If you have a child, niece, or nephew or have ever walked through the toy section of any major retailer, you are familiar with Baby Einstein. Because of that, you already know that Baby Einstein is the hottest line of multimedia products and toys for children; soothing little ones with colors, classical music, art and poetry since 1996. What you may not know is the brilliantly successful mom behind the creation of Baby Einstein - Julie Aigner-Clark.
Born out of the desire to have a quality video for her daughter, Julie and her husband created the first Baby Einstein video; quickly, Baby Einstein took off. At one point in 2009, the brand was estimated to be worth nearly 400 million dollars based on revenues. In 2001, Julie sold Baby Einstein to Disney for an undisclosed amount. Make that money, honey!
As with all of us, the journey to, and through, success is not always easy. In my candid interview with Julie, she opens up about success, balance, self-doubt and kicking cancer’s ass – twice. Come along for the ride…
SG: in a matter of just a few years, you went from school teacher to stay-at-home-mom to millionaire. How do you put into context that level of success?
JA: [Baby Einstein’s success] speaks to how cool the business was but also the fact that [the concept] really had legs. The idea of exposing babies to great things and providing quality concepts for babies wasn’t just a fad. It’s really cool to create something that has sustained itself for the length of time that it has. It’s awesome.
SG: I’m going to take you back to 1995 when you launched Baby Einstein. You spent a year incubating the idea of quality videos for babies before bringing it to market. What happened in that year to make the business such a success?
JA: It was really organic. I had the idea in my head for a year and I kept looking for [videos] on the market and they weren’t there. That’s really how Baby Einstein started; I wanted this for my child and it didn’t exist so I thought ‘OK, well I’m just going to make it.’ I started doing the ground work, looking at the kind of things that [my daughter] liked and what she liked to look at, what were the songs that she liked to hear and what were the books that we liked to read together. I started putting together my own market research, in my own little playroom in my own house with my own baby.
SG: I’ve read you created the first Baby Einstein video in your basement with a hand puppet and your cat! How great is that!? Millions and millions later…
JA: It’s crazy, right? It started simply, but then once I brought props, video editing software, hiring speakers for the nursery rhymes, it added up. In the end, the first cost us about $15,000.00 out of our own pocket; that was a ton of money to us. So once you invest in your idea, that’s where you really go ‘OK, this is real and now I need to make that money back.’
SG: Was there a point of self-doubt or fear? That negative self-talk voice that creeps in and says, “What are you doing, don’t dream so big!”
JA: You know it did creep in, I’d be lying by saying it didn’t. As I would talk to people about my idea -moms, my friends and playgroup- and say “I’m thinking about putting this little video together and set it to classical music,” people would look at me and say “um, sure I guess.” I didn’t have a lot of people going “WOW that’s the best idea in the whole wide world!” I did have a wonderful husband who thought it was a great idea and I’d say that it’s really important to surround yourself with people who really believe in you. People who aren’t just going “well yeah… sure good idea” yet you can sense their lack of commitment to your idea.
Even now as a successful entrepreneur I am often surrounded by doubt. I think it’ just a natural part of the process of anything we do. I’m thinking about writing a book for women, many of whom are moms, thinking of great ideas for businesses. I’ve been floundering because many times I think, ‘Who’s going to care about this book that I want to write?’ The truth is, doubt it a good thing in many respects because it encourages us to question what we’re doing; is our idea really a good one, how deeply do I believe in it? If you come back to the idea, it indicates it’s probably a really good one.
SG: Yes! How you use fear, I believe, is what separates people with great professional success and those that simply dream of it.
SG: Let’s talk about balance. I work with many women that they want to create their own businesses to create more work/life balance. But the reality is, starting a business requires so much of you, it’s typical to find yourself more out of balance. How did it work for you?
JA: When you’re a woman, in particular, there’s such guilt. Whether you decide to stay home with your children or you decide to work outside of the home and still be a great mom – it’s hard. And no matter what, you’re always filled with guilt; “Am I doing a good job? Am I balancing it right?” To find better balance with your career, my first rule is, you can’t do it all. I was so fortunate because I had a fantastic partner in business -my husband- and he was able to do all the backroom stuff that I would have been terrible at: doing the books, figuring out the balance sheets, handling the lawyers, and all of the stuff that’s involved in running a business. Know what you’re really good at and hire somebody, or marry somebody, for the rest that will free up more of your time to spend parenting.
SG: In the midst of your professional success and raising two daughters, life threw you a curveball when you were diagnosed with breast cancer – twice. How has battling cancer shaped your perspective and goals?
JA: The first time I was diagnosed I was 37 my kids were 6 and 9. I was in the middle of a new project; a new company I started call The Safe Side, when I was diagnosed. At the time, I felt like I was really lucky because I caught my cancer early, it was Stage 1; the tumor was really small it had not inundated any other part of my body or my lymph nodes. I was like, “Get this cancer out of my body!” I had a double mastectomy. I had a PET scan following the surgery and it was all clear. The cancer was gone I was thrilled! I moved full-force ahead with my business, worked really hard and completed two videos [for The Safe Side].
I found out 4 and ½ years later -I was almost at that 5 year mark that everybody wants to get to after they survive cancer- and I found a second tumor.
I found it in almost the same place that the first one had been. I had no breasts anymore, I had implants, but [doctors] didn’t get all the breast tissue. Unfortunately [the cancer] had moved and deposited itself all over my liver – there were multiple tumors on both lobes of my liver. I got a second opinion and the doctor told me, “Don’t even bother getting treatment. You might as well go home and say goodbye to your family because you’re not going to live longer than a year.” That was 3 years ago. I went through 6 rounds of chemotherapy – I was not willing to give up!
My life has changed since; now I’m all about reducing stress from my body and trying to do really good things for other people. I’ve talked to a lot of women who are newly diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer that are in the same position I was in by being told by a doctor that they’re going to die. I say, “You know what? Bullshit!” There is hope for you every minute you’re here. And every minute you’re here you need to live your life to the greatest degree that you can. I want people to remember me as doing good things for other people. Whether that is I made a baby laugh with Baby Einstein or I helped an elementary school kid understand what to do in a situation that might be uncomfortable (work with The Safe Side), or whether it is helping a woman who has an idea for a business feel better about her idea.
I wouldn’t say that cancer’s a gift, but it is a teacher. It taught me how to live in a different way, and I hope it’s a good way.
SG: If you could tell your 20 year old self something, what would it be?
JA: It’s okay to make mistakes. And, forgive yourself for the mistakes that you make.
SG: Three words that sum you up?
JA: Three words that sum me up… grateful, stubborn, and oh gosh I’m trying to think of the right word… optimistic.