Follow by Email

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reality Bites

From that moment on, we knew we were really in business. It wasn't just an idea floating around in our heads, it was real and taking up all the space my living room (I never realized how big 10 wrought iron cribs are). At one point in my pre Bratt career, I had a small marketing firm. I knew how to stage and sell a product, be it with words, photos or events. All of my clients were artists of one sort or another, so I felt confident I could sell this crib, because it was, after all, a work of art. The first thing I needed to do was take a decent photo. Second thing, find my market. Third thing, present the goods, and money would flow like the mighty Mississippi. So, I took a great photo. I bought a very expensive list consisting of affluent pregnant women in their second trimester and interior designers who had done high end nurseries in the past. Again, pre internet, so everything had to be snail mailed. Now, at this point, we were young parents with a fairly new mortgage, making ends meet, but not a lot more. Both Stephen and I had managed to save a little money, and we decided this was a good investment, so we blew almost our entire nest egg on the photography, printing, procurement of the list, and the mailing. We bought 10,000 names, and I personally addressed and mailed 10,000 postcards. The cribs cost us about $1000 each when it was all said and done, so we decided we sell them for $2000. If we only got 1% of our list (which is what statistics say you can count on), we'd make $100,000. Not bad. Not bad at all. And, after seeing the competition we felt sure we'd make that, and if not, at least we'd sell a few and make our money back and have enough to try again. We were so excited as we sent out those little postcards of promise. I remember eagerly sitting by the phone, imagining what our very first client would look like. How excited they'd be when they saw what we had done for them. How thankful they'd be when their ideal dream crib just showed up in the mail. And, I waited. Around the bottom of the first week, I remember feeling my first pang of what if .. . . But, ever the optimist, I was sure they were just deliberating. After all, one doesn't just plunk down 2G's without a bit of consideration, a purchase of that requires some thought. And, so I waited with a bit more understanding about the time, because of the magnitude of the decision my soon to be customers were faced with. And, I waited some more. I think it was week 3 when I began to realize we not become the overnight success I had envisioned. In the end, we never received one single phone call. Not one! I still can't believe that.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

And Baby Makes Three

We were so sure that our idea for a hip little designer baby furniture company was destined for billion dollar success, that we became paranoid that, should anyone find out, they would surely steal our idea. To protect the concept, we nicknamed the idea “The Cat”. We discussed “The Cat” all the way on the train.

The next few weeks every conversation included “The Cat”. We would lie in bed at night, with Stephen drawing and me adding my two cents. We came up with the name, "Bratt Decor" because Stephen, being South African, loved the American cheekiness of the word Brat (we added the extra "t" to soften the effect) and Decor, because we felt it added a bit of range. All in all it's proven to be a great name. People remember it. It's sort of sassy with a dash of elegance. We incorporated our business, copyrighted our name, and were ready to make our millions. Stephen did all of his homework with the Consumer Safety Products Commission, and made sure that the design was safe, so that limited our artistic freedom, to some extent. Once we knew our boundaries, we were off. We decided that the crib had to reflect our tastes and truly be a work of art that we both loved. I had some requirements. I wanted my beloved French wrought iron to be the medium, because Paris was still in my soul. I wanted to be taken back to the windy French streets where iron balconies reached the sky of the fanciest of facades, where four-poster iron beds graced huge, marbled rooms and where even the signposts for the metro were curly wrought iron and totally gorgeous. So, with that, we had a beginning, a four poster wrought iron crib. Stephen had to put some Africa in there, so he decided that the top of those four posters would be a perfect place to incorporate the exotic wilds of Africa. He called his father, who drove for miles to an ostrich farm in the Karoo and hand selected a beautiful display of white ostrich plumes. Once they arrived, he carefully inserted them into these beautiful hand turned wooden finials that he finished with linseed oil, and then wrapped with leather. They were stunning. He kept the design fairly simple so the feathers could sing. The wrought iron was slate gray with simple scrollwork along the bottom and finished with brass balls on the feet. He also insisted the bedding be stark white with a bit of movement, to counterbalance the lines of the crib, so he designed and sewed a beautiful white wave bumper. The look was completed with a bed skirt. It was the most beautiful sight. I felt sure that this was a winner, and that the entire world would definitely want this crib. I was so caught up in the loveliness of the object that I didn’t really think too much of the logistics of how actually turning that crib into a business would really play out. Because, let’s face it, Stephen couldn’t put this much time into every single crib, there would be manufacturing to consider, inventorying, procurement, government regulations and that was just the start. However, there would be plenty of time to think on those things. This was the time to focus on my husband, my nursery and my growing baby.

