’s talking about how kids really need those focused periods of time, especially in this 0-3 year age range.  It’s critical because that’s when their brain architecture is forming.  So it talks about how if they get these great experiences, it helps them reach their genetic potential.

It’s great to think about, especially compared to when we grew up and we were kind of in a playpen, ignored for a lot of the day.  It’s exciting to see the research unfolding.

ES: I guess for people who grew up thirty or so years ago, when we did, if you excelled in the conventional academic environment, you know, fine.  But for people who kind of fell through the cracks and didn’t get the attention they needed, maybe it wasn’t recognized that they could have learned better in a different way.  Those kids are the ones who could have really benefitted from this new research about multiple intelligences.

CD: Also now, it’s so common for both parents to be working and people are super-busy.  And if you consider the dad’s working all day, they might only see their kid for 20-30 minutes a day.  So they can say, “We’ve only got this short time together.  Let’s make it really count.”  Let’s do something fun, let’s do something educational.

And if you consider the dad’s 
working all day, they might only see 
their kid for 20-30 minutes a day.  
So they can say, 
“We’ve only got this short time together.
Let’s make it really count.” 

And like I said, we focus on creating those learning memories where the kid can say, “Remember when daddy and I did this together,” and it can really make a difference to them as far as what they remember.

ES: I think when you do something worthwhile, it stands out in their memories and they may mention it later, multiple times.  And then talking about it reinforces that learning too.

CD: Sure, and like I said, it’s really meant to be fun.  For example, you have this toddler at home, and you probably have a sorting toy with different shapes or colors.  But if your kid’s active, they may be tired of something like that quickly. 

A game we do a lot with my youngest is we put a piece of colored paper on the floor, and we go on a treasure hunt.  We try to find as many things that are red as we can and put them on the piece of paper.  So it’s active, he’s having fun, and it’s reinforcing his color understanding.  He’s active and running around but he’s also learning to sort and be critical. 

ES: How did you go about developing this volume of lessons for the kids?  It sounds like such an overwhelming number.

CD: You know, a lot of them were things I was doing with my first son every day.  I went through education research, what should they know, what should they be able to do.  And I just figured that kind of thing out and made sure it kind of went into the timeline of their age chronologically.  Again, there are a lot of great resources on the internet – there are lots of things online you can find to do, so some of it was going through that information and changing it to fit our needs so that you didn’t have to have specific things or toys to do it.

It’s not necessarily rocket science, all the lessons.  There’s baking lessons – here’s how to do some measuring and cooking together and here’s an easy way to do it.  I won’t say that’s necessarily the pinnacle of our lessons, but it was taking activities like that and making them our own.  And then really taking steps to make it creative and fun.

I have a music background as well, so there are a lot of original songs we put in there, and again, it was stuff we were doing with our kids when they were little.  I don’t know if you ever have this problem, but I was shocked when I saw on Facebook how many friends were posting that they took their kids to the dentist and they had to have their teeth pulled because they weren’t brushing their teeth, and the parent has really struggled to get them to brush their teeth.

We have a song that we’ve always sung when our kids brush their teeth.

ES: We don’t always sing the same song, but we also discovered that if we sing a song while we brush, he’s totally distracted. 

CD: There are things in there like that, that take advantage of the time you’re already spending together.

But otherwise, I did build all the lessons and it’s pretty cool because when you receive a lesson, as a parent, you can click at the bottom on whether you liked it or didn’t like it.  So we constantly go in and change lessons and update them and make sure that our content is the best that it can be.  And that’s certainly something as an entrepreneur that can be tricky.  I have an end vision in mind, and this was what I could get out there to just begin and to try it.  But I’m constantly working to build and to upgrade and make the lessons the best you could have.

There’s sort of this curtain with education, where you go in and have your parent-teacher conference and the teacher tells you how your kid is doing, but the truth of the matter is, you know your kid better than any teacher ever will.  And I think you have to invest the time and know where to go, because there’s nothing worse than getting to the point where your kid has a problem.  I think you have to be proactive and instill that sense of confidence in your kid, because if they’re confident, then school is so much easier than when they’re feeling unsure.

I think you have to be proactive 
and instill that sense of confidence 
in your kid, because if they’re confident,
then school is so much easier 
than when they’re feeling unsure.

ES: You mentioned some government guidelines about what kids should know before starting school.  I didn’t know about that.  What are some of them?

CD: Sure – basically Washington puts out a set of core standards, and they have all their doctoral educators put that together.  And then that gets diversified to each state.  If you google “Illinois State Learning Standards”, it will come up and you can go through each subject area.

So, generally, English Writing and Mathematical are sort of what they consider the core standards, and then they’ll have fine arts and Science and Social Studies, and sometimes they’re getting into secondary languages.  And basically that outlines everything your kid should know and understand: what should your kid know and understand by a certain point.  For example, by Kindergarten.

That list talks about what they should know by the end of Kindergarten.  That list also talks about “early standards”, what your child should know before starting Kindergarten.  But all kids are very different.  That’s why I like working with this multiple intelligences theory.  Because your kid may crawl at 6 months old.  It may take mine until 8 months. 

The truth of the matter is whether or not they get the actual content isn’t as important as the experience.  I think eventually they do get the content, and that’s why we work in this structure, because the content shows up again and again in different and new ways for them to try it out.

So that’s where you can find all the learning standards.  I will say, surprisingly, I was living in London up until the end of August of this year.  And I used an international standard of learning, not just the United States state standards.  So I went through all of the US State standards for early childhood, but I also went through the European standard to be sure that we were on par with where you would be worldwide.  Because we do have a site in the UK as well.

