Chet Greason firstname.lastname@example.org
“Your network is your net worth.”
That was the advice offered to a group of over 60 local entrepreneurs by Julie Cole, mother of six and co-founding VP of Mabel’s Labels.
Cole was the keynote speaker at a conference held on March 6 at the Arden Park called Leaning In: Mentoring Women in Business. The event was organized by the Stratford/Perth Centre for Business and BMO.
Cole’s speech, entitled Mentoring and Motherhood: How your village can help you succeed, told the story of how her company succeeded while she maintained a stable home life, largely due to an extensive network of friends, family, mentors, associates, and customers.
Mabel’s Labels, which sells personalized labels for items kids tend to misplace, began in a basement in Hamilton. Cole started the business with three friends, one of whom was her sister, Cynthia. The four friends attended the University of Waterloo together, and formed the company shortly after graduating.
“Because we went to Waterloo, we had a lot of nerd friends,” Cole laughed, noting she and her group had their initial website set up in exchange for a foosball table.
Ten years later, Mabel’s Labels has moved out of the basement and now boasts 40 full-time employees, winning numerous awards and celebrity endorsements. Cole herself has become a familiar face on both Canadian and American television programs.
She credits her company’s success to both personal and business-related networks, largely organized online, such as neighbourhood parents who can help to relieve the strain of parenthood, mentors to advise on important business decisions, and a loyal customer base, including over 120,000 Facebook fans.
“You can either be part of a community or not,” Cole said. “Find your people there. People say, ‘It’s so nice you have a community like that.’ No, no. I made that happen. You can build community.”
“Most business advisors would say, ‘Don’t start a business with three other people,’” Cole said. “We know divorce is messy, but business divorce is very, very messy.”
Cole admitted she and her partners had to learn to trust and not micromanage one another. While they were successful in finding a comfortable medium, Cole still advised those in attendance to set up a shareholders agreement should they ever part ways with their associates.
In terms of balancing motherhood with entrepreneurship, Cole’s advice was for mothers not to fall into the trap of living up to other people’s parenting ideals.
“Lower your standards,” she said. “Nobody’s had scurvy yet; nobody at my funeral will think about my meals or my beautiful home. I don’t know where this whole mother and housekeeping thing got started. It’s two entirely separate skills.”
Cole told the mothers in the audience not to panic when people come over to their houses, and to put things in perspective. She decried the modern practice of “bubble wrapping” children, and advised parents to let their children work things out on their own once in a while.
“The kids are all right. Today’s problem solvers are tomorrow’s leaders,” she said. “My kids have no cellphones because I don’t want them calling me for every little thing.
I want them to take care of problems themselves.”
Motherhood and media mentorship
Event organizer Meghan Marshall, of the Stratford/Perth Centre for Business, said her organization unanimously chose Cole as the day’s speaker because “She’s very well regarded in the business community.”
This is the fourth Mentoring Women in Business conference put on by the centre, which will also be offering a female mentorship program beginning in April. To promote the program, each table in the conference room had a mentor available to answer questions from attendees.
Here are some other nuggets of wisdom offered by Cole in her presentation:
• Have an exit strategy should a business venture fail. “If you can fail fast, learn and move on.”
• Remember, you’re not saving lives. “I’m not doing the Heimlich. I’m making labels here. Of course, business is important, but keep things in perspective.”
• Don’t listen to what other people say your children need. “I’m their mother. I know what they need.”
• Don’t be afraid to hire consultants. “We get a little cheap. I get it. But rather than putting the cart before the horse, get someone to do your taxes so you can run your business.”
• Learn a little about IT. “We’re beholden to the nerds. (But) if you’re online, know the basics. It’s your money at risk.”
• Be strategic. “When I’m working on a project, I turn my cellphone off. And I only check email occasionally.”
• Just say “No.” “Women have a hard time saying no,” Cole said, adding that, if left unchecked, they can find themselves swamped with doing free favours for people. “I get a lot of requests from people asking to pick my brain,” she added. “So I set aside half a day every month. It makes such a difference. That way, it doesn’t take over my life.”
• Seek out mentors. “When we were starting out, we were shameless about asking questions.” Cole recommended online resources such as The Mogul Mom, Business Among Moms, The Women in Biz Network, and Mom Biz Coach.
• Your marriage can’t afford not to have a cleaner. “It’s a great investment,” she said. “I got a nanny when we had our fifth kid, and I realized I should’ve done it three kids ago.”