The parent entrepreneur trap

Written by Chris Atchison

Shirley Broback hadn’t planned on giving birth to a successful business soon after delivering her second bundle of joy.

But when the Victoria-based mother of two was overwhelmed with entrepreneurial ideas while pregnant with her second child, she decided to pursue a career that could offer more time to spend with her growing family. Drawing on her diverse experience as a birth doula, breastfeeding counsellor and event planner, Broback began researching the feasibility of a trade show geared toward the parents of children from newborn to kindergarten age. Having staged smaller baby-related trade events in the past, Broback understood the costs and risks associated with organizing a larger show. As such, she researched birth rates and key demographics in B.C., attended baby-focused events in Canada and the U.S., and floated the idea with other mothers who had launched pregnancy or toddler-related businesses. “I found there was a real need for this type of marketing opportunity, especially after the great feedback I got from businesses who wanted to participate,” says Broback.

With that intelligence in hand, Broback founded Victoria-based Laughing Belly Productions; in September 2007, she and her husband, Mike Lowe, staged their first Vancouver Island Baby Fair in Victoria, drawing 85 exhibitors and 4,000 attendees. The couple have since added an annual show in Nanaimo, B.C., with each fair drawing an average of more than 5,000 attendees and in excess of 100 exhibitors, who pay $395 to $1,395 for their booths.

Laughing Belly’s trade show success is the reason why Broback was awarded SavvyMom Media’s 2009 Mom Entrepreneur of the Year Award, an honour designed to celebrate mother-run small businesses across Canada. Sarah Morgenstern, publisher of Toronto-based SavvyMom Media, says this of the choice of Broback as this year’s winner: “Shirley clearly had a great deal of public support in her community, and she works so hard herself to cultivate a great environment for Vancouver Island mom entrepreneurs to showcase their goods and services.”

But like any budding entrepreneur, Broback faced challenges — namely, entering a difficult market with little in the way of proven business results to present to potential sponsors and exhibitors, not to mention a limited marketing budget. The latter problem posed the greatest challenge in an industry in which ticket and sponsorship sales are typically a function of the popularity of and buzz surrounding a trade show. And if those business obstacles weren’t daunting enough, Broback also had to set aside time for her family — the main reason she went into business for herself in the first place.

With proceeds from the sale of their family home, the Brobacks built a website and prepared printed marketing materials to convince a diverse selection of potential exhibitors and sponsors — from health-care providers to baby product manufacturers to pre-schools — that her fair would be a worthwhile investment. Understanding that the Vancouver Island infant trade show market was underserved, sponsors and exhibitors quickly jumped on board.

To generate buzz on a budget, Broback began working with the media and made connections with the likes of Island Parent magazine and a variety of traditional print, radio and television outlets to generate coverage and spread the word. And because she was already participating in online parenting forums, Broback reached out to other moms and dads via social networking sites such as Facebook and the website to inform them about her show.

But Broback quickly learned that with business success come far greater demands on an entrepreneur’s time. While the husband-and-wife team work side by side with relative ease, according to Broback, 12- to 16-hour work days in the months leading up to a show leave little time for the kids — or each other. “When I did the research on what I wanted the baby fair to be, the balance of family and work is an area where I should have done a little bit more research,” she concedes. Broback has taken measures to try to find work-life balance, from not answering her phone after business hours to working evenings after the kids are in bed. Thus far, the measures have helped her find the family time she craves: “You have to set boundaries so that you’re spending time with your kids and they have your undivided attention.”

As Laughing Belly’s only full-time employee, Broback foresees a day in the near future when she’ll need to hire staff. And she hopes that her husband — who currently works part-time in the business — will be able to devote all his efforts to growing the company as it stages more shows across the B.C. mainland.

But that last step is one she plans to take carefully. “We’ve had requests from many of our clients to expand further into B.C.,” she says, “but I like to make sure my ducks are in a row before I make decisions about expanding.”

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