It’s been great because you’re not only learning to just do what’s required here, but eventually you want to be competitive in a worldwide market.  Although I don’t necessarily believe that if you don’t do this, your six year old will not be able to get a job in Europe eventually.  But I think it’s more or less just making sure that you’re on the same page in terms of what everyone’s trying to reach.

ES: Did you find differences in terms of what European kids would be required to know before school and what Americans would be?

CD: The difference is interesting, and I found it less in the research, but more with my son’s experience.  He started at age three, and he went three hours a day, five days a week in a very traditional British school.  Now that we’ve moved back to the US, and due to his birthday he’s essentially the baby in his class here but we wanted him in that class because it would be a continuation of where he was over there.  In his current school here in the US, he’s doing all of the information he did last year in the British school, but a year later.  So they definitely push the academics earlier there. 

I’ve noticed that here, people are much more into part-time, they don’t want kids to go every day, whereas they go five days a week right from the start and that’s pretty typical.  I found it to be more academic than it is here.  I can’t speak for everyone.

Also, my school is still too young for the public schools here, and he was also not in a public school in England, so it’s somewhat subjective due to the schools we’ve enrolled him in.

I think that also, once you get to that three- to six-year old age, they push writing much sooner than we do here. 

And the school my son was at was very very focused on puzzles, that the kids were able to do puzzles.  Part of that, especially in London, is that the schools have very strict and difficult entry requirements.  The kids that were good at puzzles were good at critical thinking. 

If your child understands how to build 
one type of puzzle, 
they’re much more likely to understand 
how to build another type of puzzle.  

And basically, their point was that it transfers.  If your child understands how to build one type of puzzle, they’re much more likely to understand how to build another type of puzzle.  So it would help for those entrance exams.

When you’ve got these toddlers running around, you’ve got so many toys and so much going on that it’s hard to remember sometimes to pull out the puzzles or a certain toy and look at it in a new way.

That’s why I’m going to say, a lot of our lessons are not necessarily the pinnacle lesson, but they may use things you already have, and you can think about them in a new way.

ES: We definitely have a lot of puzzles, and it’s always been fascinating and even a little mind-boggling to me the number of ways there are to do them wrong.  As an adult, I couldn’t even come up with half the ways he does to put a piece in the wrong direction, wrong spot altogether, wrong side, or whatever.  Our brains process these simple puzzles so quickly that we can’t even consciously process what’s going on.

Especially with the shape sorters.  You see the circle, or cylinder, and you automatically know where it would go.  But when you see a kid go at it, you realize, “I had to learn this thing” sometime and there were lots of elements that came together to help me figure out what goes where.

Or with a flat puzzle, I’ve tried again and again to convey the concept of a straight side going on the edge, or a piece with two straight sides being a corner, but that definitely has not sunken in.

It’s amazing how much there is to learn about everything, and a puzzle is just one small example. 

CD: With this brain research that’s coming out of Harvard, it’s astounding what they’re seeing in these 0-3 year olds and how their brains are developing and building, and how much they take in.

That’s again why our lessons are really good, because we’re reminding parents how to play.  You sit down and because you’re thinking of something with such an advanced and developed mind, you just can’t remember what it’s like to sort of think of something with no boundaries. 

ES: That’s the beauty of the way that they think, but also what makes it so infuriating.  You can see the way the puzzle goes together, and obviously it’s not a challenge for an adult, so you want to jump in there but you know it’s better to let them figure it out on their own.

You forget how much information they’re processing, and I guess that’s a big part of what makes being a parent so fun – getting to relive that to some extent.

So to shift gears a little bit, to your experience as a business person, what is your day like?  What do you spend your time doing now that a lot of your lesson plans have been developed?

CD: I’m a big believer in “The 4-Hour Work Week”, if you’ve ever heard of that book by Timothy Ferris.  And no, I don’t stick to it 100%, but there were certain things in my life that I had to automate that made my life so much easier.  For example, laundry is tricky.  It’s easy, so you feel like you accomplished something in the day if it gets done.  But you didn’t actually accomplish anything – at least I don’t necessarily see it that way.  But now I only do laundry one day a week.  And if it doesn’t all get done, it has to wait for the next week. 

I don’t know about you, but we have way too many clothes anyway.  So we just do it once a week.  And that kind of automation has really helped me become successful as a businessperson.

I will say that each of my days is a little bit different.  We have our morning, we make breakfast.  We’ve recently been doing a little bit of yoga in the morning, which has been fun with our two boys.  And then we’ve got our school run.  And I’ve got the younger one with me and a couple mornings a week,           we go do a little activity, and then he goes for his nap which is around two hours. 

I’ve really worked hard to sort of get the email and the Facebook and the Twitter out of my life in the sense that I really work to try to check it only twice a day.  The 4-Hour Workweek sets it up as, “Check it at 12 and 4.” 

So, once my son is down for his nap, I have this two hour block, and I try to focus on working for those two hours, and not checking Facebook or whatever, but getting kind of core content work done. 

On Sunday nights, I’ve got my little planner 
for the week, and I choose one 
critical task and maybe one 
sort of secondary critical task 
so that I’ve got two for each day 
of the week.  
So then I know, this is what I’ve got 
to accomplish on these days of the week.

On Sunday nights, I’ve got my little planner for the week, and I choose one critical task and maybe one sort of secondary critical task so that I’ve got two for each day of the week.  So then I know, this is what I’ve got to accomplish on these days of the week.

For example, yesterday, I had a content revision, so I had a group of lessons I knew I needed to revise and I knew I had to get through them in that two hour time period.  Or I might have a day where I say, “Okay, I’m blogging for the MarketMommy.  I’ve got to get the blog done, and I’ve got two hours.”  So I’ve got to get that done and edit and email it.

