Tell us about your background before you started aden + anais.
I was at the Economist for 10 years in various sales roles, and prior to that I was in pharmaceutical sales working for major corporations including Pfizer and Smithkline Beecham in Australia. I’ve always had a strong sales background. That was really my career before I started aden + anais.
You’ve grown the company in a huge way since it began, how large is the business currently and how many employees do you currently have?
We have 108 employees globally, 76 of them in the U.S. This year we did 65 million in revenue.
Do you ever stand by and say wow?
No, I don’t. I’m just like any other working mother focused on getting her kids to school and getting to the office on time. Once at the office, I just focus on getting through what needs to be done that day, which always consists of more than I truly have time to do. There is zero time for reflection or patting myself on the back. From day one, I inherently believed that aden + anais could be a $100 million dollar business, so getting there was always my plan. In terms of making it happen, it really is just a day-to-day slog with a bunch of innovation thrown in.
How did you come up with the idea to start the company and when did you realize that it had serious business potential?
The “aha!” moment was right before I had Anais, my first daughter, I went looking for muslin blankets, which you can get anywhere in Australia, and was astonished when I found that no one here had even heard of muslin. In Australia, every parent uses about 10 a day. They are as common and necessary as diapers. So when I realized they didn’t exist here, I had my sister send some over from Australia for me to use with Anais. It was at that point that I realized that every Australian can’t have this wrong, and that if I introduced them to American parents, they would love them too.
What was that first year like as you brought aden + anais to life?
The first year was HELL. I was juggling babies, two at the time. I had the idea in 2003, but it took me until 2006 to get the product to market. Between those years I also had my third baby. I had a lot on my plate from a mother perspective. I was still working full time and then building aden + anais in the evening. I would go to my ‘real job’ as I used to call it, get home from work around 6:30pm, spend time with my girls, and then when they were in bed at 8:30pm, I would start working on the business until three in the morning, sleep till around 7am then get up and do it all over again. It was very, very tough in the beginning! It was a conscious decision to choose sleep deprivation over financial hardships. I didn’t want to put that pressure on my family. My husband is an electronic engineer and a successful businessman, but he wasn’t a hedge fund husband and the money I made mattered. I also didn’t want to put unnecessary financial pressure on the business in the early stages. I was never anxious about getting a return or salary. It was a very calculated decision. The fact is by nature I am an insomniac. My husband would look at me and say, “What are you doing?” But to be honest I never craved more sleep. I didn’t ever think “This isn’t normal.” It was my normal. I did what I had to do; there was no other choice. That’s not to say I didn’t have my fair share of minor breakdowns, where I would cry myself to sleep, but I would always get up the next morning, shake it off and keep going.
“It was very, very tough in the beginning! It was a conscious decision to choose sleep deprivation over financial hardships. I didn’t want to put that pressure on my family. I didn’t have a hedge fund husband and the money I made mattered.”
What was the day like when you left The Economist?
It was pretty fantastic actually because about a month prior, my boss at the time had told me that I didn’t have an entrepreneurial bone in my body when we disagreed on something. Only 2% of every woman-owned business ever breaks $1 million in revenue. That was a true milestone, and I’d hit that point whilst working full-time at The Economist. That’s when I thought about leaving. I’m not going to lie, I did have a lot of joy handing in my resignation. I also made sure that when I left that I was over budget and had a robust sales pipeline, as I never wanted to be accused of building my business at the expense of my full-time employer.
You have a beautiful and very well recognized brand, did you have experience in branding prior or did you go with your gut?
I had no branding experience, but what I have always had is a very strong opinion on a lot of things. I’m still involved in most of the design decisions and everything that goes out to the world that has the brand on it. I am the world’s worst artist. I initially employed outside consultants and design people to help me with all things design. Now we have an in-house design team. We had a very clear vision of how we wanted the brand to look—very modern, very clean—and then had professional designers draw that up.
LEADERSHIP & CULTURE
How do you define being a leader?
I was raised to treat people the way you want to be treated yourself. That is my motto for running this company. I took everything that I hated from the corporate world and just tried to make my company the complete antitheses of what I came from. The people here are everything. Not to say it’s not tough now, because you have so many more personalities as opposed to having just a handful of people that helped me build the business from the ground up. It definitely gets much more difficult to maintain the same “we’re all in this together and we’ll do whatever it takes” culture that you have in the beginning. It’s like someone takes a knife and stabs me through the heart if I hear that someone is unhappy at aden + anais. I probably care a little too much to be honest. I just refuse to give up on the culture and the people. It definitely gets more complex the bigger we get.
