Alexis Dubief is the owner of Troublesome Tots, a website that offers free parenting advice on issues related to babies and sleep. What started out as a hobby and a way to stay plugged in to the latest technologies and online trends is now a profitable business for this self-described stay-at-home mom. In addition to blogging, Dubief provides sleep consultations to tired parents and is in the process of penning her first book to be released in 2015. She talked with us about her non-traditional career path and how she’s managed to turn her blog into a successful business.
How did you get started with your business?
I had a really hard time getting my kids to sleep. I am a researcher at heart. Reading academic research, reading tons of books and doing interviews with people is very organic to what I’ve always done professionally. But I felt like you shouldn’t have to have a Ph.D. in baby sleep, read five books and participate in 400 message boards to make it happen – There needs to be an easier way.
I had some friends locally who were post-partum doulas. For free, we started going to meet with people to help with child issues. We wanted to learn about where parents were getting tripped up and how we could help people avoid common potholes.
I started blogging about this with no expectation of readers. The more research I did, the more I blogged, the more people were reading it and the more people were emailing me. I started learning more from my readers than from my reading. When you get 100 emails a day, you start to see patterns emerge that weren’t being covered in books or scientific journals. So through my blog I ended up creating a fairly solid resource on baby sleep for people that is a combination of scientific research, published works and my own education from readers sharing experiences with me. Getting here was not intentional. There was never a plan or strategy.
How did you fund your business in the beginning?
At the beginning, I was just paying for this out of pocket as a hobby. After a year and a half, I went from having no readers to having up to 200,000 readers a month. As the website took off, the costs went up. I couldn’t do the cheap, shared hosting thing anymore, I was crashing that. My newsletter services became significantly expensive once I got past 2,000 subscribers. So now it wasn’t only my time I was investing, but hundreds of dollars a month on backups and stock photography and graphic designers.
This really changed my thinking about looking at my long-term plan and how to approach it to make this cash flow positive. I first started with Amazon Affiliates, which I highly recommend to anybody with a website. It’s really easy, and if you’re talking organically about books or other products that are available on Amazon, it’s a win-win. If your readers are going to buy something you are talking about, it costs them nothing and it makes you some money.
Providing sleep consults to tired parents is becoming big business on the Internet. I don’t publicly advertise it, but I do offer them upon request. That has been helpful as far as offsetting my costs.
What I’ve really been focusing on in the last year is producing a book. I actually turned down a publishing contract for a number of reasons and decided to self-fund it. I quickly realized that producing a book of professional quality costs a lot of money. So I launched a Kickstarter campaign, which thankfully was successful. That generated the money for the book. The net of that is very positive and I have a solid amount of money to invest in my book and make it something that could potentially be a really valuable resource for parents.
My focus now instead of trying to monetize my site by having sponsored content or advertisers is on trying to get engagement and email signups. I feel that having a large audience of fans is how I’m going to ultimately sell my book. So that’s my focus more than short-term revenue opportunities that come my way.
Running the Business
How did you learn to run your business?
I have a master’s in finance, a master’s in business and, prior to having children, I had fairly senior-level roles in a variety of high-profile companies for 15 years.
I think I have a pretty firm grasp on business stuff. I understand how to make viable financial analysis and make business plans and marketing plans based on my experience.
Who was your first customer?
My first customer was a couple in Manhattan who emailed me and said, “We want to hire you for a sleep consult.” I had never thought of my website as a business. I had never thought of it as anything but a fun hobby when my kids were napping.
The couple was great and very encouraging. The told me, “You are providing value, you need to start thinking of this as a business and stop treating it like a hobby. You’re going to burn yourself out if you keep doing it like this. You need to figure out how to make it work for you so you’re not losing hundreds of dollars a month and it is something you can conceivably keep going for the long haul.”
What’s the smartest thing you did in the first year?
Even when I thought of this as a hobby, I still took a very high degree of pride of ownership. If my name was going to be on it, I wanted it to look good. I invested in hosting my own website, I spent money on a high-end premium team and I hired a graphic designer to help me with some of the design elements on my website.
I think too many people are putting their names on websites on the Internet that look sloppy, have advertising on them and have a header that they just kind of slapped together in PicMonkey. I think you need to invest in making it happen, or else don’t bother. Be honest with yourself: If you’re not willing to invest the time and energy to do it right, maybe you should just wait until you are.
What was the biggest mistake you made in the first year?
