In 2005, Sara McAnerny and her sister, Mary Linkey Hansen, discovered they were pregnant within a week of one another. At the time, they were working together as mural artists and faux finishers in Phoenix Arizona, on intensive, physically demanding jobs. So, along with a third sister, Rachel Linkey Rodriguez, and friend Claudia Nicolello, they decided to begin using their skills to create art and home accessories from a home-based studio rather than working in clients’ homes. Tre Sorelle Home Designs was born, and after lots of hard work, marketing and savvy business decisions, last year their sales already topped $1 million! Mom Inventors recently interviewed them for their story:
Q: Why did you start your company and when?
A: In February of 2005, my sister and I both found out that we were pregnant within a week of one another. It was my first child, and her second. At the time we were working on a very intense painting job in Phoenix, painting the ceilings of a 6000 square foot home with elaborate faux finishes and scrollwork. We were driving a couple of hours a day to get to the job site, working on twelve-foot scaffolding daily, and having to lift and dismantle our heavy equipment every time we moved to the next room. Both sisters were working for me at the time, and we knew the closer I got to the due date of my son’s arrival the less I should be draining myself with the intense workload and schedule. We had been mulling over the idea of working from a home based studio, creating art and home accessories that we would bring to market, rather than working so intensely out of clients’ homes.
Q: What were your initial goals?
A: To create high end hand-painted furniture, decorative accessories, and artwork that we could sell to designers, small shops, and our existing clients.
Q: What is your background and how does it relate to your company?
A: We come from a creative family. Although my parents are not artists per se, my mom was always very creative, and she let us get our hands dirty at a young age. We have several aunts and a grandma that also inspired us with their beautiful art when we were quite young. Our family is huge and close. I was the oldest of seven children (all girls except for our youngest brother). Several of us are artistic, and all of the siblings were quite good in school. (My parents were grateful for this as we have all won college scholarships of some sort, and paying for seven college tuitions on a firefighter’s salary was pretty much impossible.)
I thought that I would go to college and become a physician, but I also minored in fine art, hoping that someday, I could do something with it, but never wanting to be a “starving artist.” During college I worked as a business banking officer, learning a lot about the basics of business financial startups. I also worked for a non-profit community center as a health program coordinator, and I quickly learned the art of fundraising, grant writing, press releases, PR, event coordination, and networking with community members, board members, and professionals. I had a tremendous amount of success in the programs that I developed at the center.
Q: Have you ever experienced an epiphany that changed the direction of your life?
A: Soon after graduating college, I was working a night job trying to get more experience in the emergency medical field. The nights were extremely long and gave me a lot of time to read my favorite women’s lifestyle and décor magazines, and one focused on creative women entrepreneurs who risked it all to follow their passions. I knew I had to make a directional change. The next week, when my husband went out of town, I put together a flyer on my computer and mailed it out to local designers, and the commissioned jobs started flowing.
Q: What process did you follow to develop your products?
A: Once I became pregnant with my first child, I knew my sisters and I needed to move our decorative painting from clients’ homes to our own home based studios so that we could spend time with our kids. We spent my entire pregnancy doing product development. Our biggest concern was how we would be able to compete at market with accessories that were mass-produced overseas. We realized that hand-painted tile had a high enough mark-up and each piece was exquisite and unique enough to profitably compete with what was currently at market. We then had to do a lot of research and testing of materials to ensure that our tile pieces would withstand installation, outdoor placement, kitchen environments, etc. These original hand-painted design prototypes became the base designs for later licensing onto the other mass marketed home decor products.
Q: How did you end up licensing your products?
A: We stumbled upon a trade magazine that introduced us to art licensing, and the various trade shows that could get our designs in front of national manufacturers, retailers, and licensors. We bought space at two shows in New York and took a leap of faith. We didn’t know what to expect, and I think our navet worked to our benefit, simply because we were so excited to be in front of buyers and product development teams, and if anybody showed interest, we then name dropped to the next company, saying so and so was really interested in this design, creating a buzz and excitement for our designs amongst some of the top manufacturers in the country. Having our own sales stats for various hand-painted designs to share with these company big wigs proved invaluable, and convinced them of our designs’ marketability to the mass market. We left the two trade shows with four licensing contracts, and six more followed that year.
Q: Were there any setbacks in product development to overcome?
A: The main setback that we encountered during the product development process occurred while working with licensors to get our hand-painted pieces translated onto pieces developed by factories overseas. The sampling phase of our biggest and most profitable release was delayed an entire year before the samples came back to the manufacturers’ satisfaction. In our business, home trends can change quickly, so that year-long delay led to a couple of our designs being shelved entirely. Thank goodness that our strongest designs were still in high demand so the project still went forward, just slightly different in scope.
