Coming from a family of nine siblings, Rachel Coleman is naturally very family-oriented. So, like many of the Top 200 Winners in StartupNation’s 2009 Leading Moms in Business competition, incorporating her own children into her business was a given. Her first child, Leah, was actually the inspiration for her startup, Two Little Hands Productions (ranked No. 28), a Midvale, Utah-based company that produces sign language videos and other signing products for children.
Leah was born profoundly deaf, so Coleman and her husband began signing with her. “We saw how quickly and completely she was able to communicate her wants and needs even though she could not speak or hear,” says Coleman, 34. Shortly after Leah’s diagnosis, Coleman’s sister Emilie Brown started teaching her infant son to sign so he’d be able to communicate with his cousin. “Through sign language, they could both communicate amazing concepts and ask questions about the world around them,” she says. “They could make requests and have their needs met.”
Fast forward to 2002: Coleman and Brown decided to launch Two Little Hands and the first volume of DVDs, Signing Times, with their very own kids as the stars. Initially, the sisters simply wanted to improve Leah’s life: “I thought, ‘If we just make 100 copies and give them to people who know and love Leah, it could change her world,’” admits Coleman. Instead, they landed the DVDs on Amazon.com, which boosted demand and led them to create more videos featuring Leah and Alex. She adds, “Signing Time was created to impact Leah and ended up impacting communication for many, many children, with and without disabilities.”
Although Coleman has acting and performing experience herself, the kids do not. But from day one she wanted Leah and Alex in the videos: “We felt it was important to have both a deaf signer and a hearing signer in the videos to show that signing is really beneficial for all children,” she says. They still play an active role in the business today, signing in new videos and traveling with Coleman and Brown to speaking engagements, performances and other events related to sign language and the videos.
All in the Family
Though quite a bit older, Yana Berlin’s kids work for her, too. All four of her children, who range in age from teens to early twenties, contribute in some way to the business operations of Fabulously40 and Beyond (ranked No. 1), a social network for women forty and older. When she launched the site in 2006, she hired a web developer and thought that was the only employee she needed, she says. “Boy was I wrong!” In the beginning, she started by asking her children for help on technology aspects like uploading new articles and photos. “As they matured and the business grew, they were assigned more complicated tasks,” says Berlin, 44.
Stephanie, her oldest daughter and a recent University of California- San Diego communications graduate, handles all the PR. “Spending thousands of dollars on PR without having any guarantees, I was disappointed to say the least,” Berlin says of the San Diego company’s PR prior to Stephanie coming on board. “My marketing budget had run out by then and I thought it would be a great experience for her.” Stephanie has since joined the team full time and has landed Fabulously40 some significant press. Sister Daisy helps Stephanie by managing all the social media. Berlin’s youngest daughter, Sasha, is in charge of design and photography, and her son, Daniel, is a finance major who helps develop the company’s forecasts and projections.
Says Berlin, “Business is never closed. There is continuous discussion from morning to night about who is doing what and when and how it’s going.”
Mom as Mom, Mom as Boss
The idea of a permanent “Take your daughter (or son) to work day” has its pluses and minuses for both mom and child.
For Coleman and Brown, “We learned pretty quickly that the kids took better direction from someone who was not one of their parents,” Coleman explains. So they hired a director to help Leah and Alex distinguish between when they were working and when they were not.
“[It can be] challenging to work with your own children,” Berlin agrees. “You want to be professional and not scream at or reprimand them like you are their mother when they don’t do what you want them to.”
On the flipside, “working with family [keeps us] all very close,” Coleman says. The mothers get to watch their kids grow and be more involved in their lives. And unlike other entrepreneur moms who travel for business, the Colemans get to travel together. Leah and Alex travel with her to Signing Time events.
The same rings true for Berlin and her brood, but she’s also grateful for the fact that involvement in Fabulously40 has played a significant role in her childrens’ lives: “Stephanie and Daniel found their passion by working with me, and my other children are learning the skills that are not learned in school.”