Doing business (with kids): One founder’s sweet story

Raising Kids |

Raising kids is a tough job. And for many of us, it’s not our only job, either. Achieving the right balance of work/life is one of the eternal struggles for today’s parents. And let us not mention the entrepreneurs, whose work demands notoriously spill over into all other aspects of life. After all, when you’re starting your own company, you need to put in the time. Nobody is going to care about it as much as you do—you might even call your business your ‘baby’.

So what then, when it comes to juggling the needs of your business baby and your real life babies? Is it possible to ‘bring your children up in the business’ in a way that teaches them valuable skills like resilience, responsibility, integrity and perseverance? And how are the implications of founding a company different for moms than dads? Is there even a difference?

We spoke to Dr. Dionne Laslo-Baker, founder/’mompreneur’ of Deebee’s Organics, the popular natural foods brand behind TeaPops (now FruitPops) found in thousands of retailers across Canada and the USA. Six years into the startup grind, and as a mother of two (now) teens, Dr. Dionne has learned a thing or two about finding success—as a family.

How did you feel about starting a company when you had children?

Our children had grown up with such privilege—having a PhD medical scientist and a surgeon for parents—and I really felt this need for my kids to understand how much grit it takes to actually launch a company. “You go all in” is a principle that applies to many things in life; what it means to commit yourself to something and to see it through. Starting the business was just as much about my kids and our family as it was for me.

When did it occur to you to invite your children into your business as active participants?

It was really the kids inviting me, because [TeaPops] was their idea—and it has been a ‘family business’ ever since. Right from the get-go, it was decided that this would be a family business, and they would be included from Day One. They’re teenagers now, so the dynamic has changed a little as far as interest level, but it’s never been anything but that.

I made the choice not to insulate my children from the realities of startup life. In the early days, our youngest would come with me on sales trips because he wanted to see what it was like. We’d do trade shows, knock on doors and do pitches, often getting told ‘no’ over and over again. On another day soon after, during a period where the business was facing an uncertain future, I was at the grocery store with my daughter who was 13 at the time. The cashier ran several of my credit cards; all were declined. I was humiliated and overwhelmed, and in a rare moment of public display I started to cry at the checkout. My daughter stepped in and paid for our groceries with her own money she had saved. That was a ‘wow’ moment for me—such generosity from my young teen who was probably just as embarrassed as I was.

In what ways does being a parent, particularly a mother, add complexity to your journey as a founder?

Looking back now, I didn’t realize initially how much commitment it would take. I didn’t know at the time that I would be away from my kids as much as I was, especially internationally. It’s a constant struggle. The mom guilt, the challenge. Anyone who says it isn’t hard isn’t telling the truth, I believe.

But we talk about it. I talk with my kids all the time. I try to be there for them when it matters; asking about school because I might not be there, phoning them daily when I’m on the road. I also use an app called Life 360 that shows me where my kids are, how much battery is left in their phone, they can see where I am. Little things like that actually make a big difference. I also send texts, leave little cards when I go away for work, and when they do have field trips and important occasions, those are the days that I book off. I make sure I’m there for the big moments—that’s non-negotiable.

I also use my children as my moral compass with which to guide the company. When faced with an opportunity or a dilemma, I always ask myself “Would my kids be proud to know I made this choice?” And it’s helped me through a lot of difficult decisions—perhaps to the short-term detriment of my ‘bottom line’, but it has kept me on a path I can feel good about.

How have their perspectives contributed to your success?

First of all, all along I’ve wanted this to have value for my kids. Now that they have perspective on what it’s like to launch a business, they’ve been able to reiterate back to me what they’ve learned. They both bring that leadership into their high school classes, where they can speak confidently about business and marketing. Regardless of where they end up, I think this experience has been very educational.

Also, when I take a product prototype home, I invite as many kids as possible into my house to taste test. You could spend 20k on a focus group, or you could ask 30-40 kids for their feedback and just watch their faces. There’s no bias to it. My kids know that’s how I test things, so now that they’re older they’ll collect their friends’ responses on flavours, product names, even social media, and they’ll bring a perspective from their age cohort back to me. It’s a non-scientific method of getting data, but it works.

What do you hope your daughter and son take away from the experience of being brought along on this journey?

When you see a product on a shelf—any product, a food, a magazine—there’s a whole story, soul and life behind every one of those things. Whatever it is, there’s a story behind it.

I hope my children take away how to create and build a company with an ethical, family oriented focus. I hope they have learned how to treat others as you build a business. And I hope they’ve gained insight into the financial sacrifice, the lifestyle sacrifice, the commitment—all of those things that can take us adults many years to get right.