Newspaper Article – Amid growth, Web site finds it fluctuates with recession

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From The Baton Rouge Advocate

The good news for Toni Phillips and Wendy Williamson, the mother-and-daughter team who operate a Web-based retail site for nursing mothers and their infants, is this: Two years into GotBreastPump.com, their site sits near the top of Google rankings for the term “breast pump” and their business grows more than 10 percent most months.

The bad news is their daily business, even based on the bedrock commodity of mother’s milk, began feeling tremors last year when the credit crisis gripped Wall Street and deepened the recession on Main Street.

Volatility is now a constant. On days the media dwell on impending bank failures and government bailouts, the consumer confidence of child-bearing mothers gets rattled, the women said.

“We saw that in October,” said Williamson, a teacher-turned-Web designer whose own pregnancy led to launching the company in early 2007. “When everyone freaked out, we saw the sales drop.”

“But the next day, we would have the highest sales day of the year,” said her mother and co-owner Phillips, who joined the company a year ago. “They’d get a media buzz and then the next day is steady.”

“That’s what the recession has done to us,” Williamson said.

Still, GotBreastPump.com reached $109,000 in annual sales in its first full year selling products.

Having begun as a sounding board on the Internet for mothers needing help and education on breastfeeding, they accumulated dozens of products with a holistic health focus that appeal to what Phillips calls their “naturalistic” clientele.

The company expects to be profitable later this year and the mother-and-daughter team targets $2 million in annual revenue after five full years, with a staff of five employees.

Williamson made a calculated move to improve her odds in 2007, when she joined the inaugural Tech Park U class.

Centered at the Baton Rouge-based Louisiana Technology Park for nine months each year, Tech Park U helped refine her business plan into what the park’s interim president, Stephen Loy, calls “a living, breathing document” that helps a startup adapt to the economy around it.

Five in 10 businesses fail in the first three years, in general, but 87 percent of businesses who participate in incubator programs are still standing after five years, according to the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Collaboration, preparation and cost control are keys to the success rate. For $99 a month, Tech Park U offered Williamson a boot camp with a work station, telecommunication lines, data services and consulting advice. Most valuable was input from other owners of fledgling businesses and Wednesday evening sessions with strategy coaches brought in by the park to advise them.

“A lot of time is spent in discussion,” Loy said. “It’s not you in a silo. You’ve got 10 or 12 other people in the room with you that you’re feeding off of. The discussion just snowballs.”

The technology park screens applicants to gauge suitability for the program, and the low-cost entry limits risk for participants like Got Breast Pump LLC, Williamson and Phillips’ business that operates the e-commerce site.

“It’s a safe or inexpensive way to figure out if your business model has any viability,” said Loy, who added that startups now face the challenge of beating recession impacts as well as the traditional competitive odds.

Got Breast Pump found financial help as well. Earlier this year, the firm gained a $50,000 loan from Seedco Financial Services Inc., a national nonprofit that provides operating capital to startups and small businesses that might not qualify for conventional bank financing.

And Phillips engaged the Urban Entrepreneur Partnership’s Baton Rouge office for some coaching on Got Breast Pump’s business model. UEP, a nonprofit funded by the Kauffman Foundation of Kansas City, Mo., offers free business help to any prospective entrepreneur.
Natalie Carter, who manages the Baton Rouge office, said UEP business consultant Kim Evans worked with Got Breast Pump.

“She was blown away with their profits and how everything was done on a grass-roots level,” Carter said. “They had done their homework, and they did it on their own. The fact that they already had their own Web site and had taken the steps to come up as one of the top three on search engines — that was impressive. Because the majority of the clients who come through our doors, they’re just as startup as can be.”

After teaching, Williamson gained critical experience at Walker-based Continental Kennel Club Inc., for whom she designed and maintained a Web site. She continues designing a quarterly magazine for the dog registration, breeding and event business.

Because she can blend her freelance work with operating her GotBreastPump.com Web site in a computer work station at home, Williamson enjoys the simultaneous advantage of being a stay-at-home mom and a successful entrepreneur.

“I do feel kind of lucky,” Williamson said. “I’m a passionate mom but I’m also kind of a tech geek.”

Neither Williamson nor her mom wanted to pursue the traditional retail model for Got Breast Pump.

“If we were brick-and-mortar in Baton Rouge, we’d be rocking,” Phillips said, but they wanted the flexibility, lower overhead and greater reach that an e-commerce site could give them.

Retail research shows they’re on the right path. Forrester Research Inc., the Massachusetts-based Internet commerce company, found in the fourth quarter 2008 that 53 of 85 online retailers surveyed grew sales, with average gains of 9.8 percent. The survey was conducted with Shop.org.

“While consumers had previously shopped online because it offered convenience and selection, more consumers now are shopping online for value, while being seduced by the price transparency and the ability to comprehensively research products online,” wrote Sucharita Mulpuru, a Forrester analyst, in a recent research report.

The value proposition Williamson and Phillips say they’re offering is that they’re far more than a retail site.

They correspond regularly with customers, send hand-written notes with orders and frequently blog on health subjects near and dear to the hearts of mothers. They’ve also established the nonprofit Zachary Williamson Memorial Foundation, which provides breast pumps for low-income mothers in memory of a child of Wendy and Robert Williamson who died.

“We think our company has the potential to jump to the next level,” Williamson said, “if we can just get the right attention.”

Said Phillips, “We do believe we’re in a recession-proof business, because no matter what, mothers still have to feed their babies.”