Mothers of Invention – Times Publications, May 2011
It all started with a messy toddler’s bathtub. Ahwatukee mom Rebecca Finell, a mother of three and, at the time, a 29-year-old Arizona State University industrial design student, was working on a school project when she had an idea that would one day land her at the helm of an international company.Inspired after tiring of wet bath toys strewn across a drained tub, Finell envisioned a pod-shaped device that could be mounted on the shower wall to rinse, dry and store bath toys. She set out to design such a product, envisioning it being in the shape of a kid-friendly character. The Frog Pod Bath Toy Scoop was born. It was just a simple storage organizer with the drainable scoop for collecting toys, but it would go on to become a phenomenally popular product for parents worldwide.
“I was just looking at easy ways to clean up in the bathroom,” Finell says. “It was really more of a problem-solving solution.”
But Finell’s innovations for the modern parent didn’t end with the Frog Pod. Armed with a slew of kid-friendly ideas, she sought out a business partner and together they founded Boon Inc., now an internationally successful company. Since the Frog Pod hit shelves in 2005, Boon has launched more than 50 products now available in thousands of stores in 55 countries.
While it never occurred to her that becoming a mom would spawn the idea for an invention which would ultimately develop into a successful business, Finell says most motherly inventions are indeed born from necessity.
“I was at home with two babies, and when I went to buy baby products I would just think, ‘Wow, this hasn’t changed since I was a kid,’ or ‘they don’t have a solution for this issue,’” Finell says. “I think moms sit at home and they think up all these ideas. It’s very natural.”
Finell is one of a growing number of Valley moms who have come up with an idea for a product while caring for their children. But for many so-called mompreneurs, coming up with the latest million-dollar idea is not the tough part – it’s figuring out what to do with it.
From Concept to CompletionWhile changing diapers and pushing strollers, moms innately recognize the need for various child-rearing innovations, says Tamara Monosoff, founder of Mom Invented, an organization with a mission of helping moms launch and market their inventions.
“If it’s a good idea and it solves a common problem that people are having, odds are other people have had that exact same idea,” she says. “The key is to take action. Taking action is what it takes to bring a product to market.”
In 2001, Monosoff, a businesswoman who had formally worked in Washington D.C. under the Clinton Administration, was raising her daughter Sophia when she was inspired to invent TP Saver, a toilet paper-saving device that prevents playful toddlers from unrolling the paper roll and clogging the toilet.
After successfully bringing her own invention to market, Monosoff decided to help other moms to develop their clever ideas into real inventions. She says mothers are the largest untapped entrepreneurial intelligence pool in the U.S., and over the past few years, an explosion of new and inventive products for babies and moms has hit an all-time high, fueled in large part by these successful mompreneurs.
“What ends up happening for a lot of the moms is you find yourself frustrated,” she says. “When you find yourself saying, ‘I wish someone would come up with the gadget to solve a certain problem,’ why can’t that person be you?”
While bringing any product to market is an obviously enormous undertaking involving more than just economics, many moms often make the mistake of spending thousands of dollars securing patents prior to conducting an ample amount of research to determine if there is even a ready market for their product.
“The thing that people don’t realize is that it is a lot of hard work to bring a product to market,” Monosoff says. “Bringing a product to market is risky. It costs money to do it. You don’t know for sure that people are going to buy your product, even if you get great feedback.”
It is also often difficult for momprenuers to juggle being a businesswoman and a good parent. Balancing business meetings with dirty diapers and daycare can become overwhelming.
For Rebecca Finell, launching Boon Inc. took years of hard work and sacrifices. At times, she says, she missed just being at home with her kids.
“If you really want to take it to market yourself you have to be able to drop everything and really focus or you’ll never get to the point where it’s worth it,” says Finell. “It’s a full-time job… If you’re going to do it, you have to be committed and you have to take the leap.”
The idea for Richelle Nassos’ invention came to her after her son had been stung by a bee. Nine years ago 3-year-old Cody was playing in the pool when he suddenly got stung.
As tears rushed down her son’s cheek, Richelle rushed for the first-aid kit, but all the Bactine, band-aids and boo-boo kisses did little to soothe. It wasn’t just the pain that caused Cody’s tears, it was all the fear and anxiety he seemed to associate with the dreaded white emergency kit marked with the ominous red cross.
Nassos thought to herself that there had to be a better solution—a more kid-friendly approach to first aid. If she could somehow create and market an organized, readily accessible first-aid kit aesthetically appealing to kids, she was convinced it would be something parents everywhere would want to purchase.A few years later with her husband ready for a career change, the two went into business together launching me4kidz, or Medical Emergencies for Kids.
