Wake up, you say? Even today, real women don't build multimillion dollar businesses from the kitchen table while they're doing the wash and cooking, too.
Better think again. Meet Lillian Vernon, founder of the Lillian Vernon Corporation. Vernon not only started a multimillion dollar business on her kitchen table, she did so 51 years ago when she was pregnant with her first child. It was a time when women with kids rarely worked, and women in general didn't run businesses. In fact it was a time when women were supposed to be content doing nothing more challenging than changing babies' diapers and ironing their husband's underwear.
But Vernon wanted more out of life. She had a dream , a vision, and the guts to go for it. By combining her innate merchandising ability with many, many hours of hard work, she grew a company that now offers 8 catalog titles, 2 websites (www.lillianvernon.com and www.ruedefrance.com), and merchandise that captures the hearts (and money) of customers throughout the United States and the world. In recent years, she's also written a book about her experiences: An Eye for Winnners. How did she do it? Can it be done today? Those are some of the questions Lillian Vernon answered in a recent interview with Business Know-How.
Business Know-How (BKH): Women didn't start businesses 51 years ago. What made you decide to start one? And where did you start it?
Lillian Vernon (LV): I started my business in 1951, when I was a young housewife pregnant with my first child. I was living in Mount Vernon, New York and I wanted to help supplement my husband's income. I thought of an idea to use $2,000 of our wedding gift money to place an ad in Seventeen Magazine for a personalized handbag and belt. A year later, the ad brought in $32,000 in sales and my business was launched. Because I lived in a small apartment, I used our yellow Formica kitchen table as my office. It is now on display at our corporate headquarters in Rye.
BKH: Did you hear criticism from men and other women? Were you taken seriously?
LV: It was very unusual in 1951 for a woman to consider starting her own business or having a career. At that time, women were expected to stay home and raise their children. But I decided to put aside my misgivings when I announced to my family that I was starting a mail order business. My husband was skeptical at first and concerned about investing our wedding gift money and my mother thought I should concentrate on the birth of my son. Some of my friends felt my idea was odd which left me feeling alienated at times. However, my father was my source of inspiration and said he was proud of me. He encouraged my talent for merchandising by sending me on shopping trips for his leather goods company. My decision proved better than I ever imagined and my customers certainly took me seriously because I received 6,450 orders my first year in business.
BKH: Do you think things have changed much for women?
LV: The 21st century is a good time for women, especially women who want to branch out on their own and become successful entrepreneurs. Millions of women are fulfilling their dreams of having both a career and a family. Women have made great progress in the workplace advancing to executive level positions and heading large corporations and are making progress on pay equality. At Lillian Vernon Corporation, I am proud to say that women are given every opportunity to advance and are an integral part of my senior management team.
BKH: How did you resolve any problems you encountered because you were a woman?
LV: At first, it was difficult because the manufacturers I worked with were men and they were very skeptical doing business with a woman. But I slowly won their trust because I was a businesswoman who was true to my word, who paid her bills on time, and who they liked doing business with.
BKH: Could you have gotten a bank loan when you started your business in 1951? Is it easier today to finance a business than when you started? Do women today have more difficulty getting a loan than men?
LV: In 1951, I considered myself lucky to have received $2,000 of wedding gift money. Since my husband and I lived modestly and we didn't have any outstanding bills, my wedding gift money was more than sufficient to start a business. I knew that asking for a bank loan would be impossible unless my husband requested it. Today, there are more avenues than a bank available for women to seek financing including partnerships and venture capital. The federal government provides help to entrepreneurs through the services of the United States Small Business Administration, but you must be willing to accept the paperwork that accompanies any federal help.
BKH: What advice can you give to women who are struggling to maintain a career and family? Can they expect to do it all? Should they expect their spouses to help if they are married?
LV: First, women should not feel guilty about having a successful career and raising a family at the same time. I believe both are possible if you are realistic about not obtaining perfection. In order to remain balanced, women have to make practical choices and accept the fact that comprises will have to be made. When I was very involved in growing my business I had less personal time to share with my family so I changed my priorities around. First, I made a commitment to spend weekends with them. This gave us a chance to bond and catch up on the time we missed together during the week. On weeknights, when I brought my work home, I had my home office in our den so I could enjoy the company of my family while working at the same time. These adjustments really made a difference, especially for my children who were growing up and needed my attention. My husband was helpful throughout this period of time. He never minded staying home with our children and got great pleasure sharing his favorite hobbies of tennis and sailing. In this day and age, married women should expect help from their spouses and not be treated like the family maid.
BKH: What key factors helped your success in growing your business? Was it access to capital? Planning? Good Management? Being a great marketer?