I’ll give myself later in the day a 20 minute time to respond to emails and things, but I try to automate that as much as possible.

Because once my son is up, I’ve got to make lunch, and then go pick up the other one, and then we have our afternoon together and at that point, the kids are testing a lot of the lessons.  I try to have something for each day as we’re trialing and building out that 3-6 content.  So my son, who’s now 4, is testing a lot of that content and we see how it goes. 

Then before you know it, we have dinner and bedtime and I do believe in putting them to bed early, and once they’re in bed at night, if I needed more time on email or whatever, there’s time for that.  Otherwise I go back to my tasks and whatever I didn’t accomplish.

I definitely find that by saying, “I’ve got to get these two things done today,” 99% of the time I’m successful at getting those two things done.  Which is awesome, because then you can move on to the next thing.  If you can focus on exactly what it is you need to get done, it’s really helpful.

ES: This is so instructive and inspirational!  It makes it sound so doable.

CD: Yeah, thanks.  It is.  But I think your original question was actually about what I’m working on now.  We’re always working on content revision.  We’re working on building out that 3-6 year old curriculum, which we’re planning to launch in the summer.  We are going to our first trade show at the end of February and we’re planning to launch our first book alongside with that trade show.

So right now, you’ve probably seen our little logo dog.  He’s a character in our book.  We’re having three additional characters designed, and those should be finished by the end of this week.  Then they will go towards illustrating the book that’s been written.  Fingers crossed, I can have it all pulled together to sell as sort of our trial into that market at this trade show at the end of February.  So that’s kind of what we’re working on.  It sounds simple but it’s actually a lot of work!

ES: I don’t think it sounds simple!  It sounds like a ton of work!

CD: Especially the building curriculum.  And I’m also a member of the Chicago Womens Entrepreneur network, and we’re working on getting a panel of women together to do some talks throughout the area, so I have some of those things.  I also have a couple of speaking engagements at this trade show, so I’ve been working on those.  It’s all part of the juggle.

ES: Gosh, you really sound productive.  It’s really putting me to shame.  If I get a list written on a piece of paper and a load of laundry folded, I feel good.

CD: You know, I think it’s actually harder when you only have one child.  Once you have two, you’ve just got to get it done.  I need to be fiercely organized.  I actually write two to-do lists, my business list and my home list. 

Because there are always notes coming home from school: they need a shoebox, they need to bring in a Ziploc bag, they need sugar cubes.  There’s always something to bring in.  I really try hard to deal with things as soon as they come in.  If he brings home a permission slip or a book order from school, I turn around and do it right away.  I keep that family to-do list separate from my work to-do list.

For me, it’s always, “can I get my two things done today?”  For some people, it might be one thing.  But I think the hardest thing is, if you don’t know what you need to do that day, then you go to that list and you don’t know where to start. 

ES: I know, then you’re sort of flailing and nothing gets done.  I also find that making the tasks on the list extremely specific, so you get that sense of accomplishment with each one and you also don’t lose track of where you are in your task, is really helpful. 

Because if a task is too vague, it may involve multiple steps, and it’s not clear a few days later what step you’re on.  You may have left a message for someone and hit a wall waiting for their call back, so you can’t check off the task but you feel lame because it looks like you haven’t done anything if nothing’s checked off.  Then a few days later, you’re like, “wait, what else did I need to do about that?”

It’s all about “divide and conquer” for me.

CD: And I’ve definitely found that as I’ve gotten more specific about what needs to get done, I’ve gotten a better feel for what I can really get done in the time I have.

ES: Right – because if you know you’re giving yourself two tasks to do, you need to be smart about setting yourself up for success and not failure. 

Also, what you were saying about having one kid versus two or more reminded me of the old adage, “If you want something to get done, give it to a busy person.”  When we’re under pressure, we figure out a way to make things happen.  Most of us tend to procrastinate when we have too much time.  I know I do.

Sometimes setting what seems like an absurdly simple goal, like, “I’m going to do one thing today for my business, or I’m going to make one phone call today for my business” is enough to get moving.  It makes the whole thing less overwhelming. 

It’s like saying, “Today I’m going to work out for ten minutes.”  Of course once you get started, you’re going to do more, but you need to set that low hurdle to fool yourself into getting started.

You don’t have to always 
fix the whole thing or solve the whole thing, 
or have that final vision perfected.  
It’s taking one step to move 
the whole thing forward. 

CD: Exactly, it’s taking that one step.  You don’t have to always fix the whole thing or solve the whole thing, or have that final vision perfected.  It’s taking one step to move the whole thing forward.  And that may be reaching out to one person and the information you get there can take you to the next step.

ES: Chelsea, thanks again so much for speaking with us.  I love the direction this has gone and I can’t wait to enroll in MileStar Babies for my own family.

CD: Thanks again Erica, and take care.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Spotlight: Entrepreneurship: Custom Cookies & Brownies

Sharon Muse, Founder, Amusing Treats - in her Kitchen Decorating Brownies

When I got the opportunity to interview Sharon Muse, founder of Amusing Treats, I got curious.  Could custom printed cookies and brownies actually taste as good as they looked?  Usually, they're a letdown.  Fortunately, Sharon sent over a few samples and I was floored.  The cookies were soft and tasty, despite being shipped cross-country in the Winter, and the brownies were deliciously chewy and chocolatey.  Mission accomplished, Sharon!

But more interestingly, when I spoke with Sharon about her transition from homemaker/mom to successful entrepreneur, I learned so much about marketing and the challenges of balancing motherhood and work - something virtually every mom faces.  I loved hearing not just about recipe development and the logistics of baking thousand-cookie orders, but also about how a type-A mom learned how to just let go.

Read on to learn more about Sharon, Amusing Treats, and the custom baking life...

