You know those types who look like they have it all figured out? Elle Rowley is one of them—the beautiful family, the successful business, the life by the sea. What you don’t see is how she’s earned every bit of it—how only four years ago she was broke with two babies, her husband still in school. During that time, Elle sewed a wrap for her newborn son. This was the humble beginning of Solly Baby: a baby wrap business which has seen Elle break the million dollar threshold that only 2% of female entrepreneurs reach. Beach babe or boss lady?
“My husband and I married young, started having kids young, and it was almost like the rest of our life needed to catch up with that. My husband was in school when we started having children—so I was always looking for ways to earn money that allowed me to be at home with my kids as much as possible. I was doing a bit of sewing around the time I had my second baby, and made a carry wrap for my son. A few of my friends had kids and I made some for them also. They told me they were way better than what was on the market, and encouraged me to put them on Etsy. I thought, let’s see what happens. So I turned our house into a factory and started making these wraps. Each wrap requires 6 yards of fabric, so the pattern took up our whole dining and living room. I’d push all the furniture to one side of the room and move these fabric rolls back and forth and back and forth. I started showing them to some of the local boutiques, but no-one understood what I was doing at all. I couldn’t sell them. I booked this big Christmas convention which was supposed to make a bunch of money, and I couldn’t even sell them for $20. It made me think—why am I trying to sell these to people who don’t understand? Why aren’t I targeting the women who will get it—like myself and my friends? We don’t go to Christmas conventions to buy things for our kids, we look at blogs. Not baby blogs either, but fashion and lifestyle sites that aren’t necessarily all about being mothers. So I started working with bloggers and knew instantly I was home.
It really took off from there. We started manufacturing in Los Angeles, and a few years later when my husband finished school I convinced him to start working with me. While we’re partners in every sense of the word, it’s been an ongoing process for my husband to find his own identity within the company. It’s probably taken about 18 months for him to carve out his own role. He’s started a side project as well, which is something I really pushed him to do. In the early days, when he was gone from morning to night, I would work during nap time and then late at night until I fell asleep. Now that we have full-time employees my husband and I take shifts, and we have a sitter who comes in 20 hours a week. We’re highly efficient when we work, but we make our schedule fit around us spending as much time together as possible. The workload is endless and it’s an ongoing battle to step back from it. A small business can really own you if you don’t set your boundaries. One thing I will say: there is nothing that makes you work harder than being a mother. I can’t think of anything else that has pushed me more than my kids have. It’s nothing they’ve said or done, you just know innately that what you’re doing is creating their idea of what’s possible. And you want them to know that anything they want is possible. It pushes you over the hump without even realizing that you’re being pushed. Running a business is hard, but having kids is hard.
Motherhood exposes your weaknesses, but it also shows you what you’re made of.
Looking back on how the business has grown, there have been different levels of murky water. The first nine months, I constantly questioned whether it was worth pursuing at all. Then we rebranded, re-designed the patterns, and started using higher quality fabric. I look at those first nine months as research and development, during which I learned who we were selling to, what they wanted, and balancing that with what I wanted for the brand. The first nine months were the hardest, but the time following that has been hard in a whole new way. There’s the initial challenge for a company to make a splash, but to maintain that momentum is a totally different struggle.
Anxiety was a real issue for me—I had to keep on top of not feeling anxious all the time. My business and my family are both bottomless pits in terms of what they need. There’s always something more that you can do, there’s always something you can feel guilty about. That was really hard for me, to feel like I wasn’t doing my best at anything. I felt like I was doing a halfway job at both. I’d think—I should have hired someone to help. But in those early days, sometimes you need to push through a certain point to afford that help. Making everything happen was totally grassroots at that point. I ended up heading for a breakdown, where I was just like, I can’t go on like this, something has to shift. So my husband and I sat down and prioritized the basics: getting more rest, exercising, eating a whole foods diet… simple lifestyle changes that helped me think a lot more clearly and manage my stress better. I’m religious also and that faith centers me, and brings me back to an equilibrium. Writing goals down has always helped me too: long term, short term, daily. Like this morning, I wrote down three things I wanted to get done today. If those three things get done, I’m going to think it was a good day. Anything additional is a bonus, and I’m going to forgive all the rest. We’re never going to reach that state of ‘I’ve done it all so I can chill now.’ Being kind to ourselves helps, but so do lists!
I think it’s so important to take yourself seriously from the beginning and envision the biggest thing you can.
In the early stages of something new, it’s so easy to have this attitude of, ‘Oh I’m just starting this little thing, it’s super whatever.’ Why not say, ‘I’m going to start this mega awesome business that’s going to change the game?’ Let’s do that more. To take anything to the next level you have to be able to see it first. If you can’t see it, how are you going to get there? For me, those moments of validation have always been a catalyst for growth. It’s easy to get stuck in the mundane day-to-day tasks, but sometimes you need to take it back to the place where you’re dreaming. What do you really want? Why are you doing this the first place? Whenever we take the time to step back and revisit those dreams at Solly Baby, growth immediately comes from those conversations. There’s something about the power of saying it out loud and visualizing it.
I think that sometimes we fear greatness because of the risk of failure that comes with it. We’re afraid of looking stupid. You think, you’re too young, too inexperienced, everybody knows more than you, why do you think you can do this? In my family culture, there was this sense of—we can almost get there but can’t quite see it through. Whereas my husband is the eternal optimist. In the early days, I’d have this recurring thought of—this is when most people would quit. He’d say, ‘So what if one person returned one? It doesn’t mean your business model failed, it means one person didn’t like it. And that’s fine. You just keep going.’ There’s always some new fear, which I think is an indication that I’m on the right road.
If you’re not a little bit scared, you’re probably not dreaming big enough.
I’ve noticed that my fears tend to creep up when I look around at what other people are doing, instead of concentrating on what I’m doing. But I’m learning to cope with them better, and usually the answer is to put my head down and get back to work. I have these conversations with myself where I have to say, this business is not me. It’s a part of me, but it’s not the full me. It is not where I get validation. It is not what determines whether I’m a good person. Sometimes that separation is really necessary. At the same time, I want my business to be something that I’m really proud of. So while it’s not representative of me as a person, it does have parts of me at its core, and it does represent my values and what I care about.
Like a lot of women, I face an ongoing battle with being OK in my imperfection. Knowing when things are good enough, and knowing what is important. Some things need to be perfect, especially in a business dealing with safety. But a lot of other things are far less important than you work them up to be. For instance, at one point I was trying to curate our Instagram perfectly, and I was like, I am totally losing vision here. We have an emotional product, and it’s the story that matters most. It’s funny, our engagement went down when I was focusing on making everything look beautifully coordinated, and people responded to the meaningful content so much more. So that was a good reality check. Something I’ve learned in parenting and business is that when you try and control something, you’ll get a forced result that’s not authentic.
Sometimes you just have to let it be, and that’s when something beautiful happens.
In order to trust and let go, you need to be in touch with your values. Whether it’s family or work, you need to have that solid foundation and know what you stand for. If what you’re doing doesn’t represent your core, it’s not going to work. But once you’ve found something that resonates, go after it like crazy. This is such a cliché, but there’s no other way to put it: I really feel like love is at the core of everything good. I can’t think of a problem that’s not somehow solved with love. It’s something I try to pursue—when what I do is rooted in love, really good things happen.”
As told to Amy Woodside, June 2015
Photography courtesy Elle Rowley