Q: Through what markets are you selling?
A: Our hand-painted designs are currently sold online on our Web site, tresorellehomedesigns, and wholesale to a few select tile showrooms across the country. Our licensed products are sold by us online and in department stores and specialty boutiques across the country.
Q: What secrets have you learned in terms of publicity and marketing?
A: We learned quickly that PR campaigns are much more profitable in the early phases of business, as compared to high priced advertising space in print. We had a small write-up in a national magazine after my teenage sister and I spent a week putting together press kits and product samples and mailing them out to our favorite home and lifestyle magazines. This small write-up would have cost over $10, 000 for similar advertising space, and brought a whole new set of clients to our Web site.
Q: What was the biggest learning curve in terms of marketing your product?
A: In the beginning we didn’t do enough research when buying advertising space. We have learned that paying for ads online through pay per click for our higher priced items has been worth it. We get a lot of top billing, and one sale pays for a month’s add space. However, for our smaller items, we have had to learn how to optimize our website so that people will be able to find our products more easily through organic internet searches.
Q: How have you managed to juggle the roles of business owner and mom?
A: Since launching the company three years ago, I have had two baby boys, and it is a struggle to make sure that I am present for both of them while also having a constant nagging passion in the back of my mind for all of the duties that I need to accomplish for the business. I don’t sleep as much as I should, and laundry and cooking have sometimes fallen by the wayside. However, having worked in the corporate world, I know that I am so much more available for my children when they need me now as opposed to a ten-hour work/commuting day away from home.
Q: How did you finance your business?
A: I took out a home equity loan to finance the start up of the business, have gone without paychecks for months at a time, and have maxed out credit cards for various projects.
Q: How much money have you invested so far?
A: We have invested quite a lot of money and time, probably two years’ salary plus some to get our name and products out there. Luckily we immediately started making revenue on our hand-painted pieces which we then reinvested right back into the company.
Q: What is your company’s current financial picture and what are your projections?
A: Our hand-painted tile has continued to sell very well—we have doubled our business every year over the last three years. We have been fairly diversified in our offerings and designs, so even in a rough economy and poor housing market our high-end designs have done great and paid the bills, while our more simple designs are experiencing a slight slump due to the slow down in the housing market. Our licensing royalties have just recently started to snowball, and it’s exciting to finally see some fruit from our labor in the mass market. Last year our licensed designs netted right around one million dollars in retail sales, and with many new contracts in place we expect retail sales this year to be at least double that.
Q: What has been your greatest success or high point?
A: Our highest point was our first licensing trade show, knowing that we had generated such interest from huge manufacturers.
Q: Have you experienced a low point?
A: Our lowest point was probably expecting too much too soon. The big money doesn’t always come right away, even with big deals and contracts. We had so much initial acclaim and success; we had to learn not to count chickens before they hatched, and to understand that even the most successful partnerships and contracts will take time to come to full fruition. We have also learned to appreciate the elements of our business that do make the consistent income, such as sales from our website, even if the work can be monotonous.
Q: Who has been your biggest source of inspiration?
A: Our biggest source of inspiration has been other creative women entrepreneurs such as Tracy Porter, Martha Stewart, and Paula Dean, who have followed their passions and figured out how to wind their way through the intimidating barriers and unknowns that always arise when starting to build one’s brand. Also the drive to succeed so that our whole family can be taken care of is a huge driving force behind the business.
Q: Did anyone in particular help you along the way?
A: My sisters have been the support system behind the business, helping to accomplish all of the minutia that is required when starting up a business. We have tapped uncles and father-in-laws with business and accounting experience when we hit road blocks and unknowns.
Q: What advice would you offer other moms developing their products/ideas?
A: My advice for other mom entrepreneurs is to keep researching and opening doors. In our case one door led to another door until finally the picture started to take shape as to how we could actually put our dreams into an action plan. The Internet can be so overwhelming, but if you are having a hard time finding the answer, try different search terms until you start finding the info that you need.
Q: Is there a resource that proved to be invaluable that you’d like to share with other moms?
A: Sites such as mominventors.com, the SBA website, television shows like the Big Idea, and trade magazines have all broadened the picture until the process started to make sense.
Q: What surprised you about this process?
A: I am surprised everyday at how much I love doing this, even the boring minutia and red tape leads to another exciting day of possibilities. I am also surprised at how exhausting and consuming it can be.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?
A: Always keep in mind how little you really know, and be open to evolve in directions that you never thought about initially. With this mindset, you will always have a drive to learn and create, and to stay on top of the curve.
This interview originally appeared in The Mom Inventors Insider— the monthly newsletter of Mom Inventors, Inc. For more info go to www.mominventors.com.
Photo courtesy of Mom Inventors