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An Interview with Jenni and Christine

BGranola Store

On April 24, 2009, I had the great opportunity of getting to sit down and talk to two (yes, two!) entrepreneurial moms at the same time.

Christine Giler is the co-founder of bgranola. She started this business with her cousin Genie Finetto, whom I know quite well. Genie wanted to join us too, but as happens with all moms, she needed to be home with her kids that day. The store they’ve recently opened up (pictured here) is a great new shop in my hometown. It’s our first true “green” store, and I’m already a regular customer. Christine has two daughters, three-year-old Amelia and eight-week-old Charlotte. Yes, she started a business while pregnant! See? Anything is possible!

Jenni St. John also has two children. Well, she will have two children come early June. Her oldest, Sophie Anne, is one-and-a-half years old, and Olive Lynne will arrive shortly. Jenni is the owner and founder of “Unbuttoned Maternity.” I first became familiar with her store when my husband bought me a few things from there for Valentine’s Day this year. I love the store, great clothes!

I turned the questions to Jenni first.

Q: How did you come up with the idea?
A: I actually used to work in the licensing industry, for rock bands. So I started making custom rock t-shirts for maternity. I started a company called “Rock Me Mama.” We needed a venue to sell, so we started a boutique around it. Now the line is still very exclusive but much larger. We built Unbuttoned Maternity out of that, we wanted to offer edgy other things that weren’t out there. So everyone who wanted to dress the same way, still could — sexy, trendy, sophisticated, edgy, whatever, just in maternity sizes.

Q: We all know a lot of people that have great ideas, but nothing happens with those ideas. Why do you think you actually followed through on your idea?
A: It was that time in my life, when I just wanted to do something on my own. I wanted it to be for myself. So let’s take the leap. It was a big leap of faith.

Q: So you just went for it?  Did you do something every day to move it forward?
A: Yes! 20 hours a day. I never stopped. I quit my job and just went full force. When it’s your baby, so to speak, you’re working on it night and day. You’re always cutting new patterns and doing research.

Q: Did you go with an LLC?
A: Yeah, with both companies.

Q: Did you trademark?
A: Yes, both of them. Which is, like, a really long process, as I’m sure you know. It took us four years. We had one actually pending for a year. I started the company four years ago. That should tell you how long it can take. It can be pending for a while. Be patient.

Q: So many women have these ideas, but they don’t know what to do with them. What would you tell a woman who has a great idea to do next?
A: Quit your job first, that will light a fire under you! That’s for sure. [She laughs here, and I notice she has a great contagious laugh!]

Q: What do you think are your talents? Business aside?
A: Oh my god, multi-tasking! Having vision, I mean, I don’t know if everyone considers patience a talent, but as a mom, you really have to have patience. And drive. I think those are the main things. If you can see something in the future and just stay with it and make it happen? I think that’s a huge talent. So many people can lose focus and get side tracked. So just sticking with something and making it happen is the most important thing.

Q: Do you get to use these talents on a daily basis?
Here Jenni laughs and slightly rolls her eyes with a big smile…

A: Uh yes. Like on an hourly basis. Definitely. Having the vision, you have merchandising on the computer, in the store, you have to be able to forecast a whole season. No matter what industry it is, you have to have the foresight to see what to bring in. You know? You have to know your customers, and that’s something you have to do on a daily basis.

Q: So that never ends.
A: Never. It’s just never-ending. I mean, you want it to never end. I’m still as excited today as I was the day I started.  And I didn’t have kids yet when I started. I’m finding that I’m a little bit tired now that I’m expecting, and I have a kid at home, but yeah, totally. I have days when I have to work harder to multi-task than others, but you don’t really think about it, you just do it.

Q: How important is your husband’s support to you?
A: Oh so important. I mean, that’s what I go home to. I have to have that love and support to make me want to do this every day. And having your kids love helps you get through it too. That’s really important too. I’m excited to go home, I’m excited to be at work. You know, it’s amazing to see the love and support you get from your family. I think it’s a huge part of being able to do everything.

Q: Do you still find yourself as passionate in the morning about going to work?
A: Oh my, absolutely. 100%. It’s just my baby. I mean, I have my baby — my work — and then I have my babies. And I just want to make it better every day. That never changes.

Q: If you knew someone who had a great idea for a business, what would you tell them they need to make sure they do?
A: I mean, I think I would tell them to follow through on their dreams. I know that sounds pretty vague, but you know just write down a plan, whether it’s professional, or line graphs, but write down what you want to achieve and just believe in yourself. Because if you don’t believe in yourself, no one else is going to believe in your product or whatever. That’s a huge part of it.

