When ‘Mom’ Becomes ‘Partner’
by Elizabeth Olson May 07 2013
For these moms, finding the perfect business partner meant looking
close to home and identifying the talents and passions their daughters possessed.
Estimates suggest there are 8 million women-owned businesses in the United States, but no one keeps records of how many mother-daughter businesses are in operation.
Staying blonde was a hassle for Bonnie Steen, so she decided to develop a comb to apply hair color directly to the roots. It took her almost five years to get the applicator right, then her effort foundered because the former college financial-aid adviser knew nothing about marketing and distribution.
Enter Susan Ladua, Steen’s daughter, who had some manufacturing and marketing experience. Mother and adult child decided to become partners to get the color applicator company, which they called Roots Only, up and running.
The pairing paid off. Ladua helped snag a contract with Wal-Mart, starting first at their local California store, then expanding nationwide. Steen, 67, focused on strategy and being the public face for the Roots Only applicator while Ladua, 47, tried to make sure that the product was stocked at stores and displayed in the hair-coloring section.
Their company is one of a growing number of entrepreneurial mothers and daughters who are forming and running businesses together. Roots Only expects to hit in $1 million in revenues this year as the company broadens its sales to beauty-supply stores and other outlets to reach more of the estimated 100 million Americans who dye their hair.
As Mother’s Day rolls around Sunday, such family enterprises are becoming more commonplace and more visible, said Nell Merlino, president of Count Me In for Women’s Economic Independence, a nonprofit group that supports the growth of female-owned businesses.
“We come across mother-daughter businesses regularly now,” says Merlino, whose 10-year-old group holds competitions around the country to locate and bolster the business prospects for promising female-owned businesses.
No one tracks the number of mother-daughter businesses. Even the government’s official number of women-owned enterprises only dates back to 2002, with an update from the U.S. Census Bureau scheduled for July. A report last fall by the Center for Women’s Business Research estimated there are 8 million women-owned businesses—or slightly more than one-quarter of the nationwide total—and they generate some $3 trillion and millions of jobs for the U.S. economy.
The estimate dovetails with data that more women are the sole providers for their households. A CareerBuilder survey released last week found 36 percent of some 600 women surveyed support their household. Many work in offices, but women are also striking out on their own, often in the health care and personal-services businesses, as well as wholesale and retail supply enterprises such as Roots Only.
“These women are problem solvers,” says Merlino, who came up with the Take Our Daughters to Work day. “They see a problem that needs to be addressed or a service that needs to be done, and they come up with a solution.”
For Steen, it was finding that coloring her hair was “time consuming and messy. I was missing spots on the back of my head and damaging my hair, so I decided to do something about it.”
After lots of experimenting, she and her late husband, Claude, finally came up with a prototype, made of straws from WD-40 cans glued to a plastic bottle, that distributed the hair coloring evenly to the roots. Then they found that the cheapest price to make a marketing prototype would be a hefty $50,000.
Ladua, who was working for a medical-device manufacturer, was able to connect them with a skilled machinist who created a model for less than $10,000, which was a more reasonable startup cost.
Steen began to sell the applicator locally at fairs, but sales were modest until she asked her daughter to partner with her in the business. Ladua helped Roots Only acquire a credit rating, liability insurance, and bar coding—all of which had to be done before Roots Only arrived on Wal-Mart shelves.
While Steen and Ladua had the complimentary skills which are ideal for such startups, family enterprises also are famously stressful. That is something Jen Lyles says she works through every day with her mother, Kathy Spears, in operating FireSign Inc., which supplies promotional merchandise and apparel to groups nationwide.
“I’m a risk taker. I just want to get it done, and we’ve had very heated discussions about the business,” Lyles, 31, admits.
She and her mother started with one client, and have been running the business from their Smyrna, Georgia, home since 2004. It didn’t help that they lived and worked in the same house until the basement was finished and Lyles was able to have her own personal living quarters.
She calls her mom, “Kathy,” not “Mom” because customers who knew of their relationship would sometimes say: “You don’t know what you’re talking about. Put your mother on the phone,” she recalls.
For her part, Spears, 50, says “it can be a bit of a power struggle. Your child thinks you are trying to control them or second-guess their decisions, but it’s really about business.”
Even so, Lyles, who began developing the plan for FireSign after she graduated from college, admits that the business, which is aiming for seven-figure sales this year, could not flourish without the insights her mother brings from her prior experience working in the printing, trucking, and staffing businesses.
What helped them overcome sometimes clashing work styles was a professional business coach who worked with them to create a chart defining their responsibilities, and “once you have it in writing, it’s a lot easier,” Lyles advises.
That worked for Doreen Foxwell, 42, who partnered with her daughter, Francesca Paglia, 22, to operate the Children’s School of Yoga in Monroe, New York. Paglia started working with her mother after high school and is in charge of selecting and training the yoga instructors.
“My daughter is my right-hand person, she teaches with me and runs things behind the scenes with me and is learning all of the inner workings to one day take the business over,” says Foxwell.
But it’s easier because the two don’t work in the same space, she concedes. Yoga lessons for children, from newborns to late teens, are offered in several locations in addition to their studio in Monroe.
“There are lines we try not to cross,” Foxwell says. “I definitely value her opinion. I run my business decisions by her, then I wait a day.
“But we have a legal partnership, so I have the final say.”