The copy below was originally printed in the Jacksonville Business Journal on July 16, 2010.
By Dolly Penland
They say necessity is the mother of invention. In Jennifer Marko’s case, it spawned an Internet search. Marko was the owner of a public relations firm when she had a baby in 2006. She took only two weeks’ maternity leave.
“I had an image of myself working at my desk as usual and the baby quietly sleeping in the bassinet behind me,” said Marko, president of Marko Holdings, DBA Bottle Snugglers. However, “Max, my son, would not stay in the bassinet at all. So, I only had one hand to work with. And when he had to eat, I had a bottle in one hand and a baby in the other. Feeding time would last 20 minutes. So up to four times a day I was unproductive. I would find myself so stressed.”
Thinking she couldn’t be the only one with this problem, Marko searched online for a product to help. She found three. “Only one worked and it was a Bottle Tender,” Marko said. “It was like magic. I could hold the baby and it would hold the bottle, and I could still finish the report I was doing or send an e-mail. That lightened my stress level immensely.”
Marko later tried to place another order, but she kept getting a “sold out” message. “I finally called the owners and said, ‘What’s happening? I love the product and want to buy another.’ They said they both had other jobs and were busy. It was a mom and dad who created and patented the product, but never optimized it and never advertised. [My husband and I] made an offer to buy it,” for $100,000.
In 2008, Marko transitioned out of PR while planning the new company, renamed Bottle Snugglers. Entirely self-financed, the business officially opened in January 2009. “In January of 2009, you couldn’t get a loan,” she said. “We just believed in it and knew there was a niche in the market, so we put our own dollars behind it.”
Although Marko said it is worth it, she was initially surprised to learn about the different costs associated with operating a goods-based business versus the service-based business she had successfully run. They included costs associated with design and engineering, safety certifications, industry trade shows and insurance.
“We spent $25,000 in the first year in legal fees alone,” she said.
Bottle Snugglers are sold on the company’s website and in baby boutiques.
“A lot of people come in looking for them and a lot of people register for them,” said Kacey Roache, owner of the baby boutique lulu. “They are just a cute, practical gift.”
People bought 1,000 Bottle Snugglers in 2009 and more than 650 so far this year. Marko is now trying to get them into big-box retail stores.
“The previous owners sold several thousand over five or six years,” Marko said. “We sold 50 percent more in 2009 than they sold in their best year ever because we changed it to make it more marketable.”
To help get her business going, Marko sought advice from another business owner in the industry who not only shared his insights into the retail industry, but also introduced her to a local importer. “I owned a business, my husband owns a business, but the retail industry and particularly baby retail is very different from PR,” Marko said. “There are so many things you can’t know until you come across a problem.”
She also joined one of the Jacksonville Women’s Business Center’s business advisory councils. The councils are made up of small groups of women business owners with similar annual gross revenue who share their experiences, advice and best practices.
“Each of the women is really the sum of her own experiences, and all that comes to the table for the benefit of the other members,” said Linda Nottingham, a council facilitator. “We deal with any challenges or problems or issues that one business owner is facing and it can be anything. It can be as simple as what kind of gift to buy a client to something as complicated as dealing with employees.”
Marko said she enjoys learning from others and is happy to share her experience as well.
“It’s OK to ask for help,” she said. “I think it shows strength, not weakness, when you ask for help. Everything is not common sense. I have never had anyone turn me down when I asked for advice or a meeting to pick their brain, and in return I have never turned anyone down. If I learned a lesson, I will pass that on to you and we’ll both move forward.”
Read more: Stress gave birth to a new business – Jacksonville Business Journal