I was really learning a lot of stuff in the first year, so I don’t know that I’d consider anything a mistake. It was more a process of feeling things out …
But I do hate my site name. I think Troublesome Tots is terrible. I feel like it sounds anti-baby, which is totally not me. I’d recommend others think long and hard when choosing a domain because if you’re successful, you’re really going to have to love it and live with it for a long time.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running your own business?
No. 1 is the flexibility to fit it in when it works for my life: When my kids are napping, when they go to bed and when they’re at preschool. That makes it feasible, whereas a fulltime 60-hour-per-week job would simply not work for our family.
The second is that it feels rewarding to me to feel like I’m making a difference for people. When I get fan mail and people saying, “Thank God! You saved our marriage!” it really fills my bucket and makes me feel like I have a larger role in the world than just my immediate family.
And honestly, this whole blogging thing has led to opportunities and connections that I never foresaw coming in the future. Getting a book contract, making friends and supporters worldwide, having a successful Kickstarter campaign, even writing a book – None of these were opportunities that I had ever foreseen in my life, and certainly not opportunities that would have come to me had I gone a more traditional route of putting the kids in daycare and getting a corporate job. For me, it’s been thrilling in unexpected ways, and I am enormously grateful.
What’s the most challenging thing about running your own business?
I’ve struggled with finding ways to monetize my work that I feel comfortable with. There are lots of slimy things you can do to make a quick buck on the Internet, but those aren’t things I’m comfortable with. I’m constantly trying to figure out what my comfort zone is and what I am and am not OK with. The result is, I’m not OK with a lot of things, which is why I don’t make a ton of money!
The other challenge has been creating boundaries for when I’m working and when I’m not working. Truthfully, especially when you live online, there’s no limit to when you can be interacting with readers, creating new content, reaching out to other bloggers … You could spend 24 hours a day doing it. It’s very hard for me to not be constantly checking in on Facebook or responding to comments and saying “OK, now I’m done with this. It’s time for me to concentrate on my kids or focus on my husband. This is their time.” The computer life really can overwhelm every waking moment.
What business owner or entrepreneur do you admire most? Who is your role model?
She’s a little bit controversial, but I find her fascinating. Her name is Penelope Trunk. She’s started 20-some businesses and she blogs at www.penelopetrunk.com. I think she has managed to do what I’m trying to do, which is to live a non-traditional lifestyle. Her husband’s a farmer, they live on a farm and she homeschools her kids. I don’t homeschool, but my point is she’s not on the traditional career path, but she still remains a vibrant, intellectually connected person who’s contributing to the well being of others and also making money. I think she has this great balance of really interesting things going on in her life that I would also like to have while making enough money to buy shoes for my kids!
What I’ve Learned
If you could go back to when you were starting your business, what advice would you give yourself?
As a stay-at-home mom, you’re all alone. It’s very isolating. If I could go back in time, I would find a mentor. I honestly don’t know how to get one from where I’m at in my life right now. I would like to have a mentor that is legitimately going to help coach me, critique me and offer some guidance.
The advice is given by many career books: Go find a mentor who is going to be invested in your success. As entrepreneurs, that can be hard because in a traditional office environment, your boss is supposed to fill that role. As an entrepreneur, that doesn’t exist and you have to make it yourself.
I think too many of us just keep plugging away in isolation and I think a lot of us would be more effective and avoid a lot of potholes if we just stepped out of our isolated bubble and got some help here and there.
What do you wish you had known before you had started your business?
Thirty percent of American women are stay-at-home moms. For these women who are wondering, “How do I take my entrepreneurial instincts and generate some sort of revenue for my family, but also have the flexibility I need to be a parent?” I would be very mindful of what the time commitment is relative to the income you’re going to generate and decide if it is really worth it. Because a lot of the part-time options that are available to us aren’t really worth it.
I’m talking about people who are selling things to their friends like Silpada jewelry and people who are launching Etsy stores. A lot of these things are very, very time-consuming and the revenue you generate is not really worth the effort you put in. Frankly, blogging is for most of us very similar. You put 20 hours in a week and you make $50. You end up thinking, “I’d be better off babysitting the neighbor’s kids.”
I think a lot of people have fantasies that their ideas are going to lead to a lot more revenue than is realistic. Be very clear on how much time it’s going to take and what a pragmatic expectation of revenue is going to be so you’re coming in with eyes wide open.
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About the Author — Ashley Sweren is a freelance marketing writer and editor. She owns her own small business, Firework Writing, located in San Jose, California.