We had so much fun putting that room together. Stephen painted a romantic blue sky on the ceiling, and then went into the attic and drilled tiny holes throughout which he filled with soft, twinkling Christmas lights. The affect was pure magic, Paris at twilight. We placed the crib in the center of the room on a large sheep skin rug, and as far as I was concerned, we were done. However, that wasn’t entirely practical. We had an old walnut dresser refinished, and filled an antique book case with Curious George, Dr. Seuss, and Goodnight Gorilla. I put my mother’s old, armless, spindle rocker in the corner and recovered the seat cushion in white. We purchased a beautiful yellow animal mask from a street vendor on our last trip to Africa, and we hung that on his wall, then we were complete. The room was simple and dazzling.

In June of that year, Sebastian was born, and like every first time parent, we were all consumed with wonder over every single thing about our magnificent baby. We would put him in the bed between us, and gaze endlessly at the rise and fall of his little chest while he slept. A heavy sigh or sudden startle would fill us with joy indescribable. You know how it is. Those first few weeks you're walking in the midst of a miracle, and your mind really can't catch up with what your heart and your soul know in it's deepest most eternal secret places.

Needless to say, not much happened with Bratt Decor for the first few months following Sebastian's birth. We were just settling in, experiencing all the changes a baby brings to one's life. Stephen's illustration business was very successful, and he worked from home. So, the three of us had what I referred to as our Camelot year. It was the most perfect year. Money was not a worry. The baby was a constant source of joy and pride. Stephen worked, but not too much. I didn't really work at all. I don't recall one fight, not one moment of stress. Honestly, I was so grateful that God would see fit to give me so much love, I don't think I could have mustered an unkind word to anyone, let alone the two loves of my life. We had so much time together, and Stephen didn't miss one of all those amazing "firsts" of a new baby. I was still planning on making Bratt Decor a real business, but had no idea when or how that would happen. Until our fist day at Gymboree. Sebastian was six months old, and we decided to join a mommy and me gymnastics class. On the first day, all the proud mommies were sitting in a circle with their little fat cherubs, and the instructor asked us to go around the circle, introduce ourselves and our babies, and tell a little bit about who we were. There were doctors, lawyers, school teachers, stay at home moms, and just about every thing in between. When my time came, after introducing myself and Sebastian, I told the group how I was planning on creating a crib company, and producing wrought iron cribs. But, that I really wasn't sure how all of that was going to happen (this was before the internet), because I hadn't figured out manufacturing. We made the prototype locally, but the costs were prohibitive. Just the four sides of the crib cost us $800, and that was in the mid 90's. So, we knew we'd have to make the product somewhere besides the U.S. if we ever wanted to actually sell any. And, then, from the other side of the circle, this cute little mommy piped up and said, "Well, one of my best girlfriends, who was my maid of honor and who is little Isabell's godmother, represents iron manufacturers in South America. I bet she could help you find someone to produce your designs." As it turned out, she did. We worked with a small foundry in Nicaragua who was run by two sisters. They produced our designs for several years, and it was one of the most extraordinary coincidences I've had in this business. I mean, really, what are the chances? If you don't believe in God, start your own company, and soon you will.