Why do you think that you’ve specifically been successful as a leader?
I really think it is just about treating people with respect and kindness. Most of the people here know I truly value them and all they do. Being a successful and profitable business is obviously important, but I would not be happy getting there at the expense of the people who work in it. I treat people as people, not as commodities.
Hindsight is 20/20. What would you advise yourself two years into your business? Vs. What would you advise yourself last year?
Definitely the partner thing. I really don’t often hear about partnerships that have worked out. You have to be absolutely aligned from financial status to vision. When you’re building a brand from the ground up, it’s very hard to have two chiefs; you really just have to have one clear visionary voice. If you do go down the partner route, make sure it is absolutely perfectly documented and executed. When it all went pear-shaped with my business partner, we had to make up the rules of dissolving the partnership as we went along and it was a disaster. You have to really look at a partnership and iron everything out upfront. You have to go through every possible scenario so there is no fighting if it doesn’t work out.
Would you have changed anything about the way you went about initiating and executing your business?
I have made a truckload of mistakes, but all of them have made the business stronger. None of them were ultimately detrimental to the point of doing permanent damage. There were hiccups, they were annoying, but they led me to where I am today. From a very practical standpoint, I would have brought on finance people earlier than I did. I didn’t have a true CFO until 2010; that was life-changing for us as a business when Ciara came on.
How do you keep that innovative, scrappy “I’m in a basement working with 5 people” connectivity and mentality with a business that is in the hundreds and booking 65 million a year?
It definitely gets harder, but if you stay true to the authenticity of the business and the brand and rally the people around it, it happens. We’re looking at acquisitions now for innovation, smaller companies that have come up with great ideas. When I started it was all about muslin, but now we’ve been lucky to build a brand known for our overall aesthetic, quality and customer service. We are now able to put products underneath the brand that aren’t muslin, basically anything in the juvenile space that is useful to a parent, soothing to a baby and always of exceptional quality.
YOU AS A MOM:
You have 4 beautiful kids, how do you balance your work schedule with your parenting commitments, especially with so many of them? Can you give us a few tips?
Well, I have a lot of help, help from my hands-on husband and from my nanny on a personal level. On the flipside, I have surrounded myself with very capable people on the business front. This notion of you can have it all and do it all is just ridiculous. You can have it all with a whole lot of help and compromise. If you try to do it all yourself, you will fail. Know that you have people around you that will support you, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. What I do though, is make sure I draw a line in the sand between the business and my family. I only pick up my phone a handful of times during the holidays. And I know I can do that because I have an amazing team around me. In the beginning there was no balance, and it was mayhem. What I never compromised was those couple of hours in the evening that I spent with my girls. They never signed on to have an entrepreneur mother. It was my idea, not their idea. So it was my job to give them a couple of hours of undivided attention each night as well as a mum on the weekends—that’s where the insomnia helped a lot!
“What I do though, is I make sure I draw a line in the sand between the business and my family.”
How did your husband deal with this?
He was really the sacrificial lamb. There is no way I could have had this business if I was married to a different type of man. He is a hands-on father and 100% supportive of me and the business. He definitely suffered a lot. I was MIA for a few years. It takes a certain type of man to deal with an entrepreneurial wife. He got a lot of shit from his “friends”, and still does. They fundamentally don’t understand the way our family operates.
You’ve been a big supporter of public schools for your girls, can you share your take on the public vs. private education and why you felt this was the best fit for your family?
I was raised in the public school system, but what I really like about it here is the diversity. I want our girls to understand that life comes in many different shapes and sizes, and the New York public school system definitely affords them that experience. We are also extremely lucky that we happen to be zoned to a fantastic public school. I’m not going to lie and say if it wasn’t a good school that I would not have put them in private.
How much sleep do you get per night? If you could get more, would you want it? Why?
Now I get about six hours, and, yes, I love to sleep, so more would be great. But alas six is about it for me at this point in my life.
Are there any tips for how you structure your day that you feel have made you more efficient?
I definitely run my house like it’s a military boot camp, but you have to with four kids otherwise nothing gets done. We have a very set routine. Dinner is always at the same time. Bath is always at the same time. I am a petty militant when it comes to the way my family runs. Children thrive on routine. They like to know what’s coming, what’s happening next. I’m the CEO of my household as well as of my business, and the household role is the tougher one.
I was also taught early in my career that you do the things you least want to do first. If you don’t do them first, you’re never going to get to them. The things I dread the most are the things that I tackle first. My day is so varied; I never truly know exactly what my business day will hold until I am in it.
Is it possible to be friends with your employees? How do you tow that line?