A Selection of Custom Cookies and Brownies from Amusing Treats

ES: I’m so glad we’re finally getting to talk because I want to hear about your path to founding Amusing Treats. 

SM: I was in culinary school when I first moved to Atlanta, and after that I did a little bit of catering and things – nothing really utilizing my craft quite yet.  We got married and had kids, and I stayed home with them for, gosh, I think fifteen years. 

My sister is a consultant and asked me, “I need help doing this new thing.  Do you think you could help out?  It would be fun, you could do it from home, it could get you back into the working life.”  I was like, “yes!”  And it happened to be in promotional products.  I had worked in advertising right out of college, but never in specialty products.  It’s a whole different thing.  And I just found it really interesting and fun, and the people were really easygoing and fun.  Not that real competitive feeling you get in an advertising firm – this was just a nice group of people.

But I missed cooking and baking tremendously.  Baking has always been my passion, not cooking.  I’d rather not cook you dinner.  I could bake you dinner.  But I literally was driving to school to pick up one of my daughters one day, sitting in carpool, thinking, “why not put a logo on a cookie or brownie or something like that?  Those are promotional products, but they’re tasty as well.” 

I thought, “I’d rather have a tasty brownie than a pen.”

A Promotional Cookie for an Elementary School

 ES: I know, who wouldn’t rather get a brownie than some throwaway tchotchke?

SM: And so I literally had that “Aha” moment in carpool, and I came home and started trying to figure it out.  I knew I had seen at the grocery store that you could have photographs put on cake, and it seemed like there must be a logical way to do this and I just had to figure it out.  I used the little bit of knowledge I had.  I’d never done baking professionally. 

I’d always done catering things, never baking, so I worked hard to find the right recipe to appeal to children and adults because I thought it would be a little bit cumbersome to say, “Is this party for children?  Do they want more of a milk chocolate?  Or do they want more of a grown-up, dark chocolate taste?”  I feel like I got it right and it appeals to everyone.

ES: Yeah, we were really impressed.  [Author’s note – Sharon provided me with cookie and brownie samples so I could be fully informed before the interview.]  You usually look at this type of thing and say, well, the point is for this to look good, so don’t get your hopes up that it’s going to be a delicious brownie.  But then it was a delicious brownie!

SM: Good!  I’m glad.  I hope it’s the fun of going, “Oh look – I love that company, or I love this photograph”…  I’ve done some really fun things, like I did pictures of a man’s twelve grandkids all on brownies for his seventy-something’th birthday, you know, sweet, wonderful things like that.  And then it’s even better if you bite into it and you like it.  It’s even more satisfying.  I really want it to taste good, because I’m definitely a sweet fanatic.

I thought, “why not put a logo on a cookie 
or brownie or something like that?   
Those are promotional products, 
but they’re tasty as well. 
I’d rather have a tasty brownie than a pen.”

ES: When you got started, there must have been so many challenges – finding a commercial kitchen space (or did you do it out of home), developing the recipes on a larger/industrial scale to make larger quantities…  What were some of the challenges you came across?

SM: There were so many challenges, like you said, and the recipe development was probably first and foremost.  Even different types of chocolate will turn out a different brownie, and we threw away so many batches!  Now I will pay whatever they charge for these certain types of chocolates because I know that works, that’s going to yield what I want.  I wanted a consistent product and I wasn’t getting that at first.

I don’t scale it up in large batches.  Halloween I had a thousand sugar cookies to do, and they’re pretty much all done in small batches.  I double the recipes, but I don’t triple them because once you do that, I’m not a food scientist, but the ratios get wacky and I don’t feel like you’re getting the right consistency.  So it’s all done in small batches and every cookie and brownie is a labor of love, it truly is.

ES: What is a small batch?

SM: I’d say you’re looking at 45 cookies.  A lot of it’s hand-rolled, except I was lucky enough to have a friend who let me use his dough sheeter, so once I got that busy, I didn’t have to hand-roll everything.  I could put it through the dough sheeter, which actually helped me maximize profit because I didn’t have some thicker and some thinner.  

 I think that’s still a challenge – how to grow from here – because it is so labor intensive and we’re not geared for mass quantity yet.  A thousand was definitely stretching my bandwidth.

It was fun to try, and I did it, and I was really proud of myself.  They were cute and hand-decorated little pumpkins, all tied in little bags and stuff.

ES: What kind of client was it?  Was it corporate or individual?

SM: I work with a corporate concierge company and it was their client who was an office building, and they treat their tenants so well – they gave them the cookies and other things for Halloween.  I did some Christmas cookies for them as well – they’re constantly doing things for their tenants – so they’re a great client to have.

For the same corporate concierge, I’ve done a couple office buildings in town.  Everything was sort of based out of corporate – from the beginning, I thought we had to go with corporate because you have to sell a lot.  You can’t sort of sell one or two cookies and make a business out of it.  So I hit businesses first, and have been lucky to have some constant clients that way, and then I’m trying to branch out into special events, like I’m doing bar mitzvahs and weddings, things like that.  That’s been fun.

ES: So do you contact event planners to get through to the end customers?

SM: I’m getting now where some of them have contacted me, and I’m just thrilled!  I’ll say, “How did you find me?”  And they’ll just say they googled.  It’s branching out of people who know me, or my friends, and it’s really exciting.

ES: How did you come up with who to contact for these corporate concierge type contacts, and how do you approach them?   Do you just offer to send them free cookies and they jump on it?

 ...Yes, I’m trying to sell you something, but it’s also 
with sugar and chocolate 
and people are far more receptive – 
“Oh yeah!  I’ll try that!”
SM: Kind of…  I knew someone at a corporate concierge office and I knew this was the sort of thing they recommended for their customers and clients, so I approached them to see if this was something they’d be interested in.  I sent some samples to their head marketing person and it kind of went from there.  I’ve gotten a lot less shy about passing my business card out. 