Q: What would you tell people specifically NOT to do?
A: It’s a business, it’s a risk. You can’t expect to open your doors and be booming on the first month. Don’t get discouraged because that’s a really good way to lose track. Make everything come alive. The second you become discouraged and stop believing, it’s the same thing. People won’t believe in your product, you know? Whatever you’re going through, your customers are going to pick up on the vibe. If something is working keep doing it. If something is not working, stop doing it. Over analyzing can kill you. Just do it. Just keep working at it. If you sit on something and harp on it, things can change right under your feet.

Q: What’s your favorite thing about being a mom?
A: Oh my god, being a mom. That’s it. All of it. I mean, the hugs, when they say “I love you” and the waking up in the morning “hi mommy.” I mean, just being a mom. I have my daughter and just getting to be her mom is the gift of a lifetime.

Now I turn the spotlight onto Christina who has been silently nodding to a lot of what Jenni has been saying.

Q: When did you and Genie decide to become partners and why?
A: Well, we’re cousins, first off, and Genie had another store down the street. I actually moved out here from California when she opened to help her out. I wasn’t her partner at that time, but I helped a lot.

Q: So you were involved with her before?
A: Yes. She is very business minded and more of the creative type. I like to pick out products and do that kind of stuff. I like to do all the computer stuff that she doesn’t like to do.

Q: When you say “business minded,” what do you mean?
A: We make pricing decisions together. But by business I mean finding the space and making all of this come together. I credit Genie almost solely. I mean, she is awesome. She gets everything together, and even with four kids at home, I mean, she makes it all come together. Meanwhile, I’m at home on the computer clicking away.

Q: So what would you say are your talents?
A: My talents, uh…I’m good with my hands, I made all the curtains in here. You know, that kind of stuff. I make things for my kids all the time, I’m really good with my hands. I love a lot of creative projects.

Q: And you feel like working here lets you use those talents….
A: I feel like I get to use them all the time. Picking products and putting tables together is definitely part of the creative process and I really like it.

Q: Were you scared about doing this at all?
I almost backed out at the last minute.

Really?

Oh yeah. Because I was pregnant, hugely pregnant. You know, financially we’re going through a lot of stuff. My husband works on Wall St., which, as you know, problems there, so it was really difficult. So I almost backed out, you know? But Genie, she was like “I don’t want to do this by myself. So are you in or are you out? Because we will make this happen somehow.” And I was like, “I’m in. You know I’m in. I already have passion for this business.”

Q: What would you have done if you had backed out?
A: I would have stayed at home with my two kids and gone batty-crazy like I have been for the last six weeks. I don’t prefer to be home with the kids. It’s good and it’s bad. I think if it’s the only thing you have going on, it can be a really lonely experience. It’s really difficult.

I want you to know that right at this moment, my son (whom I brought along in normal working-mom fashion) spilled his juice all over the beautifully pristine, pressed fabric they have on their bamboo window seats. Fabric that was no doubt chosen and sewn by Christine. I was pretty horrified. But Christine is incredibly gracious and offers to help clean it up with me. Says it’s absolutely no problem. I’m pretty impressed with her calm demeanor. I think if I had made those beautiful seat covers, I wouldn’t have been as calm. Out of embarrassment and slight angst, I’m ready to get back to the interview.

Q: Were you involved at all in actually getting the business started?  Were you involved in getting the LLC created and the trademark?
A: Genie and I honestly sat in the office in her house and we said, “Should we do this?” And we just did it. We both just filled out stuff online. We just put it together, and then there was that one last online click to finish the process and we were like, “Are we really going to do this? When we click this button, we’re done.”

Q: Why did you guys decide to open this store now in the middle of this recession?
A: I mean, I got a lot of criticism, we’ve gotten a lot of criticism, even from vendors. And you know, all kinds of people said, “You’re brave doing this in this economic environment.” But you know I think that when you have a recession, and you have hard economic times, I think people start leaning more towards, you know, saving in terms of things that they buy on a daily basis. People just want to cut down on cost, and we’ve got a lot of things here that help you do to that. As well as help the environment. And think people go back to basics, we go back to how things used to be before, without all the plastic bags and without all the stuff. So I mean, I think it’s a good time to start that. I think a lot of people are willing and open to changing their behavior.

Q: So you guys are working to capitalize on the down-turn and helping people go back to basics? I mean, I have to be honest, I was worried about you guys too. Are people going to go for this right now?

Jenni actually jumped in at this point and said that a lot of people should go for things when times are tough. She adds: We were the first trendy drop in the bucket, I mean, there was nothing like us when we started, and we capitalized on it.  There was just nothing like us. I think that when people are scared like this, you gotta go for it.

Christine agrees and says, “There are other advantages, I mean, we wouldn’t have been able to get this spot.” She’s referring to the prime location they have in downtown Tenafly, NJ. They have the largest corner spot, and it’s visible from all four streets on the intersection it is situated in.

