In typical "mompreneur" fashion, Tammany Atkinson created a soothing solution to one bruiser of a problem.
When her first son, Jackson, started to crawl, she noticed all that stumbling around was taking a toll on his little knees. A rough sketch and a trip to her seamstress blossomed into Bee's Knees -- infant pants with neoprene pads sewn into the knees to protect babies during the crawling stage. Through a heartbreaking diagnosis and tough entry into the crowded baby business, Atkinson gradually grew her company, selling store to store until scoring a coveted licensing deal with mega-brand Kushies, which put her product on the shelves of retailers like Babies R Us and other stores around the world.
A 36-year-old mother of two active sons who now walk with the best of them, Atkinson remains Bee's Knees' sole owner and operator, designing new lines of fashion-forward pants, marketing the products and paying visits to local retailers to polish up their Bee's Knees displays.
As is the case with a lot of mompreneurs, your idea grew out of necessity. Where did the inspiration for Bee's Knees come from?
I was working in advertising and my husband, Paul, managed a car dealership. When our first son, Jackson, was about 8 months old, he started to crawl. I would take his pants off and notice his little knees were all red. I asked other moms if they were finding the same thing, and they all had that problem, so that's how the idea of Bee's Knees was born.
You hit a huge personal roadblock very early on. How did you decide to push forward with the business?
I had actually just started the business, getting the logo done and doing research, when we found out Jackson was profoundly deaf. He was only 16 months old. The business was put on hold for a while because we had a lot of appointments at the hospital and then he had surgery for his cochlear implant. At the time, my husband would be at work and I would be home alone with Jackson all day. I would sit around and cry for hours a day because I had too much alone time on my hands. So I got back to working on the business, thinking at the very least, it would take my mind off this time and get me through it, and at the very most, it would be successful and we could one day use the business to educate people about infant hearing loss.
How did you go about making the first batch of Bee's Knees? Did starting out change your family's routine?
We started out manufacturing locally, which was very expensive, so I had to come up with a design that was simple to make and that we could use for boys or girls. I sketched out a simple pattern and had the seamstress who made my wedding dress make a prototype. I started researching to find the companies that did sewing locally and the neoprene. Neoprene isn't readily available -- I was able to find only one supplier out in California, but it only sold it in these massive, 150-pound rolls that I had to ship here for a fortune. In the beginning, between the shipping, manufacturing and getting the tags printed, I was just about breaking even with every pair that I sold.
In the beginning, we had boxes and boxes of shipments that had to be tagged, and my family and I had a full-on sweatshop going on at our cottage, tagging pants and putting together shipment boxes. My mom would do tons of work and my husband would do all my invoicing, and obviously no one was being paid, so it was a running joke that Bee's Knees didn't pay well. Paul would go to work all day and then come home and there would never be dinner waiting for him. I'm the one coming home at night asking, "What's for dinner?"
What clients and retailers did you sell to first?
It started out with just local, independent boutiques and toy stores that knew me because I had shopped there for my children, and then I had some reps selling the product, so we were able to start selling to independent shops in the United States, Japan and Australia.
What did you find most difficult about breaking into the retail industry?
I really had no idea what I was getting into when I got started. It's been a costly education from mistakes I've made, but it's been a great education in business. I didn't even know you had to get a vendor number in order to sell or the infrastructure to ship to retailers. It was tough, and there was a lot of stress and disappointments because I had to learn the business on my own. When you're by yourself, there's no employee protection laws and I've met some interesting characters over the years and been put in some strange situations. In the beginning, I licensed with a company that manufactured clothing but had no experience in the baby industry, which was a disaster. I had missing samples and incomplete orders that were poorly manufactured. That's where I really learned the lesson that even though you may license a product and have a little assistance, you're still on your own and you can never sit back and trust anyone else to do the job for you and make the company a success.
You've got quite a client list. How has celebrity recognition helped the business?
Yes, we've been very fortunate to have a lot of press coverage. Our first big break was when [David Arquette] was on David Lettermen, and his daughter, Coco, was crawling. He described that Coco was getting bruised knees from crawling on their hardwood floors, and he would end up carrying her. We called and got [Courteney Cox's] information and sent a package to her. Within two weeks, I got the nicest card in the mail from her thanking us for the pants and saying how great an invention it was, and she gave us her endorsement. I connected with a shop out in L.A. that got me a feature on a Today show segment. Goldie Hawn picked up some for Kate Hudson's son, and photos surfaced in magazines with Kate and Ryder wearing a pair of our pants. That recognition got us on The View. Jill Whelan, who has a talk show out in Pittsburgh, asked on the air where she could find our pants for her baby. We sent her some pants, and ended up going for an interview on her show, where we got to bring a lot of awareness to our charitable causes for infant hearing loss. Once you have a little repertoire of press, you get to meet different contacts in the industry that lead to a lot of opportunities.
Eight years into the business, you've secured a licensing agreement with Kushies. How is that relationship going and has your role in the company changed as a result?
When I started out, it seemed like everything happened overnight, but people always say there is no overnight success. Really, it's been an eight-year journey and we're just starting to get traction. A friend of mine in manufacturing told me it's really hard to start a brand and start a new product or line because the market is so saturated, never mind start a whole new division of padded pants and get people on board.
I met with the Kushies owner and he saw a need in the marketplace for something like this, so he said, "We can do it two ways: You can hire me to manufacture it for you, or we can do it for you and offer you a licensing agreement." I agreed [to the licensing agreement], since I didn't have a lot of money for manufacturing big orders for retailers like Babies R Us. I fully own Bee's Knees -- I own the patents and the company. Basically, I tell them what I need done. I work with the designers to come up with new concepts, color palette, tag design, everything, just like I did when I was on my own working from my home, hiring expensive independent designers to do the same. I'm in charge of sales and I drop by our retailers like Whole Foods and fix up their displays, talking to buyers and account managers and managing press. Most recently, we've been able to launch nationally with Babies R Us in Canada, which has done phenomenal things for the business. We're getting ready to launch a new line of Bee's Knees that we're really excited about, too.
Bee's Knees has been very charitable since the beginning. Tell me about some of the special projects Bee's Knees gives to.
The hearing charities are very close to our hearts, because without the cochlear implant, Jackson would have never been able to speak or hear anything. Now, he speaks perfectly, plays piano and even narrated his school play in French, which he can speak beautifully. When Jackson was at the Learning to Listen Foundation, we donated a portion of our proceeds. We held a fundraiser where we raised over $25,000. I donated all my products produced through that bad licensing agreement -- over 4,000 pairs of Bee's Knees pants -- to Sew On Fire, and those were sent to Third World countries and orphanages around the world. We also shipped about 400 pairs to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and another 500 pairs to Fashion Delivers. As we grow and become more profitable, I plan on continuing to give to Sick Kids Hospital, where Jackson was cared for.
Do you have any advice for aspiring mompreneurs?
Now that Jackson is 9 and Flynn will be 7, I'm so grateful I was able to be home with my kids. I think it's the best gift ever. I also think it's really important to keep your hand in something, whether it's keeping your credentials up to date or doing something part time, because the time from when they are dependent on you to when they're in school full time goes by in the blink of an eye. Suddenly, it's been eight, nine years that you've been out of the workforce, and I see a lot of moms struggling to get back into something they love. I had to make a lot of sacrifices with my kids trying to build this business, but I'm in a really great place mentally and emotionally because I had my own interests, which helps me balance. Building my own business has been tough, but I love it.
Name: Tammany Atkinson
Company: Bee's Knees Baby
The original version of this article appeared on AOL Small Business on 6/27/11.