Entrepreneurial Mom, Inventor
By Natalie Christenson
Herald Sunday, March 6, 2005
[The following article is courtesy of the Herald Sunday and Seacoast Online.]
HAMPTON -- At the time, Sharon Mullen couldn't understand why her career took such a blow.
Mullen had managed to keep a job running the theater and arts center at Tufts University for 11 years, until one day seven years ago when she was told the department she created was being dissolved - and her job was going with it.
Looking back on it now, it wasn't really a blow, it was her lucky break.
"It really was perfect timing," said Mullen, founder of Inventive Parent, from behind the desk of her Hampton home office.
In 1998, Mullen took her severance offer from Tufts and used the money to pursue a new career path as an "inventor."
As a new mom who was tired of her little one kicking and pulling off his blanket in the car carrier, Mullen created a fleece blanket that attaches to car seats, joggers and bike seats.
Before she even knew Tufts University was cutting back, Mullen was well into the process of researching how she could make a living off her stay-put blanket.
"I had my son and was thinking that it might be time for a job change," she admitted.
After leaving her conventional job at the university, it took from 1998 to 2000 for Mullen to realize making a living off a good idea requires a lot more than the idea itself.
She had hopes that in five years she could start earning a paycheck from her new company. Each day, she checked into her converted home office and went through crash courses in patenting, licensing, manufacturing, marketing, sales and shipping.
She decided early on her first goal was to get a patent, which she learned could take years and thousands of dollars.
Then, she went looking for a company to help her get her attachable fitted blankets out to the masses: problem was, she ran into a dead-end when it came time to license.
She wanted to get her product produced, but wanted to maintain control over the quality of the workmanship at the same time. Licensing wasn't offering that.
Determined to make the Car Seat Cozy work, she decided to pave her own way.
She found several local seamstresses willing to help produce her "cozy," and began selling it on the Internet.
Noting there was a need for a single source where parents could shop for the latest inventions, in 2000, Mullen launched a Web-based retail store featuring products like hers created by parent inventors, because who better knows what kids and parents need than the people involved.
She quickly filled a need in the massive industry and found herself teamed up with 35 to 40 of her peers.
Mullen pointed out there are thousands of parents around the globe that say to themselves in frustration, "If I could just find a way to keep my kid from unrolling the toilet paper," or "If I just had a way to keep my baby bundled," or if the parents are like Mullen they might ask, "If I just had a way to keep the blanket on the car seat instead of the floor."
Mullen offers solutions to all of those and more at her inventiveparent.com site.
And it's a fast-growing site. It has grown from the 35 to 40 inventors to 90, and with the growth she now offers more than 120 products, adding more each year as she gets to know more parents and their inventions.
Departments include maternity, preemie, newborn/infant, toddler, preschool/kindergarten and school-age.
The items she likes the most are the ones she can relate to.
"Like the Baby Burrito," she said. "For those of us who wrap our children up in a swaddle, we know how important it is for that wrap to stay put. I look at that and think, 'It would have been nice to have.'"
One product she sells, but has a hard time relating to, is the TP Saver.
"It prevents unrolling of toilet paper by toddlers and pets," she said. "I didn't get it at first because my kid never did that. It is one of those products that parents who have the problem have to have. It meets an immediate need that is a real issue in a household when their child keeps unrolling all of the toilet paper and stuffing it down the toilet."
She says one universally popular product is Preggie Pops - natural suckers that help with nausea and motion sickness.
"I know these work when we get an order from the same person multiple times," she said. "And they are asking for overnight shipping. We had one order from a woman in Exeter who had a business meeting to attend and she couldn't keep from getting sick. We rushed the order right over and she went to her meeting."
The order from Exeter is an exception, not the rule, Mullen said. The majority of her customers are from around the nation and around the world.
To help locals connect with her business, Mullen recently launched a campaign to reach out to her neighbors on the Seacoast. She is offering free delivery to Seacoast residents ordering from the Inventive Parent Web site.
"As a customer, I had always thought it was annoying that a place can be right down the street and you have to have them mail the product," she said.
She hopes the gesture will help her reach one of her goals for 2005 - bringing more New England customers to her site.
And then's there another goal: her first paycheck.
"It should happen in June," she said with a smile.
She says it has been a long road, but one she wouldn't trade.
"It really is a lot of fun."
30 Exeter Road
Hampton, NH 03842