LV: Lillian Vernon Corporation is a leader in our industry for several reasons. First, we created a unique brand that stayed true to its niche. We offer customers unique and value-priced merchandise, two characteristics that have distinguished Lillian Vernon for 51 years. The fact that our company is identified with a real person adds a personal touch to our business that helps retain customer loyalty. Our company has planned the extension of our brand to meet the needs of an ever-changing consumer. We began slowly by increasing the number of catalog titles, and have added 15 outlet stores, two websites, and a business-to-business division to our mix. I credit our success to our capable and experienced management team who has always worked to preserve my ideals.
BKH: What were your biggest obstacles to growth? What were your biggest surprises as a result of your expansion? What advice would you offer women today about expanding their businesses?
LV: Ironically, our biggest obstacle was our rapid rate of growth in the 1980's when credit cards and 800 numbers caused a surge in business. The technology we had at the time could not handle the flood of orders coming in and we needed a quick infusion of cash. This was the first time I was forced to make a decision about taking out a sizable bank loan to upgrade our operation because we faced great risk. I received a loan, we installed new technology that improved our situation, and I paid off the debt well before it was due. I learned an important lesson from this critical moment in our company's history. Too much business can be as harmful as too little. Grow when you have all the systems and people in place or else your business will suffer, you will inevitably lose customers, and you may end up in trouble.
BKH: Do you have any thoughts on why more women aren't more aggressive in business?
LV: I believe women are making great progress in all areas of business. With the rise of e-commerce, hundreds of websites are owned and operated by women with the sole purpose of providing information to enrich women's lives. Statistics show there are more women than ever before in America who are using their talents and expertise to launch their own businesses. Women made great strides in areas that were once dominated by men such as technology, engineering, finance, science, marketing, and of course the catalog industry. There are many women who choose to stay home full-time so they can devote themselves to their families and raising their children and I feel people must make the choices that are right for them.
BKH: How soon should one think about moving a fledgling business out of their home and hire more help?
LV: From my own personal experience, I believe an entrepreneur should move to a more business-like atmosphere when you can no longer operate efficiently at home and you need to hire extra help. Your company can grow and expand more freely in an office setting where you have more space and you won't be prone to distractions. Inevitably, customers and suppliers will take you more seriously and your company will have more credibility.
BKH: How important are mentors? Where can women find them?
LV: Without a doubt, everyone needs a support system and mentors are vital. They can inspire you and offer much needed advice and wisdom in areas where you have no experience. My father was my mentor for which I am grateful. At an early age, he encouraged me to develop my talent for merchandising. My confidence and self-esteem soared when I learned that what I had chosen were his most popular items. My father was also instrumental in my decision to launch my mail order company. Unlike other men of his generation, he believed I could succeed as an entrepreneur and encouraged me when other family members expressed doubts. He even helped me design and manufacture the leather handbag and belt I sold in my first mail order ad. It's not always easy to find a mentor, but if you are lucky enough to do so, treasure them and show them your thanks and appreciation.
BKH: Is it still possible to start a mail order business from a kitchen table?
LV: Because there are now 10,000 catalog titles competing in the Direct Marketing Industry and hundreds of thousands of e-commerce sites on the Internet, it is very difficult to start a mail order business from a kitchen table as I did 51 years ago. It's also obvious that $2,000 in financing as I had in 1951 is insufficient funding to start a business. Catalogs are a very expensive undertaking that require lots of money and a large staff to handle everything from merchandising, creative, fulfillment, marketing, and customer service that are so vital to maintaining customer loyalty.
BKH: Many people run service businesses. Do you think it's possible to grow a service business into the size of your company?
LV: This is now a service economy so it is possible to grow a business the size of our company and larger. People lead very busy, time-deprived lives so they need more service than ever.
BKH: What are the key ingredients for success in business?
LV: To be a success you must first be passionate about your work. Half-hearted enthusiasm will not sustain you during the many challenges that will inevitably lie ahead. Since success is never an overnight occurrence, you must commit to the long-term and tackle problems head-on. Until you have acquired experience and enough financing, keep your business plans relatively simple. Begin on a small scale so you can successfully introduce your product or service, target your market, and keep costs to a minimum. But make sure that you carefully study your competition so your business will offer consumers something unique by filling a special niche that is currently untapped. Last, learn how to read balance sheets and income statements. You may have an accountant that can calculate figures and keep your records in tact, but you must be able to interpret them so you can respond appropriately and make decisions effectively.
BKH: How important is it to become active in your community as a business owner?
LV: When my company grew to a size that I could afford to give back to my community, I made every effort to become involved in charitable giving and volunteering on non-profit boards and commissions. I believe that as a successful business leader I have a responsibility to help others who are less fortunate. I also feel that my experience can be put to good use helping others.
For additional information about Lillian Vernon and the Lillian Vernon Corporation, visit their web site at www.lillianvernon.com.
Advice From Lillian Vernon For Entrepreneurs
Planning to start your own business? Read Lillian Vernon's Tips For Entrepreneurial Success.