That's when Bratt Decor actually started to take shape. Stephen worked with them, faxing our specifications, and working only over the phone and fax. In all the years we worked together, we never once met them. When our first cribs arrived, wrapped in Tide boxes and flown in, it was like Christmas morning. It's one thing to make yourself something that you love, it's quite another to communicate something you've dreamt of and imagined to people thousands of miles away, and then see it all come to life in your living room. When we assembled it and saw that it was good, I wept.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

How It All Got Started

Probably, like many of you reading this, it all started when I first discovered I was going to be a mommy. I was 20 something, working as a marketing director for an architectural firm, and loving life as I knew it. Stephen and I weren't trying to have a child, he just sort of appeared. But, it was the single greatest change of direction I've ever had. My parents were gone, and Stephen's parents lived all the way in S. Africa, so we were sort of alone. I really wanted to stay home and raise my child myself, but I also wanted, and needed to work. I have worked steadily since I was 13 years old, I don't think I'd know how not to work. So, I began to think about starting a business that I could do while taking care of our child. Stephen had his own very successful illustration business, which would take care of us financially as I got another business up and running. I had businesses before, and I really wanted to start something of my own once more. So, the timing all worked out to be sort of serendipitous. At that time, I really had no idea what business I'd start, but I wanted something small and manageable, that I could do with a baby and from home. The pregnancy was picture perfect and we were breathless with anticipation for our little one to arrive. We dreamt of what he would look like (yes, we found out we were having a boy. I just couldn't wait), what our life would look like with him in it, and we began doing all the things that expectant parents do. We read the books, went to birthing classes, gave up coffee, and dreamt of the life that was to come. It was really a wonderful time. Nesting kicked in hard around month six, and I turned my designer's eye to the small room down the hall. It had beautiful light, warm worn, wooden floors, and an arched inset space, that was a perfect little reading nook. I couldn't wait to turn that blank canvas into a space overflowing with wonder and endless possibility. As a designer, I look for that one piece from which all other things will build, and for a nursery, it was the crib. It's the biggest piece in the room, and it will set the tone. So, I went shopping. We live in Baltimore, and when I had exhausted every single crib carrying store in the state and found nothing, I was not dismayed. I realized that not everyone needed great design to feel peaceful, and that I was a bit of a freak in that sense, so it wasn't surprising that there was nothing in Baltimore to suit me. And when I say nothing, I mean nothing. It was your basic cherry, maple or white boring crib. So, we set off to New York to find the crib that was made just for us. I had my hit list of baby boutiques, and was quite encouraged when I entered the first one. There were gorgeous prams in the front window, and hand stitched linen layette. This place had potential! The cribs were in the back. There were three of them. The first one was an iron crib from France, but the design was heavy and uninspired, and the price tag was $8000, a little out of our range. The next one was a hand painted Beatrix Potter number, which was well done, but not my style, way too cutesy. The third one was an English sleigh crib, priced in the thousands, and simply too conventional. I saw many versions of the same throughout all of Manhattan, including the different versions of what I'd seen at home but with a steeper price tag. Hope began to receed like waves on the beach. We trudged on through the city streets, hitting everything on the list and many stores that weren’t. By the end of the day, we sat in a small cafĂ©, and discussed the depressing fact that what I wanted simply did not exist. I must have looked like a seriously sad sack, because my dear, sweet Stephen, simply couldn’t take it any longer after a moment’s thought, he said, “I’ll design a crib for you.” And with those six little words, hope renewed and I was overcome with the deepest joy. Anything Stephen designed was always perfect. He designed my wedding dress, and my wedding ring and even today, they are still the most beautiful of objects. He designed our kitchen, and our country house, which are both worthy of Architectural Digest. He’s even designed a green, radiant floor heating system and numerous computer programs and online systems. When the kids were into ugly dolls, he designed and sewed life size costumes that were exact replicas of Wage and Babo. His genius knows no ends. It’s as if within him is an innate sense of exactly how a thing is supposed to be in it’s most perfect sense. And, then he has the talent to make it so and bring it forth into this world. If he were to sign up to design our baby’s crib, I knew, without a doubt, that it would be perfection. We discussed details long into the night, at the quaint little New York restaurant. Then, suddenly it hit me. If I couldn’t find a crib that I liked, imagine the millions of other women out there in the same predicament, and I was pretty sure not all of them had a genius designer husbands that could help them with their dilemma. In that moment, our business was born.