Parents’ creativity unleashed when faced with practical needs


Innovations inspired by kids Parents’ creativity unleashed when faced with practical needs

Ilana DeBare, Chronicle Staff Writer
Sunday, November 26, 2006

Click to View

Brenda Dronkers took her 4-year-old son to a church festival with dozens of games and contests, but he kept returning over and over to the big inflatable slide and bounce house. That same week, her 11-year-old daughter came home from another fair, talking nonstop about jousting and sumo wrestling games that had involved inflatable structures.

Dronkers had an idea: Why not start a business providing children’s parties in a big, safe, clean warehouse filled with inflatable play equipment?

Seven years later, the Pleasanton mother is president of a $53 million company called Pump It Up — a franchise operation with 150 party centers in 41 states and an additional 75 centers getting ready to open.

Dronkers’ business has been unusually successful. But in other ways, she is typical of a new breed of parent entrepreneurs — mothers and fathers who create businesses based on their experiences raising their children.

These are people like Jordan Kerner, a former telecommunications consultant in Connecticut whose two sons inspired him to start a company called Waddajuice, selling a mixture of juice and water in hard-to-spill containers.

Or like Ann Neale of San Diego, whose toilet-training adventures led to a product called Tinkle Targets aimed at helping little boys refine their bathroom skills.

Or like Laine Caspi, who found a particularly comfortable infant carrier in Israel and got so many envious comments from other mothers that she decided to start manufacturing them in the United States.

There are no data available on how many people create products or services based on their parenting experiences. But industry sources say that, anecdotally, they are seeing more such ventures than in past decades.

"Mom and dad inventors are a huge part of the juvenile product industry, and definitely a growing trend," said Amy Chezem, spokeswoman for the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association.

What’s behind this apparent rise in parent entrepreneurs? One factor is the growing number of mothers with business backgrounds.

Twenty years ago, a stay-at-home mom might have daydreamed about a better diaper bag but often had no clue how to produce or sell such an item. Today, that same mom is likely to be someone like Roberta Greenspan, a Belmont software executive who had worked at startups like Napster.

Staying home with her first child, Greenspan was frustrated by how her daughter’s plastic sippy cups invariably leaked and left her purse soaking wet. She used her tech industry experience to figure out how to start a business selling juice boxes filled with water.

"Being in high tech and living in Silicon Valley taught me the importance of networking," said Greenspan, whose product is called Wateroos. "I set out to ask people, ‘Who do you know, who do you know?’ One person led to another, and all of a sudden I had a pool of resources. They ended up educating me, and then I ended up hiring them in my first year."

Another factor is the Internet, which has made many aspects of starting a business easier — from finding overseas manufacturers to selling items directly to consumers without the overhead costs of a retail store.

Pazit Kagel is a Los Gatos designer and mother of three who was unable to find nursery furniture that matched her contemporary, minimalist aesthetic. She opened a children’s furniture store in Menlo Park along with an online store. About a year ago, she closed the bricks-and-mortar store and put all her focus on the online store, ModernMini, which this year generated $230,000 in sales.

"My market is so (geographically) wide-based that it is perfect for the Web," Kagel said. "Items at the online store just flew. With bricks and mortar, we couldn’t justify the expense."

One seminal figure in the world of parent entrepreneurs is Julie Aigner-Clark, who founded the line of Baby Einstein educational videos in 1997 when she couldn’t fund suitable products for her own children. The company took off like wildfire, reaching sales of $20 million when it was bought by the Walt Disney Co. in 2001. She became an inspiration for countless other entrepreneurial parents.

"Julie Aigner-Clark really brought this trend into being six or seven years ago," said Caspi, who expanded her baby carrier business into a company that now licenses and develops inventions by other mothers.

Another Johnny Appleseed of the parent-entrepreneur movement has been Walnut Creek resident Tamara Monosoff, author of "The Mom Inventors Handbook."

Monosoff was a former business consultant and White House staffer who had never thought about inventing anything until her 10-month-old daughter developed a habit of unspooling the toilet paper.

"It was cute until she clogged the toilet," said Monosoff.

With what seemed like a zillion childproofing products available, Monosoff looked for a device to protect the toilet paper. But there wasn’t one. So she designed her own — modeled roughly on a hair-curling rod — found an engineer and machine shop in the Yellow Pages, applied for a patent, hired a marketing firm to do focus groups, and 11 months later was presenting her TP Saver at trade shows.

But Monosoff quickly realized she couldn’t build a viable business around a single product. So, like Caspi, she started licensing and producing items invented by other mothers. She opened an online store selling "mom invented" products. She also formed a partnership with Good Morning America where she helps the TV show select a mom-invented product of the year. Revenue for her company, Mom Inventors, are now close to $1 million.

"Four years ago, I would call up big (child product) companies and they’d say, ‘Oh no, we don’t accept outside submissions,’ " Monosoff said. "I don’t think that’s the case anymore. The big companies are paying attention to parents."

As inspiring as someone like Aigner-Clark or Monosoff is, there are also plenty of failed ventures in the world of parent entrepreneurs. Some parents get so caught up in their own enthusiasm that they don’t bother to see if anyone else wants their product.

"We got one submission from someone who decided to put a rubber band around a pacifier to hold it in the baby’s mouth, and another that was a straitjacket so the baby wouldn’t put his hands in his food," said Caspi, whose company is called Parents of Invention. "We got one suggesting rubber gloves with nipples (for a baby), so when he puts his fingers in his mouth he gets a nipple. The amount of ridiculous (stuff) we get is unprecedented."

There are other challenges. Even with good product ideas, it can be difficult to find distributors willing to carry a single item. And parent entrepreneurs, like anyone starting a business, need to understand the finances of their industry.

"Pricing is one of the biggest mistakes made by parents," said Jennifer Smith, merchandising director of Chelsea & Scott, which publishes the One Step Ahead catalog of baby gear. "A lot of times they want to sell it wholesale for the price it should get at retail. They want to amortize all their R&D into the initial cost."

Meanwhile, parents who think that starting a business will allow them to painlessly blend kids and career may be in for a rude awakening.

Sue Older-Mondeel started an Oakland parent-child cafe called Tea and Tumble because she wanted a pleasant spot to have an adult meal while her year-old son could play freely. Ironically, since opening the cafe in August, she has been too busy to spend much time there with her own children. They’re in day care and preschool while she runs the business.

"It’s not a cure-all pill," said Dronkers, the Pump It Up founder. "People say, ‘It must be so nice to work for yourself.’ Well, I don’t. I work for 225 franchisees. … You still need to carve time out for your children. And when you’re working at home, it can be even more difficult. You’re there but not there, which is almost worse."

One question for all parent entrepreneurs, whether successful or struggling, is whether passion for their business will continue as their children outgrow it. Will the mom who is enthusiastically hawking diaper bags today be as committed when her daughters are in underpants or — someday in the unimaginable future — Victoria’s Secret bikinis?

Kagel is already selling teen furnishings alongside the cribs and mobiles at ModernMini. And Greenspan, the Wateroos founder, is thinking ahead even though her initial line of water boxes is just starting to show up on supermarket shelves. Her older daughter is 4, although her younger one is just 5 months.

"We think about it a lot: What’s next, is there an older-kid product for us?" Greenspan said. "I don’t know what it is yet, but I’ve got some ideas."


Leave a Reply

RSS Daily Search Trends