Family Business: How Parenthood Inspired These Local Entrepreneurs

Amanda Collins Bernier
Baystateparent Magazine

There's something about parenthood that sparks ingenuity. That's just part of the job -- parents see a problem, and figure out how to fix it. 

These local moms and dads had ideas to make life better and easier for parents and their kids, and took the risk of entrepreneurship. Here's what got them started, and what keeps them going. 

Potty Poncho

Susan Alger created the Potty Poncho after a flash of creativity when potty training her daughter.

There’s a sworn by method of potty training that calls for staying home for a few days and letting your kid go naked – or at least commando. The theory is that if he or she knows there’s nothing there to catch the pee or poop, it should click that they need to get their bare butt to a potty.

Sue Alger was ready. She had cleared the calendar, bought the plastic potty, and was all set to camp out at home until her oldest daughter got the hang of it. But an unexpected problem popped up: while sitting on her princess potty in the living room watching Sesame Street, her daughter complained that she was cold.

Alger grabbed a blanket to wrap around her, but it kept falling and distracting the little girl.

In a flash of creativity, Alger grabbed a hooded bath towel. She used scissors to cut a strategic hole in the bottom, then wrapped it around her daughter.  

Cozy and warm – with no fidgeting or complaining –  Alger’s daughter sat and did her business. And just like that, the Potty Poncho was born.

Susan Alger and her children Ella DeAmato and Eva DeAmato.

“I thought, ‘wow, this can really make this boring potty training business a lot more fun,’” Alger said. “I looked around and there was nothing like it. There are charts and toys but all that stuff is in a kid’s daily life anyway. This was something different and fun.”

Alger drew up sketches and found a retired grandmother to create the first sample. She met with a patent lawyer and put a hold on the design. But eventually the idea moved to a back burner, and life went on.

Flash forward nine years. Alger, who lives in Ipswich, now has two preteen daughters. A lot has happened since that day with her daughter in the living room: an unexpected divorce, a move, a new career, and starting over as a single mom. But Alger never forgot her bright idea.

“Years later, when I revisited this idea, I was truly shocked that there still wasn't anything on the market for potty training,” she said. “I decided it was time to put pen to paper.”

Alger said many manufacturers “laughed at the idea.” If she didn’t need a huge bulk order, they couldn’t help her. But eventually she found the perfect partner in Denver, Colorado – a manufacturing business owned by a dad in the throes of potty training his children.

“It just kind of all came together,” she said.

Alger launched her business last December. The Potty Poncho is a one-size-fits-all hooded accessory made of super soft polyfleece. It comes in five fun, kid-friendly designs. While it’s designed to make the potty training process easier and cozier, it’s a practical item for the pool, bath time or even a car ride.

The Potty Poncho is $34.99 and sold at thepottyponcho.com, where you’ll also find educational coloring pages and games, potty tracking charts and rewards, potty training books, and more.

The Potty Poncho, a kid-friendly poncho for potty training and more.

Alger’s advice to another parent-preneur: “Stay motivated. Yes, you’re going to have a bad day, but stick with it. And don’t be afraid to start small. See if you can get a small amount of your idea made. If you believe in something, start small and pursue it. You just never know.”

What she hopes her kids have learned: “They saw me on the computer up late, endless nights looking through millions of designs. They’ve been my go-to people. Hopefully, it’s something they will remember. Whether it worked out or not, I hope they’ll remember that mom worked really hard and did a cool thing.”

Littlemore Organics

Joana Fraser and Lauren Bain are the Boston-based moms behind Littlemore Organics.

Browsing the baby food aisle when her first son, Jack, was a baby, Joana Fraser felt disappointed. She wanted things she could throw in the diaper bag and go, but found the sea of rice puffs and pouched purees underwhelming. 

“There was just a lack of flavors and diversity,” she said. “I felt like I was settling, whatever I was buying.” 

Fraser, a Boston-based practicing pediatrician and Clinical Instructor at Harvard Medical School, knew that we often underestimate children’s palates. She wanted to avoid overly sweet, fruity, or bland foods, and to expose her son to savory flavors and different textures as a baby.

Since she couldn’t find quite what she was looking for, Fraser decided to create it herself. She founded a healthy kids' snack food company, Littlemore Organics. 

“I thought a lot about what the perfect snack would be. What it would taste like, what the ingredients would be. What flavor would it be? A cracker, a puff, or a bar?” Fraser said. 

She landed on organic ancient grain puffs -- melt-in-your mouth bagged snacks for babies and kids aged 6 months and older.

Since it wasn’t exactly something she “could make in the kitchen,” she worked with a group of food scientists to get the recipe just right. The texture was the hardest part to perfect; the puffs had to be both crunchy and easily dissolvable. 

“All that took a little while,” Fraser said. “From idea to snacks in a bag, it was about two-and-a-half years.” 