Q: What kind of support and input are you getting from your husband and family given the hard times that we’re facing and the situation that your family is in?
A: My husband is a cynic and he will always be that way. But that’s because he’s very informed about the economic situation. But you know, he set one foot into the store and said, “WOW. You guys are gonna do great.” I mean, for him, he needs to actually see the end result before he can jump on board. But there is support there. He just needed to see it first. He’s never been unsupportive. He’s been worried and stressed out, but supportive.

Q: What specifically would you tell people do to make an idea a reality?
A: I mean, I know a lot of people put together a business plan, and they do all this stuff. But Genie and I are both not like that. We just wanted to do this, so we did this. We went to the bank, you know, we opened a bank account and a credit card and started buying merchandise. I mean, we just went for it. If someone is thinking about this, then they should just go for it. If you really believe in it, you’ll be fine. [Here she giggles nervously] I know that sounds strange, but really, it will be fine. And if it fails, that will be fine too. I mean, you just go out there and do it.

Q: What would you tell people not to do?
A: Um…I would say don’t expect everyone to get it. Not everyone gets it, not everyone will understand what your product or store is about, and it’s too much to expect every single person to walk in and understand what you’re doing. I mean we get a lot of people who come in here and say, “What is this?” I mean, the old-school way of thinking, some people just don’t understand it. But the few people that do understand it, really make it all worthwhile.

Q: What do you love about being a mom?
A: It’s difficult these days because my daughter is going through a rough phase. But I love that I have one person who is 100% on my side. I mean, my daughter, she is a mama’s girl. And you know, she will give me 100% support without asking me anything. And I love that about her. She’s three, but you know, she understands quite a lot. She’s my buddy. That makes me happy.

Q: Did you always want to be a mom?
A: I did. I was a little surprised when I had my daughter. I thought I would feel this, you know, wonderful, motherly feeling. But honestly, I don’t think it comes that naturally for everybody. I mean, for me it took me a while to actually get to know my daughter, and I needed to go through that process in order to feel motherly. I don’t think I remember the last time I started a sentence with, “Because I’m the mom…” you know? I mean, she’s gonna do what she’s gonna do. I mean, I can guide her here and there, but I believe in a really natural mothering process.

I jump in here and say that I’ve found it really hard to come to terms with the fact that our job as mothers is to teach our children not to need us, and that I actually think that’s a bum deal.

Christine agrees, “I find myself telling my three-year-old, ‘You’re three, you can do this by yourself.’ And then I think to myself…’wait, you’re only three you shouldn’t do this by yourself’.”

Q: What’s your favorite part about being a working mom?
A: Well, I haven’t been at this very long. I stayed home with my daughter for three years. I’ve been home full-time. But today is my first full day by myself in the store. And I love it. I’m remembering that I’m a person, and I can’t wait to go home and be with my kids. I love that feeling. Being home with your kids for three years, you don’t have that feeling of “Oh, I can’t wait to go home and be with my kids.” So I’m really grateful for that.

I realize now that I didn’t ask Jenni this question, so I turn to her.

Q:What’s your favorite thing about being a working mom?
A: I think, yeah, having the opportunity to miss your kids. And having that excitement when you’re driving home, “Yeah! I can’t wait to walk in the door,” you know? I think that’s the best part. You remember your other roles, and when you’re away from home you remember, you’re a wife, a boss, a friend. You have all these hats to wear. And when you’re home, you’re mom. And that’s it. So it gives you a chance to get all your ducks in a row.

Q: What do you look for in vendors and in people you employ?
A: Jenni: I look for people who are self-motivated, you know? I look for people who want to work with you and not just for you. People who can give and take, not just people who are looking for a quick pay check. Or someone who wants to give you ideas to make your ideas better, and you’re helping them at the same time. People working with you, is just so important. Even with the vendors. We do so much more business with vendors who partner with us, not just take our money. I mean, they become part of the product. Especially with the economy right now, that’s what you have to do to get through this thing.
A: Christine: We look for products and vendors who believe in their products. Vendors who really want to do their part to save the environment. There are some vendors who don’t want to work with small stores or small orders, and we just don’t have time for that. In this economy, every dollar counts, and if you don’t want our business, there are a lot of other vendors out there who do. So you can make it difficult for us, but we will just say no thank you.

I thank both of them for their time, and I’m kind of sad to leave. But we all have work we have to get back to.

And, if I don’t leave soon there is going to be a hole in the wall in the shape of my son. He’s about had it. But I’ve had a great time, and I’ve learned something: I love women in business, and I love talking to moms in business. I like us.

Interview by Sarah

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