When Lauren Stiles decided to launch her own business, it wasn't difficult for her to know where to start: the family kitchen, of course.
An avid baker, the mother of two (ages 2 and 4) decided to leave her job and create Lil' Bruiser cookie kits, family-friendly assembly boxes filled with all the ingredients needed to make delicious linzer tarts.
"I had a full-time job in the art world, but I'd always secretly dreamed of doing something on my own and something involving my real passion in life: food," Stiles tells Mom.me via email. "I cooked and baked constantly in my free time, and around the holidays would always make my linzer tart cookies and bring them to friends, parties, the office."
Taking the company name from a nickname her husband gave her, the Los Angeles-based Stiles launched her business in December 2016, just in time for holiday cookie season.
In addition to her adorable cookie boxes, Stiles told us how she felt once it hit her that strangers were buying her kits as well as her favorite moment in the kitchen with her mom.
Describe the moment when you were inspired to create Lil' Bruiser's Linzer Kits.
It had definitely been a seed in my mind for a long time. Various people would nudge me about selling them, but it really wasn't a concrete idea until my husband and his partner at his design firm, Ludlow Kingsley, came to me with the proposition of selling my cookies in a box that they would design. Suddenly it seemed like something that could really happen. I came up with the idea for the "kit" as a means of preserving the cookies' longevity, because once they sit with the jelly in them too long they can become soggy. So it was a way to be able to market and ship them, but it became a hit in itself as a fun activity to assemble with kids, or to feel like you were making Christmas cookies with your family without actually having to bake—almost like a modern take on the Betty Crocker cake mix boxes.
When did you first feel successful?
I don't know if I feel successful yet or what that really means. Obviously, it would be a dream to see my product in stores, on television, in magazines, but I honestly thought that only my relatives and friends would buy my cookies. So I guess the moment I realized strangers were buying my product, that felt like success to me—it was such an exciting feeling!
As a successful female entrepreneur, what are some ways that you want to teach your kids about "girl power"?
I don't know that I overtly talk about "girl power" with my kids, because I think it is such a natural, innate thing. I've always felt powerful and never limited because I'm a girl, and I think that speaks to the job my parents did raising me. It's a self-esteem thing, and I think you just convey that by example and by just doing things with your kids and encouraging them, letting them witness the example you are. My kids are 2 and 4 years old, and when I am making the cookies, they roll up their sleeves and roll dough right along with me. (Don't worry, Health Department. I don't use their dough for the cookies I sell.) Then they design and build their own versions of cookie boxes to gift to people they know. I think those are the experiences that help foster a sense of ability.
Has there been anything about starting Lil' Bruiser that surprised you or inspired you in a way you didn't expect?
I was blown away by the amount of positive feedback I received from both friends and family, and from total strangers. I just didn't expect the reaction to be as big as it was. I am very lucky to have an amazing, loyal group of friends and family, and they really rallied around me and helped spread the word about my new venture. Still, I expected to sell a few boxes in our first run to basically one town on the south shore of Long Island (N.Y.), where I grew up, and they definitely showed up as I knew they would. But what I didn't expect was the tons of other customers who showed up, too. We had an order from Australia! It was so inspiring to see that.
What's your advice for moms who want to start their own business?
Just to give it a shot, really. I thought about doing my own thing for so long, and I always had an excuse why not to do it—no time, no money and more than anything the doubt of, "Why would anyone want my product?" I think women tend to question themselves more than men and overthink things to the point of thinking themselves right out of doing something, and moms are particularly over-extended and pulled in so many directions away from their own desires that it can seem impossible. But you find once you get going that you figure out ways to make the time, you learn on the fly as you go, you fake it till you make it a little bit, and you may just be surprised to find that more people want what you're selling than you ever imagined—so go for it.
What sacrifices have you made as a mom and a business owner to keep everything in balance?
Sleep—which is tough for me because I love sleeping almost as much as I love eating. But like everyone starting their own business, it's the first thing to go. And when you have kids, it's double that. My husband and I would be up making dough and rolling out cookies to all hours of the night, after our day jobs were over. It's hard to find the time to do it all, but you just find spaces in your day to squeeze it in. Like I mentioned, I would turn it into an activity that my kids could participate in so we could all have quality time while doing it. That being said, I am very lucky to have an amazing support system of family to help with the babysitting!
What would you say are the most important skills and experiences you've brought from previous positions to Lil' Bruiser?
As far as the baking, I've never had any formal training or work experience, so that all comes from time spent in the kitchen with my mom from the time I was a toddler, and I am so grateful to her for giving me those skills and knowledge. I do think the product design is a huge part of the appeal of Lil' Bruiser, which again I credit to my husband and his partner and their team at Ludlow Kingsley design, but I think my years of working in the art world helped me to collaborate with them on a design that feels very retro, cool, classic and very me.
What's your favorite memory in the kitchen with your mom?
There is a Julia Child quote from "My Life in France" that perfectly reminds me of my favorite memory in the kitchen with my mom.
She says: "Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed. Eh bien, tant pis. Usually one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile, and learn from her mistakes."
This is a great lesson in cooking, hosting and life in general, and I learned it one night as a kid in my mom's kitchen. She was throwing a fancy dinner party and had labored all day over her delicious potato leek soup along with all the other courses. When she went to bring the soup out to the guests who were waiting in the dining room, she dropped the entire pot all over the kitchen floor and promptly burst into tears. This is soup, so not exactly easy to pick back up and move on. I remember without hesitation my dad and us kids just stepped in and, along with my mom who quickly caught on to what was happening, got down on our hands and knees and starting scooping up handfuls of potato leek soup and dumping it back in the pot.
We got a good-enough amount back in there, re-heated it and served it to the unsuspecting guests (a very belated apology, John and Ginny Costareigni!), and it was a huge hit. (Again, Health Department of Los Angeles, I promise I do not condone such practices in my kitchen of business today!) It really was a great moment of solidarity and the embodiment of "Keep calm and carry on"—a lesson I try, not always successfully, to keep in mind.