Nicole Johnson is the president and owner of The Baby Sleep Site, a resource for new parents who are trying to help their babies, toddlers, and preschoolers sleep better. The company provides assistance with issues like sleeping through the night and taking longer naps through free blog articles, e-books, audio recordings, and live chat services with sleep consultants. “Sometimes, you need a more personal touch to help your specific baby sleep, so we offer one-on-one services and support. We’re kind of like an extension of your ‘village,’” said Johnson. After operating for ten years, Johnson has significantly grown her “village,” working with more than 30,000 families over the years and reaching 1.5 million monthly visitors online.
Why did you start your company?
My background is in IT. I was a computer programmer for ten years. Then, I became a mom and went to get my M.B.A. I married all three things together. Because of my IT background, I created what I call our “sleep help desk.” I used my business background to work on the marketing and getting the business known.
When I had my first child, he hated to sleep. He was a very high-needs spirited baby. It took me a really long time to figure out how to help him to sleep. I read all the books and all the books contradicted each other. Fast-forward to when I had my second child. He wasn’t a perfect sleeper, but he was much better. I started learning more about temperaments and reading more and more. I became passionate about helping other people figure out what I did faster than I did. I started helping other parents on a message board. I gained more and more experience over time.
Things started getting much bigger than I expected very quickly. I worked my day job for a while and worked on this on the side. It grew and grew and eventually I quit my day job to do this full time.
How did you finance the company at the start?
Since I had a day job, I didn’t need the website to make much money for our personal bills. Everything I made went right back into the business. To initially get started, we used some personal savings and a credit card to build the website. Eventually, when we had to start hiring people, our expenses went up. Cash flow started getting tight. We’ve taken out an SBA loan and used credit cards with rewards like cash back, travel, or benefits for my employees.
Running the Business
How do you manage cash flow?
I have a budget and I try to predict our revenue versus expenses depending on the month. I learned this is a seasonal business – In the winter we are busier than in the warmer months. Since it’s seasonal, we do have to be careful about having enough cash for the summer. We do ask employees to not do too much extra then and to enjoy their summers. When we pick back up, that’s when we work on the bigger projects that have more overhead and administrative costs. Since I use credit cards, I can maneuver payments and catch up when I can depending on how busy or not busy we are.
What’s the most challenging thing about running the business?
I work at home and I have 11-12 employees that also work from home. They all live in different cities. Some of them, I’ve never met in person. To create a culture at the company has been challenging because it’s not like we see each other at the water cooler. We have to make a big effort to get to know each other so people aren’t feeling alone and that they’re not part of something.
What’s the most rewarding thing about running the business?
Clearly, it’s the parents who email me saying I changed their lives. The joy of bringing happiness to families that were at their wit’s end. Just to know I’m making a positive difference in someone’s life, there’s nothing like it. The other aspect is helping moms who would otherwise have to go out of the home to work or not work at all. I’ve given my employees the opportunity to contribute to the household finances, but still stay home with the kids.
What I’ve Learned
What’s the biggest mistake you made at the start?
I didn’t hire my virtual assistant soon enough. I was trying to do too much on my own. Hiring her really helped grow the company because she could do things I didn’t have time for, like social media. Further in, when transitioning into having employees, I made some mistakes in planning for the cost of that. We had a lot of financial problems when we first went from having independent contractors to having employees. You really need to have good calculations when you make that shift.
What’s the smartest thing you did at the start?
I did a lot of researching about SEO and I talked to a lot of moms. A lot of other sleep consultants have only one way of doing things, but I think what makes me different is that I help families find their own way. I’ve been smart in realizing that one size doesn’t fit all.
What advice would you give to a new entrepreneur?
Don’t expect to go on vacation for the first few years. It’s really long hours in the beginning. Have a lot of savings or another source of income while you’re building the business. It takes a lot more time and effort and money than you might think. Now, I can go on vacation and have employees and not check my phone for a week. But, it took me at least five years to get to that point.
What’s next for The Baby Sleep Site?
We just celebrated our 10-year anniversary. Now, we’re continuing to grow and increase brand awareness so we can help more people.