I think the icebreaker here is, yes, I’m trying to sell you something, but it’s also with sugar and chocolate and people are far more receptive – “Oh yeah!  I’ll try that!”  It hasn’t been as hard of a sell as going door to door.

Somehow I’ve managed to network.  I listen to the radio and I heard this woman who has a blog, and I sent her a sample and thought, “I’ll just see if she’s interested in blogging about it.”  And she did, and she got me on the radio and TV.  So I’ve been kind of stepping out of my box that way some.  Again, I think it’s easier with sugar and candy.

ES: Yeah, the product kind of sells itself.  It’s an entrée into most people’s hearts.  It’s something that everyone, even though they know they shouldn’t, is always open to.

SM: I have worked on developing a lighter cookie with Truvia, but I am more of an indulgence – it’s not something you’re going to eat every day.  I’m not trying to be.  I’m a special event go-to.

Some Harry Potter Themed Brownies
ES: With the printing technology, was it hard to develop the actual icing that would handle the picture or printing the best?

SM: I think the printing has been the largest learning curve.  I take it back about the recipes.  It’s completely different from what we print with when we’re printing documents on paper.  That ink has a self-cleaner in it from HP or Canon or whoever, but the ink that I use on food doesn’t.  It’s just pure food coloring and it clogs very easily. 

You have to treat your printer – I wouldn’t say like a baby – but you have to pay attention to it and you have to fully clean it every other day.  You have to clean it and run it, and there is some waste in the ink, because once it’s clogged, it’s a bear to get unclogged.

I learned that the hard way on one of my first, biggest orders for cakes.  I started printing the photos and one of the colors started coming out wrong.  Many late nights trying to figure that out.

ES: It sounds like you’d just want to bang your head against the wall.

SM: Well it was just so unfamiliar to me.  And I couldn’t call an IT person.  I’ve relied on a lot of people around the country who do this sort of thing.  The sheets that are printed on, I don’t make.  They’re made by a few companies in the country, and it’s basically sugar sprayed onto a stick-resistant, Teflon kind of feeling paper.  You run that through the printer and then it peels off and goes onto the brownie/cookie/cake.  It’s not that hard to do; it’s just the maintenance of it all that’s hard.

ES: Will it stick onto any flat icing or frosting?

SM: I can’t stick it directly onto fondant.  It needs something gooey or soft.  Buttercream works well – it kind of blends into buttercream and will just absorb.  You can do it on royal icing, white chocolate for the brownies.  It’s wet, so it will just sort of sit on that.  It takes about a half hour to dry. 

And then I like to let the images cure, because sometimes the images will cure and bleed for some reason.  Somebody’s logo will have a lot of red in it, and the cartridges that you have…  It’s all very batch-to-batch issues.  For some reason, the cartridges that you have don’t want to hold the red border or something – it wants to bleed – and you can’t deliver something that’s bleeding.  You have to figure it out.

ES: I’m getting frustrated just imagining trying to do this.

SM: It is frustrating.  I was thrilled to have the thousand pumpkin cookies because they didn’t have anything to do with the printer – I knew I could handle that.  It was just me in production making sure the fondant was made, it was good, that I could handle.  But when things are out of your control, it is very frustrating, and you think, “Why am I doing this?”

ES: So you do some cookies that are frosted in a decorative way without the printing?

SM: Absolutely – we do piped cookies all the time.  The ones for Halloween were pumpkins, and then the ones for Christmas were candy canes, Christmas trees, and gingerbread men.  It’s really important to me that the cookie tastes good and not like cardboard. 

The royal icing will dry hard, and that’s what you need to have that clean look if you’re doing a hand-decorated cookie, but it’s got to taste good, so I found what I consider the perfect royal icing that’s going to have a little bit of flavor to it vs. just that sweet, coats the back of your teeth feeling. 

And then the cookie has to be soft.  For me, I like a soft cookie.  I don’t want to crunch into it.  It’s all done to my taste.

ES: No, seriously, I was so impressed because when you see that sort of thing, especially when it’s been shipped to you, you just think, “Oh it’s so pretty, it’s not going to taste good.”  But it actually did.  So you accomplished it.

SM: Thank you so much.  My husband had surgery and somebody sent him cookies.  And I thought, “Oh good!  I want to taste the competition.”  And there are some good ones out there, I’m not saying there’s not, but this was awful!  And it looked so pretty!  I thought, “That’s a shame.  They spent a lot of money on this.  And it was just terrible.”

ES: I know – you just assume it’s the price you pay for having a pretty cookie.

SM: And that’s a shame.

ES: So did you go to culinary school instead of college, or was that after college?

SM: No, I went to college and I majored in Theater.  I didn’t really do anything with that, so I don’t suggest that.  I’m telling my children, “No, you can’t major in Theater.  You have to have a backup.”  I went into advertising right out of college, and I never really cooked much in college at all.  In college it was kind of a joke, how bad I was at cooking.  But as I got out and got my own apartment and started cooking some, it really became an interest of mine.  Then I moved to Atlanta and there’s a culinary school here, and I thought, “I’m going to go.”  I wasn’t that far into my career that I couldn’t take time to do something different.  I was young enough, so I did.  And then I met my husband and we got married, so I kind of veered off the culinary course for a while.

ES: When you were in culinary school, what did you think you might end up doing with it?

SM: Well, I knew that the restaurant lifestyle might be a challenge.  So I kind of always thought of myself in catering, where I could take jobs or not if I was overbooked or if I had my daughter’s something-or-other to go to.  I’m a mom first right now.

