DREAM CATCHER: MICHELLE CLONEY
Michelle Cloney has always been seeking “something” and her professional path provides ample evidence of that quest. A degree in Economics from the University of Virginia landed her in London, first as an editorial assistant for Euromoney Publications and then as an NBC News intern in the momentous days following the death of Princess Diana. Upon returning to the States, she worked briefly at PBS, and then moved to NYC to fulfill a lifelong passion of acting and performing on stage, before ultimately relocating to the opposite coast to pursue her dreams in Los Angeles. And this was all before she was 30 years old! On the west coast, she fell out of show business and into professional organizing, and started a business called i-organize to help clients declutter and add beauty and function to their work and personal spaces. She also picked up a real estate license, began studying for a Masters in Spiritual Psychology, and became pregnant with her daughter, Lucie. A decision to leave an abusive relationship and raise her daughter near family took her back to the part of Northern Virginia where she had grown up. She transferred her real estate license to that state to work alongside her realtor mother, and got accredited in professional home staging. One day while feeding her daughter a leaky bottle, she had an idea for a baby bottle bib that would catch leaks and make bottle feeding easier for both mom and baby. The thought and the word “bibble” (as in bib for a bottle) came to her immediately. Two months later, encouraged by family, she learned to sew and gave herself a web-fueled crash course in Business 101 in order to launch funfunctional, a lifestyle brand for “everyday eco-chic” that inspires waste-free living while having fun. Four years later, the line can be found in almost 400 boutiques across the country and continues to expand with new product offerings like 100% organic paperless towels to address the 254 million tons of paper towels that end up in landfills. It was a long journey, but she found her “something” – designing eco-friendly products that enhance daily living with simplicity and style.
When did you know you wanted to pursue your business or venture? I had the idea for a baby bottle bib, but it wasn’t until my dad asked me a couple of months later what had happened to my bottle bib idea that I took it seriously.
Did your former career prepare you for running your own business? I had a lot of former careers! I think they all in their own way prepared me for where I am today. Working in journalism strengthened my analytic and writing skills; studying acting prepared me to be comfortable speaking in front of people; professional organizing inspired my interest in creating products that simplify life; and real estate/design speaks to my aesthetic side and informs my design/brand goals.
Did your original business plan change along the way or are you doing exactly what you set out to do? If it changed, how so? It totally changed. My first product was Le Bibble, which is geared specifically to babies. I didn’t feel totally authentic having my entire business be focused around that demographic, so designing waste-free products for adults made me feel much more aligned with my brand. Honestly, it hasn’t been until this year when I really had to dig deep about what I was doing that I have felt most ‘on purpose’.
What has been your biggest challenge to date? Capital! Knowing how to go about raising capital has been the challenge. Everything we have done has been on a shoestring budget, so costs are higher on my end than they would be if I had been able to buy in volume. But the upside is that I never heavily invested in a supply that has been a waste.
How did you fund your dream? With some help from my family with initial funding and by using a few credit cards in small amounts. And sales!
How long were you in business before you started to see real growth? What do you attribute that to? We saw pretty fast growth in the first year. I launched in December, and by that February had an international distributor. But it wasn’t until I attended the largest US kids and baby trade show, ABC Kids, that I saw the real growth into stores. I think by the end of the first year we were in possibly 50 retailers. We had an interesting and innovative product with cute packaging and that was appealing to retailers. Now we are focusing more on our online presence direct to the consumer.
How do you organize your day to best optimize your time? Describe a day in your life. I am a single mom, so the first three years were rough. I wish that weren’t the case because it has left me with some mom guilt, but I was doing a lot all the time. Now that she is in preschool every day, I can get a tremendous amount of work done while she’s there. I drop her off, go for a quick drive to clear my head and get in the zone, get back to my home office, do a quick check of emails, and then work on whatever is the goal of the day. Sometimes it’s getting orders ready, sometimes it’s graphics work, sometimes it’s photography (I take all my own photos), and sometimes it’s business tasks like accounting, planning, or inventory management. And then I pick her up and do errands if need be. I also work a lot at night. I think it’s so important to know your energy pattern. I feel the best in the morning and in the early evening. My non-peak energy is in mid-afternoon, so I schedule activities accordingly. And sometimes I take a nap.
Tell us about a time when you thought you should throw in the towel. What kept you going? This year. I wasn’t sure exactly where we were going. As I mentioned, I didn’t feel totally aligned just being in the baby space and I also feel a deep need to give back and make a difference. So I dug deep. I allowed life to flow. And I came up with new ideas to expand the waste-free product line into Le Swipe, with the goal of reducing our reliance on disposable paper products. I also intend to share more of my own personal experiences as a mom and business owner through writing this year.
If I weren’t doing what I do, I would be… Working for a non-profit somewhere or with kids.
I wish someone had told me… To trust more.
I gave up ____ to pursue my dream: Financial stability.
The key to balancing it all is… Not balancing it all. I don’t think it’s necessarily possible. I think the more important thing to do is to be gentle with yourself. Acknowledge that the life of an entrepreneur can be really hard. Investing so much personally and emotionally into a business is a lot for anyone. I know when I look at my life, it is certainly not a perfect balancing act. It’s full of love, it’s full of determination, it’s full of failures, successes, right steps, wrong steps, guilt, joy, an abundance of emotions. I say try to experience it all – be present. And forgive yourself, all the time!
My biggest challenge is… I experience life as an introvert, so I need my alone time. When I don’t make time for it, I get flustered. I need to first organize in my head, then in reality. And this can be hard to do.
If I had to do it all over I would… Have had more confidence from the beginning.
My proudest professional moment to date is… Our giveback initiative, Le Village Stylists, was nominated for a Fairfax County Service Award in our first year in business in 2012. We partnered with Homestretch, a local non-profit that provides skills and housing to homeless families while they transition to self-sufficiency, by carrying out home makeovers for some of the families during this challenging period in their lives. So far we have completed 13 makeovers. I would like to be able to do more with this.
LET’S GET PERSONAL:
The three words that best describe me are… Intuitive, Creative, Loving.
My favorite scent is… Laundry.
My favorite movie is… Out of Africa.
On my playlist right now… I don’t have one! But I love Bobby Bones radio/country/dance music.
My favorite type of workout is… Dance!
I rejuvenate by… Driving in my car and listening to music. This is my favorite activity of all time!
Who is a teacher or boss who inspired you and why? I used to work at Del Frisco’s Steak House in NYC when I was studying acting. Their corporate policy was that when one of the owners came in and sat in your section, they would give the server a 100% tip. I liked that they invested in their employees this way. I have had the opposite experience of working in a restaurant where the owner never tipped. He lost my esteem pretty quickly. It helped form my own philosophy that you should treat your employees well.
Being a mom and an entrepreneur means… That life goes by really fast! I am making a more conscious effort to be more present now that my daughter is five and is watching everything I do. I want her to know that she is number one and that I want her to be proud of me and to feel wholly loved.
A woman who inspires me is… Any woman who is telling her truth. I find the speakers, the truth-tellers, the courageous authentic folk willing to tell their stories to be insanely inspiring to me. It makes me want to share more of that with the world.
One thing I hope to pass along to my daughter is… To experience life as broadly and deeply as possible; to enjoy the little things; to do something you love and do it with passion; to stand up for what she believes in; and to be an honest, authentic little person.
Lately I’m inspired by… So many people getting out and sharing their voices for justice and for what’s right.