Just like mom used to make

Roland, stay-at-home entrepreneurs, finding business niche

Kristina Roland was proud of her work.

Her handmade dresses for little girls were smart. They were catchy without being cluttered. They looked great on her Hannah Montana-obsessed 4-year-old daughter, Maddie. They were the kinds of things, she hoped, mothers could pass to their daughters from generation to generation.

Would anyone want to buy one, though?

Four weeks after leaving one of her dresses on consignment at a small boutique in Georgia, Roland got her answer.

“Oh, gosh, did it light me up,” she said.

Maddie & Me, the company she founded less than a year ago, fetched $65 with its first sale last August, the news arriving by text message. For Roland, part of a growing trend of stay-at-home mom-preneurs with a good idea and the savvy to make it happen, it might as well have been a million.

“I did the happy dance,” she said. “I was jumping up and down and squealing. I was just ecstatic.”

Roland’s custom designs, along with those of other area moms who’ve found a niche in handmade children’s clothing, will be on display during “Freedom to Shop Night” next Friday at Gingerly Dressed in Alcoa. Moms are encouraged to leave the kids at home from 6 to 8 p.m. and come and meet the designers, proprietor Ginger Pettit said. Detour Coffee will provide refreshments.

“Moms have ideas, too,” Pettit said, “but we don’t have deep pockets. We’re not Wal-Mart, but we’re making it happen.”

Roland didn’t have a business plan when she launched Maddie & Me. She had an idea. The rest she would learn along the way, both the good and bad.

“I just took a leap of faith, and I knew enough about business,” she said.

The idea for a line of custom, handmade children’s clothing was born out of necessity.

“I didn’t like a lot of the things I was seeing,” Roland said, “but it was also Maddie’s size. Not many kids are tall and skinny. Nothing would fit her.

“I was always creative and this was another way for me to reinvent myself.”

Both grandmothers were seamstresses, Roland said, her mom an interior designer. A flair for fabrics and design was almost a given, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t goofs early.

One creation she was quite fond of slipped from Maddie’s tiny shoulders just as they were leaving for church.

Her designs were catchy, though. It wasn’t long before close friend Alyssia Flynn advised her to consider putting some of them up for sale, Roland said.

“She said, ‘You need to be selling these,’” Roland said. “I said, ‘You find somewhere for me to sell them, and I’ll do it. I didn’t start selling them until I had a shop that would sell them.”

When Roland first proved hesitant, Flynn didn’t let up.

“She kind of put her foot in my rear about May,” Roland said.

Soon after that first sale last August, Roland said she was told of the Internet site Etsy, a cyberspace storefront where sellers can list their handmade items for a fee. The site helped design the Maddie & Me company logo and build some brand identity through 1MaddieandMe.etsy.com. It helped get Roland’s wares into shops as far west as St. Louis.

This spring, Roland received an order from a Gateway City boutique for four of her A-list dresses. The buyer, she was told, was the developer for a pair of large shopping malls in the St. Louis area.

The Internet has done wonders for small, start-up companies like hers, Roland said.

“That’s something two decades ago that was totally impossible,” she said.

Pettit opened Gingerly Dressed not long after Roland launched Maddie & Me. The idea for a store that combined custom designs like Roland’s and others with secondhand items had been there for some time.

“I always wanted a place I would like to shop,” Pettit said, “where new things mixed with the old so it’s affordable. I wanted it to be a place moms like to come to and where I like to go to work and where other moms could participate.”

Two years ago, Pettit said she told husband Matt she was going to give it a try, no mean feat with two small children — son Marc, 4, and daughter Brynn, 2 — to consider.

Her family was supportive, Pettit said, most notably her mom, Beth Price, who helps with the baby-sitting and running the boutique.

“She was excited, but it was scary for everybody,” Pettit said.

Last September, Gingerly Dressed opened its doors for business at its Gill Street location. That first day was memorable, informative - and tough, Pettit said.

“I was running on adrenaline that day,” she said. “I thought people were going to be lined up and flocking to the place. I was so excited. I put that ad in the paper.”

When the lines didn’t form that first day, Pettit regrouped.

“I was so disappointed,” she said. “Reality sets in that this is hard work.”

Roland and Pettit met soon after, a mutual friend suggesting they join forces in a fashion. Roland needed an outlet for her line locally. Pettit got an entrepreneurial ally with boundless energy in return.

“I showed up and said, ‘Let’s try this; let’s try this,’” Roland said. “It was getting out there, learning and failing, learning and failing.”

The end result, Roland hopes, is a new entrepreneurial force only beginning to flex its collective muscles.

“It’s encouraging for families because there are a lot more moms able to stay at home with their families now,” she said. “Mom-preneurs are able to fill in the gaps and provide some extra income.”

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