It’s funny, I was just reading your article with Jill this morning, and you got down to the questions about being a mom and being a businesswoman.  For me, I’ve always been a mom, and now that I’m a businesswoman, I find it really challenging to juggle both.  That’s why I started out wanting to be in catering where I could somewhat control my schedule.

ES: It sounds like now you have flexibility in which hours you choose to work, but you don’t want to turn down jobs or anything.

SM: No, I don’t.  And you had asked about commercial kitchens and when I first started out, I did rent a commercial kitchen.  But now in Georgia, they passed the cottage industry law, where you can bake out of your own kitchen.  You can bake certain things.  You can’t cater, because they won’t let you do seafood and meats and certain things, but baked goods like mine or like a granola company you can do out of your house.

That’s been good and bad, because you can work 24 hours.  I’m constantly going back to it.  You have to stop and pick up the kids from ballet or whatever, but it’s okay.  I think I’m the more exhausted one, but I wouldn’t change it right now.

Their friends think it’s the greatest thing ever, 
because there’s always something being made, 
but my kids are over it.

 ES: Your house must always smell like cookies and brownies!

SM: It does.  It always smells like cookies and brownies, and it is covered with powdered sugar or flour all the time.  I’m covered with flour or sugar all the time, and my kids are like, “Why do you wear black when you bake?”  I don’t know, it’s just what I’m drawn to.

Their friends think it’s the greatest thing ever, because there’s always something being made, but my kids are over it.

ES: Are there ever little “extras” or “mistakes” lying around?

SM: Oh, definitely.  I bribe them that way. 

ES: Is it hard to maintain separation between materials?  You want to keep track the ingredients you buy for work vs. just home use, I’d think, for tracking expenses.

SM: I don’t keep that much in the house just for us, so if anything I’d dip into the work supplies.

ES: You probably don’t do much recreational baking anymore.

SM: Over Christmas, I was like, “I need to make cakes to give to the neighbors and I need to make popcorn that I’ve done in years past.”  For a couple years, I stopped doing anything that I used to do.  And the kids were like, “Where’s the caramel popcorn we used to have at Christmastime?”  I was like, “Ugh, okay.”

ES: You just probably don’t want to think about that stuff anymore when you’re not working.

SM: Exactly.  And I don’t want to cook dinner either.

I think time management is a challenge when you work from home.  You know, you hear the laundry go off, and you want to take care of it.  I’ve had to really set boundaries for myself, to say, “You’re working now.  That’s what you’re doing.”  I’m not that good at it yet, but I’m getting better.

ES: I think that’s something that people who work independently struggle with a lot.  That’s why people tend to go to coffeeshops or somewhere else just to escape the distractions of their own lives.  It’s unexpected and you think it’s going to be a benefit – you think, “Oh, I’ll be able to take care of all those little errands that would always pile up when I was working in an office.”  But if you aren’t disciplined about doing your actual work, it’s so easy to lose track of time.

Maybe in the office, you had a long commute or you spent a lot of time on facebook when you should have been working, so you think, “I can use all that extra time I’ll have now to do the laundry or drop off the dry cleaning or buy groceries.”  But it’s not going to necessarily be an even trade, and your own business is probably going to require even more time than whatever your office job was in order to make it a success.

SM: You’re right – the lines are blurred.  Sometimes it works out perfectly if your child calls from school and says you have to pick them up because they’re sick – you can drop everything and do that.  So there’s the pluses and the minuses.  I’m still pretty new to figuring that out.  And now I have one kid driving, so if I really need to, I can ask her to pick up her sister.

ES: Do you have any employees, or are you still doing all these orders on your own?

SM: When I have the large orders, I have a few people I can call.  I usually know the large orders pretty far in advance.  Nobody’s going to call and say, “Can you do 1,000 cookies for next week.”  Then I’ll try to book somebody or even two people. 

But with most orders I can handle it myself.  I’ve gotten pretty fast.  I’m much faster than I was in years past.

ES: That’s nice.

SM: It is nice, but you know, I would like a brick-and-mortar someday just for the camaraderie of it all.  It’s not so lonely, you have help consistently, and you can be more creative because you have someone you can bounce ideas off of.

ES: When you bring in other people, are they from the culinary school?  Where do you find them?

SM: No, no.  These are just people I know who have enjoyed baking in the past.  Or I have a really good friend who can’t bake at all, but she’ll help with the packaging and the shipping.  I’m the one doing the baking.  And that’s usually the case – I want to make sure the product is consistent and it’s going to look good.  So I haven’t trained anyone per se to do what I do.  It’s me right now.  I probably need to start doing that.

Literally at that point, 
the kitchen is closed except for cookies.
I’m like, “Don’t even come in here 
asking what’s for dinner.  
 Fend for yourselves!  Here’s the credit card.”

ES: How long does the product keep?  If you have 1,000 to make and they only keep a few days, do you get concerned with the consistency between the first and last batches?

SM: That was a big concern with that Halloween order.  But luckily they were the cookies, and the cookies really keep well if they’re sealed really well.  You can put them in the freezer for a little bit.  You can only do it for a few days – you can’t bake a month in advance.  But if you know your big decorating day is going to be Wednesday, you can start baking Saturday or Sunday. 

And literally at that point, the kitchen is closed except for cookies.  I’m like, “Don’t even come in here asking what’s for dinner.  Fend for yourselves!  Here’s the credit card.”

And they know that ahead of time too – I am in work mode, and they’ve been really sweet and understanding about that.  You’re working more than 12 hour days on those orders.  But they’re few and far between, it’s not like I have 1,000 cookie orders all the time.  I think if that were the case, you’d have to hire someone to make them outside.  And I don’t want to do that yet.  That may be where it goes. 

