They’re Mom Incorporated: Lisa Edwards and Sarah Nicoli, dotmine

Lisa Edwards and Sarah Nicoli, two Ann Arbor, MI moms, founded dotmine day planners about 10 years ago. The fashionable covers are teamed with a unique planning system that works for moms, students and working professionals.

Lisa and Sarah also were sponsors for the Mom, Incorporated book tour.

We asked them to tell us about creating their successful day planners.

MomIncorporated: With so many planners on the market, what made you think you and Lisa could produce another one that would sell?
Sarah: When we first entered the planner market in 2001, the market was a wide open playing field; there were nowhere near the number of planners then that there are today. We knew there was a need for planners with good organizing tools that also looked good, that made you feel good carrying them. After all, if you like the way something’s looks, feels and works, you’re more likely to use it … and, with planners, just “using” one helps to keep you organized.

MomIncorporated: What bugged you about the planners that were out there, and how is yours different?
Sarah: What bothered us 10 years ago was the lack of options available. We always used to say, tongue in cheek, that if you were looking for a planner back then, you had a choice of J. Lo, Buffy the Vampire Slayer or cheap, ugly black “pleather.” Our goal of creating planners at the intersection of “function” and “fashion” is as true today as it was then … and we just sold our 1 millionth planner this past September!

Our commitment to keeping current with design trends has never steered us wrong. Each year, our new cover designs are inspired by trend and color forecasts from many different global sources. We love how excited our customers get when the new designs are unveiled each year!

What’s inside a planner is super-important, too. We know is that there is no “one way” to organize oneself; everyone has a different system. We don’t believe life works out too well when you’re trying to fit it into a cookie cutter. Our planning tools offer flexible suggestions on how to tailor them to suit any individual’s need. This allows people to have real ownership of their own personal “system.”

Each one of our planner brands was developed with the help of real people, via focus groups. We’re constantly tweaking our products based on customer feedback. In this way, we ensure that our products continue to meet the needs of the people who use them. We, the owners, answer every email and phone call that comes in regarding product feedback — no anonymous answering service — so we always have a pulse on what our customers want.

MomIncorporated: Tell us about some of the challenges you faced from idea to conception, and how you overcame them.
Sarah: It did take us a couple of years to get our product “formula” right. We had a couple of starts and stops. After our initial investment in the company, there was one point we had just under $1,200 in the bank. We figured we had just one more chance to make our concept work — our choice was to “go for it” or to just give up and spend the money on a party. Obviously, our entrepreneurial spirits won out, and here we are today. Truly, without risk, there is no reward.

But, the challenges never end and, as your business grows, the stakes get bigger. We lost our biggest customer (and lots of money) when Borders declared bankruptcy earlier this year. Although we will weather the storm, in some ways this year feels a lot like the early years. It has forced us to do some soul-searching and have some pretty tough conversations. But our core values as people and as a company have kept us steadfastly focused on the future. We know, ultimately, that our brands and our balance sheet will be better in the long run for enduring the hardships.

MomIncorporated: How do you manage your partnership? Does each of you have different duties? Do you work together or separately? What happens when you disagree?
Sarah: We have an amazing partnership. We are best friends but so incredibly different from one another. We know that one of the keys to our success has been the individual skill sets we each bring to the business. Sarah loves to travel, meet new people, be in the midst of the action — so being in charge of sales and marketing is a natural fit. Lisa loves systems, details, methodical planning — so her role as production and operations chief is perfect. Since neither one of us would desire to do the other’s job, we have really clear role definition. Where we do both work together is in curating the cover designs each year and developing new products … that’s the really fun stuff!

We do disagree periodically, but we always manage to work it out. Usually the guy who’s willing to die on a sword for something “wins” because we have a basic trust in one another. We operate on the principle that we’re both smart, intuitive business people so there must be some reason fueling a passion, even though it’s not always obvious to us both at the same time.

MomIncorporated: Is the rest of your team employees or independent consultants? Did you have any reservations about taking the step to hire the people you needed?
Sarah: Yes, every member of our team is a consultant. We feel like this works best for everyone because a hallmark of our team culture is “flexibility.” Everyone who works for us (with one exception) is a woman and is (with another exception) a mom. Our philosophy has always been “family first” … and if a field trip or zoo outing is calling, the business can most usually wait.

It was particularly tough to hire that first person, and it still always requires some transition time to bring someone new onboard. But we attract and hire great people who are not only totally professional and competent but also people we really like; people who want to be a part of what we’re all about. Each of our team members brings his or her differing skills and expertise, but we all share the same work ethic and values.

MomIncorporated: How have you juggled being moms and entrepreneurs?
Sarah: We met, like so many moms, when our first kids (now almost 18 and heading off to college soon) were born. Separately but at about the same time, we each decided to leave the corporate world to reclaim some control over our work/family balance. When we started our business, it was with the understanding that we would work together with the needs of our families always in the mix.

Early on, that meant working during and around nap times, nursing schedules and play dates. Since we started the company, we’ve both added another child to our families — Sarah has three kids, Lisa has four. Our kids have grown up with their moms working close by — they’ve always understood that sometimes it’s time for work, and sometimes it’s time for play. The neat thing has been to see the real sense of pride and ownership our kids have about our business. Over the years, they have always rolled up their sleeves to pitch in, offered advice on cover designs and been key motivators for us. We think we’ve juggled it all pretty well and, at the same time, become great role models for all of our kids, sons and daughters alike.

MomIncorporated: What advice do you have for would-be entrepreneurs?
The one thing that the experts like to talk about is finances — making sure that you have security while you are trying to boot up your business. That is important, to be sure. Beyond that, and equally important, are (1) choosing the right partner and (2) having a supportive family. We’ve talked about our kids’ involvement in our business but we also can’t emphasize enough how important our husbands’ support of us has been. When you have a family, starting a business needs to be a family decision. You need cheerleaders to root you on when times are tough and people to celebrate with you when you hit the big time!

One key to survival as an entrepreneur is learning to “roll with it” when things don’t work out as planned. Living and, in fact, thriving amid chaos and uncertainty are mandatory … fortunately, these are traits that all moms have by default!


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