“Making first aid fun—that was our whole concept coming into it,” Nassos says. “Not that getting hurt is ever fun, but to make that process fun for kids so you could take focus away from fear.”
Starting with a small desk in the kitchen of their Cave Creek home, the Nassos family began making colorful first-aid kits. Today, more than six years later, the products are sold in more than 4,000 retail locations in ten countries. Their first product was the Medibag, a kid-friendly first-aid kit. Two more children inspired additional products including the Medibuddy, a diaper bag-sized first-aid kit, and the Smilebuddy, an oral care kit.
At times it was challenging figuring out how to market the products and get stores to carry them, but for the Nassos family the risks were worth the rewards. While she never set out to be a mompreneur, she says motherhood and inventiveness definitely go hand-in-hand.
“I never thought of it, but that’s how some of the best inventions are made,” she says. “I don’t think us moms think, ‘Hey, we’ll come up with an invention when we have kids.’ It just seems so innate.”
On May 5, 1809, inventor Mary Kies became the first woman in the United States ever to receive a patent for her new technique of weaving straw with silk and thread. A few decades later, when a fire destroyed the U.S. Patent Office, only about 20 of the 10,000 patents at that time had been granted to women.
Even now, more than two centuries later, the business of inventing is still primarily dominated by males. Of the 480,000 patent applications filed with the United States Patent Office in 2009, only about 20 percent were filed by females, according to statistics.
The face of inventing, however, appears to be undergoing a rapid change.
“It’s growing because women are seeing other women succeeding and they’re thinking, ‘Wow, if she can do it, I can do it,’” says Monosoff. “Plus I think a lot of women are looking for ways to contribute to their family income, and if you have children, you want to be able to be home because with their schedules you’re juggling everything.”
While the sluggish economy has made the business climate difficult, an increasing number of moms are becoming empowered to define their own rules for the workplace, says Cheryl Belanger, president of the Arizona-based chapter of the Entrepreneurial Moms Association.
“One of the huge benefits of a woman working at home is you do get to stay home with your children and you do get to maintain a halfway normal home for your kids and still bring in money,” she says.
While it is rewarding for mothers to work for themselves, balancing family with work involves complex financial and emotional issues as well as time-management pressures. There are no easy solutions,- and every woman must assess their own preferences and needs, says Belanger.
“You’re dealing with chicken pox, colds, the flu. You’re in the middle of working and the school calls and says your child has a fever,” she says. “Any working mother has that issue as well, but when you’re trying to have a business call and you have a screaming child in the background it can be tricky. You’re trying to maintain a professional appearance, meanwhile you have chocolate pudding smeared on your shirt.”
In the Hot SeatAfter Cave Creek mom Deborah Lowe’s infant daughter was burned by a hot belt buckle while being placed in her car seat, she turned to her sewing machine.
Lowe, a registered nurse and former wound-care specialist, crafted a child’s car seat cover made of insulated fabric that could be filled with reusable ice pads in the lining. It worked perfectly and kept the car seat cool for up to ten hours at a time, even in the hot Valley summer.
After showing the cover to her friends, who all wanted one for themselves, Lowe recognized a need for the product. She went online and began researching patents, inventions, manufacturing and marketing.
“None of this is easy. I had no education, no experience, nothing,” she says. “Looking back on it, I don’t know how I did it, but I did it.”
After several years and a lot of hard work, she successfully patented Baby Bee Cool, a car seat cooler. She started selling at vendor shows and local baby stores. Eventually she found a manufacturer in China, and soon stores around the country were stocking the shelves with Baby Bee Cool. While the company remains a relatively small home-based enterprise, for Lowe that is perfectly fine. While her invention was a great way to bring in extra income to support her family, Lowe’s first and most important job remains being a mother.
“This company has never been something that I desired or really wanted to be out there pushing and doing. I wanted it to succeed, but it was never my passion,” she says. “I wanted to be at home. I wanted to be with my child. She is the priority.”
Each mother has to assess her own priorities and find balance before deciding to go into business or market an invention, says Nassos.
“I would tell any mother to really search her heart, where she’s at with her commitment to motherhood versus business-hood, because inventions are very time consuming and they cost a lot more time and money than you may ever imagine,” Nassos says. “The advice I would give would be to look at where their life is at that moment—whether its how much time they need for school and homework and housework and time for their husband. It’s a true balance. To do it right, it’s a very challenging mountain to conquer.”