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10 Questions With Poncho Baby Founder Carolina Gerstein

Talk about a super woman. Carolina Gerstein had a high-powered job in the tech industry and was at the top of her game— she was even named one of the Top 100 Hispanics in Technology and ranked as one of the Top 50 Colombian Professionals. But this mom of two beautiful girls left all that behind to start her own line of nursing covers, Poncho Baby—the first nursing cover to cover both your front and your back (thank you, Carolina!) The line now features several baby items from chic bandana bibs to baby blankets to washcloths, and Poncho Baby continues to grow.

Are you wondering what could possibly motivate a working mom to leave her secure well paying job to try to navigate the waters of being an entrepreneur? We did too! Read on to find out why and to learn more about this multitalented mother.

How did you come up with the concept for your business and at what point did you decide to make it a reality?

Becoming a mom for the first time was really significant. Since breastfeeding was a very challenging experience for me with my first baby, I was very passionate about breastfeeding and wanted to support my friends and family who also wanted to breastfeed their babies. I noticed that the nursing covers available had a lot of patterns, which distracted the baby and did not provide back coverage. That was crucial for me since I was often feeding in public or pumping in a very cold office while working. It inspired me to launch Poncho Baby with the nursing covers as the initial product line.

I wanted to be able to see my baby, have coverage around back and I also wanted to use a very breathable fabric materials. I came up with the design, got it patented, and figured out how and where to get it manufactured in the U.S. That was important to me, because so few baby products are made in the USA.

As I was working on the nursing covers, I noticed that they were very few products in the market focused on moms on-the-go. Most of the products only offer one function, which makes it hard for moms who have to carry very heavy, huge diaper bags. I believe moms want more multifunctional, compact products. We are always traveling with our girls to see family across the country or internationally—we’re all over the place! So now I’m turning my other ideas into products I can share with other busy moms.

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How do you make the leap from a secure paid job to starting your own business?

After having my second baby, and while I was still working full-time in technology, I started with research for the business. I created surveys and conducted focus groups to get a better understanding about the market and the consumer’s needs. Next, I started creating prototypes that were evaluated by friends and I also shared with new moms at the Pump Station, a breastfeeding resource center in Hollywood.

Since the initial concept was well received by people in the industry, buyers and potential customers, I decided to patent the design before I launched the company. It was a daunting experience, since I have never patented a product in the past. However, I was very fortunate to have excellent support from a good patent lawyer, Ted Maceiko, who was highly recommended by a contact on the East Coast.

After we got product requests from multiple accounts, and then repeat orders, and our patent design was filed, my husband and I decided that I should focus on Poncho Baby products solely. At that point, the product was in beta mode. Now, I plan to make it successful as I have for other products I helped launch, at companies such as Citibank, Yahoo! and Oracle.

How much money should someone have saved before starting their own business?

The capital investment depends on the type of industry and the scope (local, national or international) that a business owner wants to achieve. You need to assess the initial set-up cost, as well as the variable costs, before the business will become profitable. It is important to have enough capital either personally or through investors to give the company the chance to be successful.

How long did it take for you to be profitable?

It takes a few years to become a profitable business, and there’s a lot of reinvesting in the meantime. It's really important to create a good capital foundation for the setup and for at least two years of initial operation.

Was there a moment when you wanted to give up but pushed on through anyway?

When Poncho Baby was in the initial stages, I received several amazing job offers in the tech world, including general manager and vice president roles. These offers were very hard to pass on. However, I believed that Poncho Baby had a great potential, where I could apply not only my skills in industrial engineering and use my MBA but also test my experience in marketing, product, technology and finance. Its been great working with my team and being able to apply vision and strategy to all facets of the business. Sure, I'm still a technology geek at heart. I love to keep up with the latest trends, so now I explore ways to apply technology within the baby and mom industry.

How do you balance your work/home life, or is there even such a thing?

It’s always a challenge when you are running a business and have a family; you need to have clear priorities each day and have a supportive environment. My husband and I, though we work in totally different industries, are very respectful boosters of each other. I also believe you have to take care of yourself, which for me means taking a yoga class, going for a hike or meeting a friend for a juice.

What was the best advice you ever received? Worst advice?

My dad was an executive for a large company in Colombia and also had his own business. He gave me the best advice, which is to be positive and to be very focused on quality for products and services. My dad is the most positive person I have ever met. Even though he is a survivor of three different types of cancer, he always has a positive outlook, even when he is going through a tough chemotherapy series.

Worst advice: People asking, “Why you are taking such a risk of launching a business when you have a great job?” I think that people have their best intentions. Some people are risk averse and wouldn’t think to take such a risk. However, I am very methodical about taking new risks, which has helped me moved from product/trading at Citibank on Wall Street, to product/marketing in technology in California with great companies such as Oracle, Yahoo! and CityGrid.

Since you’ve been through it, what would you tell someone starting out?

First, you need to love what you want to do. Understand the needs of your customer and the competitive landscape before you launch a new product. It is important to think in terms of a brand and product differentiation instead of one, single product.

Be willing to take risks; while you’ll create a business plan, you’ll have to continually modify and enhance it. You may have to evolve your ideas, and that is OK. Surround yourself with a support group of friends, family and other entrepreneurs, and when it is your turn, please provide support and advice to other potential business owners.

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It takes a village for any mom, but for a mom starting her own business, it must take a huge village. So who are your go-to people/services?

Local stores and the retail community. I get such great feedback about the products from customers and stores in my area. I also have a great group of friends who have their own businesses or specialize in different fields, like marketing and finance, and we share advice.

Second, I buy a lot of organic food. We go with our girls to the farmers’ market at least twice a month. They have learned to appreciate farmers and how to choose organic products. When I travel internationally, I love to visit those markets, too, picking up wild berries in Paris or delicious olives in Barcelona.

Finally, take me through a day in your life.

We wake up very early in the morning since our older daughter goes to first grade. I like to drink a nice cup of smooth Colombia coffee while checking my email, then I go to meetings. My creative work is usually done either early in the morning. On Monday, we usually check the core priorities with my team. Sometimes I meet downtown with my manufacturing team, other times I might have appointments with store buyers. We participate in trade shows, so I love to be creative about the booth design. In the afternoon, the best energy boost is dark chocolate. I follow up with our PR person or sales reps, then I get the girls from school. If work is very intense and I cannot make it to yoga class, I like to get my yoga mat in the garden as a break. At night my husband and I relax after the girls go to sleep, unless we have a major deadline.

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