This Bow-Making Boss Made Her Production Model All About Stay-At-Home Moms
Put a bow on it! We're loving the trend of retro kids' styles gone modern like velvety headbands, flouncy ruffled collars, and, of course, bows in every print and pattern. If you've swooned over photos on your fave mom blogs of super colorful oversized bows adorning little ones in fields, then you've probably spotted the work of Hillary Denham, founder of Wunderkin Co., and the star of this edition of Creative Crushin'.
Denham's work caught my eye most recently because of her completely unorthodox and totally empowering production model. Instead of outsourcing to a garment factory abroad, Denham employs a workforce of stay-at-home moms as seamstresses! We love her mission of encouraging fellow mothers through creativity *and* gainful employment.
Anjelika Temple here, Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Brit + Co and mom to two little gals who are all about accessories. My almost-3-year-old Anokhi likes to wear as many necklaces, bows, and bracelets as possible at a time. And while my 6-month-old Indira might not actually be able to express her love of flair just yet, I think we can all agree she looks darn cute in a colorful bow :)
Now, about the creative woman behind this picturesque bows. Scroll on to read all about Denham's journey from ballet dancing to carpet cleaning and how putting a few bows up on Etsy turned her side project into her business.
ANJELIKA TEMPLE: To kick things off, tell us about your beginnings.
HILLARY DENHAM: I grew up in southern Indiana, across from Louisville, Kentucky. I went to college freshman year at the University of Arizona as a ballet major, but then transferred to Colorado to get a degree in theology with a minor in piano performance.
Shortly after college, I helped my then-husband with a carpet cleaning business that we grew for six years - and had three kids along the way - before making the jump to run my own creative business full time.
AT: Did you always know you wanted to create fashion accessories? Tell us more about how you found your niche.
HD: I was always interested in creative ventures, hence the ballet and piano, but after running a carpet cleaning business for six years and feeling more and more disconnected with myself and my passions, I knew I wanted to find a way to build a creative outlet into a career. I love business, and read so many books on marketing, hiring, company culture, operations and process etc. while building the service industry business, so when I started making bows as a side hobby, it just took off! It could have been anything combining creativity with business entrepreneurship, but because I had two girls, it happened to be bows.
AT: What types of day jobs did you have before starting Wunderkin Co.? How has your career path informed the way you run your company?
HD: Before bows, I worked at Starbucks and the front desk at a contemporary ballet company and school. Shortly after we dove into the carpet cleaning company and I started with office administration, but eventually found my zone in the marketing and brand/storytelling role. I always joke that if we could find our mom-niche and make carpet cleaning "sexy" ... everything else with any different product-based company would be a breeze.
Through building the carpet cleaning company, I learned how to hire effectively according to the business focus - our rule was to not hire a technician unless we would trust them to babysit our own kids - and how to build a purpose and a "why" behind the company. I would say these two lessons translated into the early phases of Wunderkin, and our team and purpose held us together through the chaos of going from bows at a kitchen table to building a company with an all-woman team across the US.
AT: Tell us the origin story! What inspired you to go out on your own and take your love of making bows and accessories to the next level?
HD: When I was learning to be an entrepreneur, I would read and listen to anything I could about business growth, mindset and marketing. One weekend my husband and I went up to Beaver Creek and watched a bunch of Tony Robbins videos. The last video we watched before grabbing dinner was more of a personal focus, where he explained how to find your sweet spot - the place where your passions and talents align in a magical way that would allow you to create a living. I remember sitting by the fire before dinner thinking about this video, and telling my husband that I know I haven't found mine, but for now I think my job is to just continue to support his business so we can grow it for our family.
Flash forward about a year and a half, and I had my second daughter Aria. My dad had gifted me a sewing machine and I had bought a few fat quarters of fabric from our local fabric store. I made a matching bow set for my eldest and the new baby for her newborn shoot. Just for fun, I threw them up on the Etsy shop I had active from a random holiday garland shop initiative I created the year prior. This was the beginning of the Instagram boom, and through a couple of unprofessional pics and an Etsy link, I sold a few bows.
I could just feel it - something about the bows and how "easy" it felt made me think I was on to something. The rest was history!
Well not exactly. After staying up late making hundreds of bows, I still wasn't quite sure that I could support my family with this side hustle as a one woman show. I went back to work at the carpet cleaning company and put my shop on vacation. However, I couldn't stop thinking about how fun it would be to truly love my job. So when I got pregnant with my son Emery, I put a plan in place to hire a replacement for myself at my husband's business so she would take my salary and I would be forced to go all in. Six months after he was born, we did a fall unlimited bow sale to test demand and sold almost 3500 bows in twelve hours. This was the moment we decided to open a virtual production model, and truly the moment where it shifted from side hustle to a real company.
AT: Why do you love to make things? What inspires you?
HD: Don't get me wrong, I love making and designing bows. But what really inspired me with Wunderkin is how the brand is tied into the ethos of motherhood. When I was starting the company and staying up late sewing, I had plenty of time to contemplate the type of mother I wanted to be. I know that I wanted to create a product that would serve as the backdrop to each child's unique spirit, and sort of "reclaim" an accessory that typically could be perceived as stifling or "picture perfect" for a little girl. I wanted our bows to represent the spirit of an adventurous childhood, complete with messy hair and dirt-smeared hands.
