Mabel's Labels is an inspiring Hamilton business success story. At its heart is a simple idea, executed extremely well.
By Julie Cole
Published June 06, 2012
Over ten years ago, my three business partners and I decided it was time to bring a product to market. It was the simple idea of a children's label.
The Mabel's Labels co-founders (from L): Julie Ellis, Cynthia Esp, Julie Cole and Tricia Mumby
As four young women, we had small children and noticed that kids' belongings were 'labeled' with permanent marker or masking tape with their names scribbled on.
We thought we could do better than that, and began our research for a material and technology that could create our dream label. That dream label had to be both extremely durable and absolutely adorable. We knew our market - moms want products that work and look good.
After extensive testing, we found something that was dishwasher and microwave safe. We got to work, setting up shop in my business partner's basement on Florence Street in Hamilton.
We four co-founders worked hard into the night making labels, then would greet the morning with small children and day jobs. The work conditions in that basement are something we look back at with a chuckle - on some nights it was so hot we would leave the door open to the outside in hopes of a breeze. One person would be assigned to take responsibility for chasing out the neighbourhood cats that wandered in.
Our first website was designed by some friends from university. We didn't have any money, so their payment was a foosball table they had been eyeing up.
We were onto something. The market responded to our product and we got a few nice media hits that raised our profile. It was time to move up, but rather than taking a big risk and getting a commercial location, in our wisdom we decided my business partner should just buy a bigger house with a bigger basement.
Mabel's Labels moved onto Aberdeen Avenue, where we lasted for two years before moving to our current location, which is 14,000 square feet and houses our 40+ employees.
From the very beginning, people thought it was odd for a group of four to start a business. With multiple business owners, there is a lot of room for varied opinions and risk for conflict. While we have certainly had our fair share of feisty conversation around the boardroom table, we are able to make it work.
Communication is key for us, and when we're doing it well we function as a wonderful team. When we are not communicating well, we are not as effective. We have learned this, so communication is a top priority. Although four co-founders may sound top heavy, in the early days it allowed us to divide up labour and responsibilities. Sharing duties resulted in quick growth.
One of the biggest challenges for my partners and myself was letting go. We were used to doing absolutely everything - from making the labels ourselves to licking the envelopes to writing press releases and filing taxes. The problem is, if you're doing every little task, you are not focusing on business growth.
We had to shut down the little control freaks living within us and trust other people in order to work strategically to get our business to the next level. Trusting others and not micromanaging everyone and everything took a lot of practice.
One morning at Mabel's Labels HQ we looked around at our handful of staff and said "Huh, we don't happen to know a thing about human resources." As our business was growing, we had to fill these gaps and fast. Sometimes we would learn things ourselves and sometimes we would hire, and we quickly realized that consultants are a great short-term solution.
I remember when decision-making meant sitting on the couch with a cup of tea and chatting with our few staffers. Things have changed a lot since then. Sometimes we all get sentimental for those days when things were so much simpler. Now we have meetings, committees and procedures. This can be frustrating and seem cumbersome for the folks who have been around since the beginning.
We've learned that everyone copes better when we keep communication open and are transparent about plans and growth, so we try to involve the staff and make them feel part of the excitement. Without our loyal and hard-working employees, there's not much to Mabel's Labels.
Awards and recognition for our business and product excellence include a SavvyMom "Mom Entrepreneur of the Year"; "Best Product" from Baby Gizmo, iParenting and PTPA Media; an Outstanding Business Achievement Award from the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce, and a RBC Canadian Woman Entrepreneur 'Momentum' Award.
We've been featured on The View, Rachael Ray, Live with Regis and Kelly, The Early Show, Better TV, The Mom Show, Fox 5 San Diego, WGN's Midday, Parents, In Style, The Washington Post, People.com, Forbes.com and countless other media outlets and websites. Locally we've appeared on Canada AM, Breakfast Television, The Marilyn Denis Show, Metro Morning and of course CH Morning Live.
Many celebrity moms have used Mabel's Labels, including Jennifer Garner, Rachel Weisz, Reese Witherspoon, Gwyneth Paltrow and Victoria Beckham.
Though proud of all this, achieving what we set out to do - putting out a quality product and providing customers with exceptional service - is our biggest mark of success.