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Balancing a Start-up and a Baby

Serial entrepreneur Jessica DiLullo Herrin designed her latest company, Stella & Dot, to provide her with greater work-life balance.
Hard at It Jessica DiLullo Herrin describes herself as the go-go-go type.
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Jessica DiLullo Herrin co-founded the prominent wedding website WeddingChannel at 24, and for the next few years, she devoted almost all her waking hours to her start-up. Her next business had to be different—because it had to accommodate a growing family. From the start, Stella & Dot has sold its custom jewelry through in-home trunk shows led by independent sales reps—stylists, in the company's vernacular. Today, Stella & Dot has 10,000 stylists and Herrin has, in her own fashion, learned to slow down.

I started working on the business model for Stella & Dot in 2003 when my husband and I were living in Austin, and I was working for Dell in the global e-commerce group. We moved from San Francisco after my husband graduated from Stanford business school and was offered a job at a venture capital firm in Austin. One of my mentors and board members at WeddingChannel told me that if I ever wanted to learn how to run a big company, I had better go work at one. All I had ever done in my career was work at start-ups, but as an entrepreneur who wanted to build a big business one day, I took his advice and went to work at Dell.

I learned a tremendous amount about managing in a large organization, and it was also the perfect maternity-leave job, because it offered a lot of balance. In fact, after working almost every weekend for four years building WeddingChannel, it felt so balanced that I had plenty of time on the nights and weekends to start another company.

I got pregnant with my first child during my time at Dell. I've always been one of those people who is very driven about work, but I also always wanted to be a mom. All your priorities change when you are shifting your career to accommodate a family. With Stella & Dot, I was looking to create the modern women's business. Women today are having kids later, and many had a career first before staying home. They have different wants and expectations out of life, and I wanted to cater the business to that. The home-based model is really what gives women the flexibility they want.

The original concept included DIY jewelry, and it evolved into strictly ready-made jewelry. The Internet has made everything accessible and convenient, so if you're going to do direct selling, it has to be a product that is enhanced by a person-to-person sales environment and is also a social, public-facing product. Women love jewelry and accessorizing with custom pieces, and so the product really sells itself. That's really important, because most people don't get up in the morning and say, "I want to sell something"—but they will be a brand ambassador for something that they truly love wearing and want to recommend to others.

I did my first trunk show when I was three months pregnant. I was pregnant or had a newborn the majority ofthat time starting up. After starting WeddingChannel, I knew how all-consuming that experience was, so once I had a family, I knew that I had to put Stella & Dot on a slower trajectory. For the first few years, I did a lot of testing of the product by doing as many trunk shows as I could. I was trying to create that one perfect stylist experience and build a business that could be duplicated by thousands of women. At the beginning, I was really committed to bootstrapping Stella & Dot. So I made every piece of jewelry, I made the website, I made the invitations, I did everything. Now we have an amazing design team in New York that creates all the jewelry for the Stella & Dot brand.

When I look back, I had no idea what I was really doing, but I am an extrovert, so I knew I could go into a room and talk to the women about the product. I'm wired to want to work hard. Balance is not my forte. I'm someone who can yell go, go, go and just start from scratch and do things. But a lot of women don't want to make all the sacrifices that it takes to do that or can't because they already have three kids or they already have a full-time job that they need to pay the bills.

When my first daughter was born, I took my maternity leave and stayed home with her for three solid months. I brought my second daughter on my hip back to the office when she was 1 week old, because by then I had it down. And people would say to me, "That's so hard-core to bring your daughter to work when she's a week old." But to me, it was hard-core to stay home with an infant and a toddler. What's easy is having a nanny and bringing one of your babies to work.

I feel like I've ebbed and flowed with building this company, but I always focused on my greatest need, which was my children. I work in an office like most CEOs, but I didn't do that full time until my second daughter was 2 and a half. I always joke that I created this company for women to work from home, but I go into an office. Make no mistake: I do work from home, but only after I work a full day in the office and come home and put my children to bed, and then I do the night shift.

I did my first round of financing in 2005. We had a fledgling stylist force at the time, but the company had over half a million in revenue. My children were a little bit older, and my family was a little bit more settled, and that's when I felt I could really check all the way into work. And when I did, that's when it started having this rocket-ship growth. When I took the external capital, it was an escalation of my commitment, because now I was accountable to other people. I went and really built a team; it was no longer just me driving the business forward.

Our company is growing because our stylists love what they're doing, and that translates to their success. It's not a new business idea, but it's about changing the lives of our sales force. There are so many women out there who are so accomplished, and then they get to this time in their lives where they want to become moms and they don't quite want to go on the mommy track. But a lot of them feel like they have to step out or step to the sidelines. With Stella & Dot, you can still be building something, and even if you choose to keep it part time, maybe until your youngest goes off to kindergarten, you're still building something that doesn't have a glass ceiling and that has an endless runway.

Stella & Dot is made up of all kinds of women—former corporate lawyers, dentists, PR reps—with all different needs. We have team leaders who are earning over $30,000 a month managing stylists all over the country. We have women who want to be independent stylists and make a few thousand in extra income a month. Then there are women who have turned this into a full-time career and are running million-dollar sales organizations on their own. And those are choices that Stella & Dot allows these women to make.

At this point, I'm in a couple of cities a week doing training and working with our leaders to help them grow. When you're running a hypergrowth start-up, there's not a lot of part time. But this is my company, and that means I am going to have lunch with my daughter every Tuesday and make time for vacations. I still control my own schedule. It's not a job where I have to choose between dropping my daughter off at preschool or being at a 7 a.m. meeting.

This year, we'll do over $100 million in revenue. In the first half of the year, we exceeded our entire revenue for 2009, so we are set to triple revenue in 2010. But, more than the company's revenue figures, the biggest source of pride for me is the amount of commission we are able to pay out to our sales force, in a time when people have really needed it most. We've paid out over $20 million to our stylists. And that's money that women are using to make ends meet. That's the reason I bound out of bed in the morning.

Jessica Herrin will be speaking at the 2011 Inc. 500 | 5000 Conference. To attend, click here.

IMAGE: Mike McGregor
Last updated: Sep 1, 2010




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