While I still design the bow collections with our wonderful team, I'm most energized by getting to be the creative director. Each seasonal photoshoot is inspired by a different place, and we work with real customer models for a full-day adventure shoot. We've rented a swamp boat in New Orleans, hiked and canoed in Vail, Co., seen numerous National parks and most recently climbed rocks in Joshua Tree. I'm inspired by seeing parents allow their kids space to explore, and truly come into their own with confidence and appreciation for the people and places around them.
Plus, by building a company that designs around travel and adventure, I knew I would build in a construct for my family and three kids that would force us to prioritize travel and experiences.
AT: We love the fact that you specifically employ a primarily remote workforce of seamstresses, with the idea that fellow stay-at-home mothers and caregivers can make their bows from home. Tell us more about this.
HD: When we had the 12-hour unlimited fall sale that first year, we realized that we wouldn't be able to keep up with the demand at the pace of hiring local Denver seamstresses from Craigslist. We were finding that a skilled seamstress wasn't always the best fit for bows, because they required such a blend of hand-crafting and eye for detail.
The day after we pre-sold 3200 bows, we had the mother from our first seamstress family (three daughters and their mother) call and say she wasn't able to continue to work, and that her daughters were going to need to cut back their yields. To give you context, this was lowering our production capacity to about 250 bows a week.
At this moment, after calling a few mentors [and my mom and dad] crying, I was faced with the decision about whether I was going to jump back on the sewing machine and pull all-nighters, or truly put to work all that I read in the business books - do what you do best and hire the rest.
Because at the time we had about 20,000 Instagram followers, I had the idea to leverage the talent of all the stay-at-home mothers that followed our brand and we put all our templates and training on Google Drive, complete with videos. To apply, we created sample bows for interested seamstresses to send our way, and if they passed we would give them access to the training and onboard them. While it was still slow to grow - we only usually contract with one seamstress for every 100 applicants - it was faster than finding locals.
I love the model because it allows mothers to stay home with their kids, while using their talents. Each bow is made with such love and attention to detail. While it's not the most scalable and efficient model, we have been able to make it work, and I stand by it - there is so much heart behind the product.
Favorite Quote: "Whether you think you can or you can't, you're right." - Henry Ford
Trivia About You: I danced in the Nutcracker from age 8 - 18.
Favorite Material: Cotton lawn florals. I'm obsessed with Liberty of London. Or flocked vintage.
Late Night Snack: Peanut Butter Cookies
Currently Reading: Try Softer by Aundie Kolber
AT: I know your kids have been a huge source of inspiration for you since starting out. How do you keep them involved?
HD: Through travel! They come on almost all of our seasonal photoshoot road trips and have been to all corners of the US. We always load up our Toyota Sienna and hit the road. We never fly! They help keep me grounded and keep the brand "real" and not too lofty.
AT: With your family *and* business being so important to you, I'm sure you get asked that pesky "how do you do it all" question all the time. Any tips on balancing all the things?
HD: My biggest weakness. I think that I don't balance, but rather do things in bursts or chunks. Sometimes I'll work a LOT, but I also know when it's time to shut off my phone and go outdoors and all in with kids time. I think at the end of a month if you feel like you filled all your buckets evenly with the things that matter most, that's what counts.
AT: When you get creatively blocked or burnt out, how do you reset? Do you have tips you can share?
HD: Getting outdoors and experiencing new places always refuels me. I was reaching a pretty significant burnout right before our fall collection of 2019, when we travelled to Seattle. But the colors, sounds, smells and energy of the PNW was so inspiring, and totally helped me reset. It's also nice when you have others on the team that depend on you to send a quick text and let them know if you need to be "off the grid" for a bit to reset. After Seattle, we took an extra spontaneous day to drive to Cannon Beach, and walking up and down that beach I remember truly feeling the reset.
AT: As a creative entrepreneur, what are three tips you can give our readers for getting their idea off the ground?
HD: Try, try and then try again. Be conscious that we all experience failures, but also be in tune to your potential customer and their wants and needs so you can find the right creative offering that meets demand and lights you up! I heard a quote I love from a podcast, "if you aren't embarrassed by your first thing, you waited too long."
AT: Tell us a little more about Wunderkin Co.'s latest collections and the inspiration behind them.
HD: Our spring collection launches early March, and is inspired by Palm Springs and Joshua Tree. The colors feel very 70s, which is a favorite palette of mine, so it's one of my favorite collections to date.
Also, one of the best decisions we made in 2019 was to start working with a designer who helped us create our cellulose-acetate clip line. After collecting vintage clips from Etsy, I've always dreamed of having clips that felt nostalgic, with a nod to the Goodie barrettes of my childhood. We have a flower and heart design that we have started to wholesale internationally, and it's had a great response. The clips hold a little bit of childhood magic inside of them, and help us all remember to keep that spirit in our day to day, adult lives.
AT: Anything else you want to share?
HD: I think that creative entrepreneurs can do a great job of hiding the failures, grueling hours and painful business moments from everyone, because we love to "art direct" our lives. Building a business is not always glamorous, and I've learned that potential customers and community crave authenticity about the highs and the lows. I always try to remember to not take myself too seriously, and to be transparent about the whole journey. With all the comparison and mental health issues in today's world, it's good to monitor your self-talk, fill your head with positive podcasts and books, and friends you trust. We all have magic inside of us, and a purpose. Start throwing things out there and trying and I promise, something will stick! The universe gives us clues, so follow them. :)