We’ve had a couple really large orders.  We had a custom cookie cutter we designed for a children’s book called Stinky Kids.  One of the main characters, Stinky Britt, we made a cookie cutter for.  The author and I hope that one day, that main character will be something you could buy the cookie cutter for and you could buy the cookie, the books, the doll, all at once. 

But I really want to stay really hands-on with everything now to control the quality.

The Custom "Stinky Britt" Cookie
ES: How did that come about?  How did you meet that author?

SM: Oh, it was so random!  I was in line at UPS and she was a few people in front of me and she was overnighting something.  She just happened to say the address and it was, “Today Show, something something.” 

I’m one of those people who will just talk to anybody, so I said, “The Today Show?  Congratulations!  That’s exciting!  What are you sending?” 

And she said, “I’m sending my book.”  I was so excited for her, so we kept in touch, and our friendship has grown and she’s a dear friend of mine. 

She lives really close to me and she’s been a big supporter of mine, as well as me of her.  So it was completely random – I just sort of butted in her business at UPS.

ES: Well, sometimes fate brings us people who were meant to be in our lives.  You said you made the custom cookie for her – what occasion was it for exactly?

SM: It was for the opening of her show in New York.  She’ll order a bunch of cookies.  They’re on my website – there’s a whole gallery of “Stinky Kids”.  If she has a signing at Bloomingdales or Nordstroms, she’ll take some there.  For the opening of the show in New York, she took some. 

The other custom cookies I’ve done are these feet cookies – I have a client who’s a salesman and he always wants to get his “foot in the door” – so he hands these out and he said it’s been quite successful.

ES: It sounds like there’s so much potential, and you’re doing a great job in reaching out to influencers who can get people to order from you, so you’re being very smart about it.

SM: I hope so.  I think there’s still so much that I haven’t tapped.  I haven’t gone to the hotels.  I even think it would be neat for hospitals – if you’ve had a baby, or if you’re sick (of course not if you need a special diet)…

ES: It’s always a question when to hire help to figure out strategies for expanding your sales – but at the same time, if you’re pretty busy and you don’t want to grow beyond your capabilities, it’s tricky.  You want to be able to meet all the orders you get.

SM: That’s a dilemma.  It’s also a dilemma as a mom for me with my 13 year old.  She’s not driving.  She still needs me to get her from here to there.  I feel like I can grow steadily until she’s 16 and then I can make the decision, okay, are we ready to kick this up a couple notches or not?

In 2012 I doubled my sales.  I don’t know if I can do that again and maintain sanity.  I’m learning as I go.

ES: That’s fabulous!  Congratulations on that.  Have you found the business side to be one of the bigger challenges too, keeping track of accounting and all that stuff that’s not related to baking at all?

SM: Definitely!  I would love to hire all that out, and I would love to hire all the marketing out and let me just stay in the kitchen and bake.  The business side – even just pricing it out – my sister helps me with that.  She’s a consultant and she wanted to charge more, and I said, “I just can’t charge that much.”  And she’s like, “Oh Sharon!” 

The business side – even just pricing it out – 
my sister helps me with that.   
She’s a consultant and she wanted to charge more, 
and I said, “I just can’t charge that much.”   
And she’s like, “Oh Sharon!”  

But I just don’t even like taking money sometimes, and I know that sounds so cliché, but truly I love what I do, so it’s kind of weird to have someone pay you for it.  I mean, if you’re doing 1,000, you’re really grateful to see that check come in and you feel like, “I really earned that.” 

But when you’re just doing it for someone and you know the backstory and it’s for someone’s special occasion, it’s just a pleasure and it just doesn’t even feel like you need to charge.  But when I charge, which of course I do, I actually now feel like I need to raise prices.  Butter’s gone up, sugar’s gone up.  Everything’s gone up.  And I haven’t done that yet because I’m not sure how comfortable I am with that. 

I’m not a businesswoman; I’ve  never claimed to be.  I’m learning all of this.  I read a lot of blogs.  There’s so much information on the internet.  I signed up for all these newsletters, and I realized I got too bogged down in learning all this stuff and I wasn’t implementing it.  I wish I had some more business background from college.

ES: Right, although really, I think the best way to learn this kind of thing is on the job.  As someone who did get an undergrad business degree, I can say that you tend to learn a lot about corporate finance and game theory, but you don’t necessarily learn the essentials of running your own cookie business.

SM: That’s what I need…  It’s also so hard to get your name out there, and to manage all this social media.  For me, Facebook and Twitter has not translated into sales.  Maybe once.  And I don’t know if it’s just because I’m not doing it right, or it’s not where the customers are…  I don’t know.

ES: It’s not necessarily right for every business, and I feel like we get it rammed down our throats that you’ve got to do all this social media interaction, and it’s not going to translate into sales for every sort of business.  It’s just not right for everyone.  And traditional face to face interaction and sales like you’re doing can be so much more effective for a business like yours. 

Calling people and sending them a physical sample of the cookies and brownies sounds like it would be so much more effective than tweeting out something about a cookie or posting a status update.  We’re all inundated with updates now and I just tune all that stuff out if it’s from a company.  I’d rather have the real personal interaction with people.  It’s not necessarily right for every business, don’t you think?

SM: I definitely think so.  I think for something like a coaching business, it can be successful.  And I’ve definitely been one of their customers – I’ll see something, a blurb, in one of the blogs I’m reading and I’ll click through and find out more about this and buy an ebook or a service or whatnot. 

But that’s never been right for my business, and maybe like you said, mine is more of a “back to grassroots” marketing model.  A business where I’m making everything in small batches, it is more old fashioned in that sense.  I’ve always thought, “What am I doing wrong?”, not “Maybe it isn’t right for my business,” so thanks for saying that.