As the business ramped up, Fraser’s friend Lauren Bain joined the endeavor. Lauren, a mom of three with an MBA and background in finance and business, brought a different skillset to the company. 

“Trying to do it by yourself is insane; you need a good partner,” said Fraser. “Having someone you really trust and work well with to do it with you is so valuable. It lightens the load and gives you that support system.”

Fraser and Bain launched Littlemore’s products at the start of the year. Offered in two flavors -- sunflower butter and tomato -- the puffs are made from the ancient grain sorghum, have no corn or rice, no added sugar or salt. The puffs, which are sold in half-ounce bags, are made with sunflower seed protein, which boosts the nutritional value and also provides a dissolvable consistency making the puffs perfect for baby-led weaning. 

Littlemore puffs are offered in Sunflower Butter and Tomato flavors, with additional flavors in the works.

Priced at $29 for a box of 12 single-serve bags, they can be purchased directly at littlemoreorganics.com, or at several Boston-area retailers including Brothers Marketplace locations.

Fraser, now a mom of two, said starting the business has been in some ways like raising her boys. 

“It’s like watching your kids grow up; it happens slowly and then all at once. It feels like it takes so long to get to the next step -- so much is out of your control --  and then all of sudden there’s our product on a shelf.” 

Fraser’s advice to another parent-preneur: “Make sure [the product or idea] is something you’re really passionate about. If you’re not, you’re not going to have the drive to make it work and start from scratch. You need to be like, ‘this idea has to happen.’ Then at some point, you have to take the leap… am I going to do this or not?” Also: “Say ‘yes’ to any conversation, or any introduction that you are offered. There have been many times where I thought a conversation wouldn’t lead anywhere, but almost every conversation I’ve had along the way has either been directly helpful or has led to a connection with another individual that has been beneficial.” 

On balancing motherhood, career, entrepreneurship: “I don't like the word ‘balance.’ it suggests that everything is in perfect equilibrium, and that’s not how it is. Some days you feel stretched so thin, like you’re not doing enough, and other days you feel like you’re killing it. It’s like juggling balls, and you have to determine which ones are made of glass -- which ones can you drop, and which ones can’t you.”

Qeepsake

Qeepsake co-founder and CEO Jeff McNeil with his wife, Stephanie, and their children.

For all the big moments that come with raising a child -- Christmas morning, the first day of school, or the annual recital -- there are a million more little ones. In the busyness that is parenthood, how can you be sure you’re remembering it all … the big things and the little just-as-important little things, too? 

This was a question that was bugging Jeff McNeil back in 2014, who was then a dad of four. He and his wife were on top of capturing the big memories with their kids, but he felt they were behind in saving the quieter, day-to-day moments. And life kept going by. 

Then, an aha moment. McNeil was in the shower (or maybe his wife was, he can’t quite remember) when the idea struck: a digital baby book service via text messaging. So that parents wouldn’t forget to keep adding to it, the service would prompt users with questions about their child or pregnancy. 

That day, Qeepsake was born.

McNeil, of Newton, wasted no time bringing the concept to fruition. He had the idea on Saturday and wrote up a one-page brief on Sunday. “I thought, if someone had already built this, I would know about this,” he said. 

Qeepsake sends members questions every day, like writing prompts — they’re to encourage members to text back a response (and relevant photo) and then that answer becomes an entry in their child’s online journal.

Users can also text Qeepsake anytime with an unprompted journal entry, or use the “Milestone” feature on the Qeepsake mobile app. 

“It’s memories you wouldn't think of day-to-day; working to create this wealth or content in your own voice,” McNeil explained. 

When they're ready, users can order a Qeepsake book with all their memories. 

In 2017, McNeil brought the business on Shark Tank. He left without a deal, which he said was a bit “deflating.”

But today, Qeepsake has grown to 80,000 paid subscribers and a 700,000 user base. They have 20 employees, who work remotely across the country. McNeil said building the business has been a learn-as-you-go process. 

Qeepsake is a digital baby book that prompts users with text messages.

Launching the business “as a team” with his wife, Stephanie, has been key to their success, McNeil said, but he makes it a point to keep his job as CEO separate from his duties as husband and dad (now to six kids). 

“It’s interesting that even though the business is related to parenting, I keep a separate work life from home life,” he said. Keeping strict work hours helps him from burning out and becoming “a real grouch” to the family, he said. 

Next for Qeepsake is expanding to a fuller family experience. McNeil said they’re working to add ways for other family members to see and contribute to the digital journals. “A day from the viewpoint of grandma is a novel and exciting thing,” he said. 

You can sign up for Qeepsake for free at qeepsake.com. Upgraded memberships start at $3.99 per month. 

McNeil’s advice to another parent-preneur: “When you’re a parent the stakes are higher. One of my number one goals is building financial stability, and that is at odds with building a business. Start as early as you can. Build conviction in your idea in any way you can. That way it feels less risky to you.” 

On evolving: “You’re not growing professionally if you don’t think back on some things and cringe.”