That is where I’m getting myself in trouble. Not from my perspective, as I know that I don’t play favorites or treat people that I have a personal relationship with differently than those I don’t. The biggest issue I now face given our growth and the ever increasing headcount at aden + anais is that the new people who are coming into the company feel like I favour my “friends” which really equates to the people that have been here since the beginning. The irony is that those people became my friends through the business. Our friendships were formed during the early years because we were all in the trenches together, in an office the size of our now meeting rooms, stacked on top of each other, working until three in the morning to get what we needed to do done. You bond with people during those times.
Now that we have over 100 people, there are employees at aden + anais that I barely speak to, not because I don’t think they are lovely people, it’s just the nature of the size and complexity of the business now. So I obviously don’t form the same friendships with them as I did with the people back in the beginning when there were only 10 of us.
I see why there is a perception that I play favourites but I can say with my hand on my heart that I don’t. I make the tough decisions that are the right decisions for the business regardless of my personal relationships. All of this puts a lot of added pressure on you as a leader, and I do try hard to dispel the notion of favouritism, but it is an ongoing battle and I still have a long way to go with it. By far and away the hardest part of my job is managing and motivating all the people who work at the company as the business continues to evolve.
How do you manage business travel with so many kids at home?
I don’t love the travel part of my job and avoid it whenever I can. That said, as the CEO, I still have to do a fair amount of travel, both domestic and international. I am probably away on average a few days a months. And for at least a week when I travel to China, Japan or Australia to visit our suppliers or international offices. My husband and I make sure that we are never travelling at the same time, so one of us is always in New York with the girls.
Statistics show that although women make up half the population, we make up only 14% of the C-Suite. How have you seen women’s place in the workforce change over time and why do you think still so few occupy the highest seat?
We have such a long way to go with that. Instinctively, as women, most of us still have a desire to be a mother. It’s when you want to have both a family and a career that it gets complicated. They only reason I am able to do what I do is because I married a man that supported me wholeheartedly and took on an equal partner role in our home and in the care of our girls. To some degree I think we hold ourselves back, in no small part due to maternal instincts. My career is just not as important to me as my family, and I know without a doubt that if I couldn’t do both my family would be what I chose over my career. I think it’s for this reason that there are still so few women in the C-Suite. I had to start my own business to truly be taken seriously as a business woman. I know that I would never have gotten there in the corporate world, as there were too many men that just didn’t believe in my ability. I think women are exceptional leaders, but there are still not enough of us stepping up for the job. It’s also sometimes tough to be around other non-working mothers when you are a woman who chooses to work and also have a family. I definitely get judged. As far as they’re concerned, I’m neglecting my children for my career. Before we can change the perception of men, I think we need to work on changing the perception of other women. In my experience, women who choose to work, unlike the women who have to work to put food on the table, are still very much unfairly judged.
Were there moments in your #startup story that you felt closer to giving up? If so, when and what has pulled you through and allowed you to stand on your own feet to lead your team?
Yes there were many, some more dramatic than others. When I split with my partner back in 2007 that was really tough; I definitely thought of throwing in the towel then. In the beginning it was also really hard. I was sleep deprived, and my friends and family were asking me to give up on the business because they were worried for me and my health. I have a very vivid memory of myself at about 18 months into building the business, when I was sleeping four hours a night and hadn’t washed my hair for 15 days. This one morning I had my hair in a greasy, slicked back ponytail because I was about eight days past being able to wear it down, and I looked at myself in the mirror and realized how ridiculous it was that I couldn’t find the 30 minutes I needed to wash it. I promised myself that I would finish working on the business by 2:30am that night and wash it. Fast forward to 3:30am, and I head into the bathroom before bed and look in the mirror only to see the greasy-haired girl staring back at me. I had a very dramatic breakdown. I think I actually fell on the bathroom floor crying and then went to bed again with unwashed hair. I do bounce back quickly though, as I got up the next morning shook it off and headed to work with my greasy hair again. Happy to report on day 16 I found the time to finally wash it.
It was really just in the very early stages of building the business that I had the moments where I felt like I had bitten off more than I could chew. I haven’t felt that way in years. I love what I do, and I think the people who work with me sense my commitment to them and the business so they are also motivated to push through when things get tough.
What inspires you to be your best self?
It’s so cliché but my daughters. Everything I do is done ultimately with the goal of being a good mum and role model for them. My babies are what keep me going every day. I’m also very competitive with myself. I’ve never had a mentor or a role model, so I just aspire to be the best person I can be. The verdict’s still out on how I’m doing with that…
Thank you for sharing your story with us.
To learn more about aden + anais, check out their website here.