ES: If someone’s selling you their personal service based on their intellect, like a coaching business, that might translate better through Facebook and Twitter than someone selling cookies, which need to taste good and look good.  Every marketing channel isn’t right for every business.  It sounds like you’re doing so much right – your sales are growing and you have a thriving business. 

SM: I’m working on it – sometimes I feel like I’m volunteering for Amazing Treats, but other times I look back on it and say, “Okay, you are growing something really good.”  It’s not only fun, it’s growing into a viable business.  It’s exciting.

Coming from my personal background, it’s hard for myself to think of myself as a businesswoman.  So you can be your own enemy, holding yourself back from thinking you’re not making it in the business world – you’re just making cookies.

ES: Right – some people may belittle it, but in reality it’s a viable business.

SM: I’ve had somebody say, “Are you still doing your little business?”  And I’ve said, “Yeah, everything’s still up and going.  It’s going really well.” 

Or, “Well, I thought of you, but I decided to get a real baker.  Do you do cakes?”  And I said, “Yes, I definitely do cakes.  And I am a real baker – I went to culinary school.”  And she said, “Oh, I didn’t realize that.”  Because people know me as a mom first.  And I don’t think she meant it as belittling as it came across, but I certainly wasn’t pleased about it.

ES: Yeah, because that sounds pretty mean.

SM: I thought, well, she met me as a mom first and maybe she thought of me as one of those people who just had a hobby.  And that is how it started.

ES: I’m guilty of the same thing with my interior design business.  I’m not a natural self-promoter, and my husband is the opposite.  So he’s always talking me up to anyone we know, and I’m always downplaying it because that’s my natural tendency.  And in reality, I would love for my business to be bigger, and rationally, I know you won’t ever grow if you don’t reach out of your comfort zone. 

But he has this natural gift for just going for it, saying, “Of course you could do that million dollar project.”  And I don’t know if it’s related to being a woman or just my nature, but I never want to oversell myself or seem overly confident because those people can rub me the wrong way when I meet them.  But there’s a balance between believing in yourself and going overboard, and it’s challenging to find it.

SM: I think that’s the hard thing – believing in yourself.  I fully agree with you that it’s hard to promote yourself, that you’re good at what you do.  And taking on challenges, like doing a larger space or something that might be outside of your present comfort zone, is scary.  For me, what I immediately think of in those situations is, “how am I going to handle this with my family?”  And maybe that’s the mom thing coming out, while your husband would right away say, “Sure!”

ES: I like to think of it as being practical rather than “negative.”  And I have to convince myself to say, “Sure – I can do it.”  And then figure out how to make it happen, rather than turning something down because you’re worried it will be too hard.

SM: There you go.  It’s great he’s supportive though.  You guys can be there for each other.  Sometimes I wish I were more like your husband, and I could just go for it.

ES: I admire that trait so much, and I try to open myself up and be more like that, but it’s also good because we balance each other out.

The embarrassing thing is that I did go to business school, but it wasn’t like we learned how to run a small business – it was more theoretical or high-level.

SM: Right – like analyzing financial data.  It’s not quite the same as, “how do you do this specific business, in a recession mind you.”

I had to learn to let go – that if 
the laundry wasn’t perfectly folded, 
or if dinner wasn’t a gourmet meal 
worthy of the teachers I had in culinary school, 
the reality is that my kids honestly 
don’t even care.  

ES: Right – and marketing is so important – and that’s more than half of having a successful business I think – being a salesperson.  And that is something that is very difficult to teach someone, myself being the primary example of that.  It sounds like you’ve approached it in a very smart way with these contacts you’ve made.

SM: I’m trying to.  I learn a lot, and I make mistakes each day.  It’s definitely a learning experience.

ES: What do you think some of the most important realizations you’ve made have been?

SM: I would say that, and this is going to sound corny again, but you just really can’t be so hard on yourself.  I had to learn to let go – that if the laundry wasn’t perfectly folded, or if dinner wasn’t a gourmet meal worthy of the teachers I had in culinary school, the reality is that my kids honestly don’t even care. 

They might say, “That’s good chicken!”  And I’m there saying, “That’s pork tenderloin, that’s not even chicken.”  Why am I beating myself up over this?! 

I’ve learned to let go of the small things and I had to learn to live in the moment a lot more, to tackle what’s due now.  I used to plan Christmas six months in advance.  That’s just gone by the wayside.  That’s been a big lesson, learning to live in the moment.  That’s been a huge gift, lesson, painful to learn, but at the same time really rewarding.  Finally, I get it.  It was not something that came easy. 

For me, when I became a stay-at-home mom, I poured myself into it.  So the laundry being folded was important.  But now I’m like, “Why am I obsessing over this?  Either it’s folded or it’s not folded.  They can fold it themselves.  They’re old enough.”

I guess to sum it up, it’s to say not to overfunction in certain areas that are just unnecessary, and that are probably a disservice to my kids.  It’s better for them to learn to do certain things on their own. 

And they’ve been the biggest supporters.   One day a couple years ago, I was just done.  I was sick of cookies.  I was sick of brownies.  The chocolate brownie recipe was really difficult to get just right, and I just said, “I quit.”  And my daughter was so funny – she said, “You can’t quit, mommy.”  She goes, “You’re doing this.  This is what you love to do.”  And I thought, “I can’t quit.  My daughter’s watching me.  Let’s figure this out.”

ES: You’re setting such a good example for your girls as a woman businessperson.

SM: I hope that they will learn earlier on than I did to find a passion and follow it.  This really didn’t happen until I was forty.  If I can give that to them, that would be awesome.