Pigtail Pals: Where We’ve Been

Here’s the FULL story about Pigtail Pals. I promise, no matter how long you’ve been following me, you don’t know this story. Later today I’m going to tell you where we are going, but to understand everything, you need to know where we’ve been.

You all know the story of how I got the idea for Pigtail Pals…. during a baby playdate a friend was challenging my stance on Disney Princesses, and I retorted with something about not teaching my daughter to wish on a star and wait for a prince, but rather wanting her to have the know-how to build a rocket ship and get to that star for herself. I said something about not being able to find anything like that on a tee for a little girl. Hello A Ha! moment! I scooped up the baby, ran out of the house and raced home to fill two notebooks with ideas….yadda yadda yadda, you know the rest. Or do you?

In 2006 my daughter, the Original Pigtail Pal Amelia, was just a baby and I was already feeling overwhelmed from what I saw girlhood had become.  I contacted an old artist friend of mine who had also just had a baby girl, and told her my ideas and asked if she’d work with me. This was in October of 2006, the holidays quickly came and ushered us into 2007. While I waited for my artist to send artwork to me, I researched children’s boutiques and online marketplaces and apparel production. I have just a little experience in retail, and zero experience and design and textiles. I do have a senior thesis on Psycho-sexual Homicide: Early Childhood Frontal Lobe Injury and Dyphasic Personality Disorder, if anyone is interested. Needless to say, I had a lot to learn.

In July 2007 I was over the moon to discover I was pregnant with our second child. It had taken us over a year to get pregnant with Amelia, and thousands of dollars in infertility treatments. Ol’ Benny Boy came along on the first try. Since I thought achieving a second pregnancy would take a lot longer than it did, I was a little nervous about the idea of having a 22 month old and a newborn. No turning back now. Then I threw up for the next six months. My artist became pregnant with her second, and 2007 seemed to go by in a blur, and my artwork still wasn’t ready. 

Benjamin arrived in March after a hellacious delivery. Thankful to have my healthy boy, but traumatized from his birth, I told my artist I needed some time to heal and adjust to being a mom of two small kids. My beloved Grandma Sally died two days after his birth, and it was a very difficult time. I knew starting a business would take a ton of time, and I really wanted to enjoy Ben’s first year and help Amelia adjust to being a big sis. I didn’t want to half-ass motherhood, and as a perfectionist, I wanted to do my business right. To be completely honest, I think I needed to find myself as a mom. Having one kid was a cinch for me. Two kids was a whole nother ballgame.

During 2008 I read a ton of trade magazines, and spent a lot of time doing informal interviews with friends and friends of friends, trying to determine what was going on with girlhood. By this point I had read every book out there on sexualization and girl esteem and several on body image. I felt like I was in the center of a hurricane, and I was feeling scared for my girl. For the record, I was also really enjoying being a mom to my two cubs.

By fall of 2008 I still did not have my artwork from my friend. During a talk with my dad, I said that if I was a real company, I would have fired her. He sat there with his eyebrows raised, looking out over the top of his glasses. Ahhh, right. I had lost too much time to production and still had no usable art. We’d completely blown a presidential election season with two women in prominent positions. Kind of a big ship for a girl-empowerment company to let sail away. I fired her, and she never spoke to me again. So here I was two years later, no artwork, no company, and now, no artist. Oy vey.

A few weeks later my mom was down for a visit and was sitting at the table with Amelia in her lap, drawing. Something clicked in my head, and I asked her to draw an astronaut. A girl astronaut. The drawings she did that afternooon are what you now know as the Redefine Girly line, my original 12 designs. By May 2009, I was ready to rock and roll. Pigtail Pals officially launched on a Tuesday morning, and I was off and running. Orders were coming in, and the response was amazing. The corner of our dining room became my office, and that is where I’m sitting right this moment, with Benny playing underneath the dining room table.

I learned an important lesson from all of that: Chasing a dream is like holding on to a giant balloon. The people who are holding you down need to be cut loose, otherwise you’ll never be able to reach the heights to which you are headed.

2009 passed with me sending out orders, often with Benny in a baby sling and Amelia by the hand with a tote bag of orders in my teeth as I made my way into the post office. I was traveling around southern Wisconsin every weekend doing trunk shows. It was exhausting and I didn’t really enjoy being away from my family, but is was a great opportunity to get out in front of the public and really develop my brand. Kind of like a giant focus group. I wasn’t expecting the tears, hugs, and handshakes from people who time and again said, “Thank you so much for what you are doing for our girls.” My best friend told me to get on twitter and start a blog, so I listened to her because she is very smart. I didn’t know how to do either, and both are like learning a new language. But I learned because it meant more access to more people, and the ability to tell more people my story. The more people I talked to, the more I realized this was an issue a lot deeper than offering a different kind of t-shirt design for girls. It was almost like a wave of mini-feminism developing, as people were continuing to realize girlhood had become something that was not very healthy for our girls. I understood I was sitting on the pulse of something that ran very deep. I’ve said this before, but I truly feel as though my generation of parents will come to see the sexualization and commercialization of childhood as the children’s rights issue of our time.

2010 rolled around, and the company turned 1 year old. I had received great support from the blogging community and the girl empowerment community. My own blog was well received, and the shirts were still popular, but by this time the economy had crashed, and my business was feeling it. I was starting to wonder if I’d make it. A good friend of mine used to be a buyer at a national department store, and she is married to a marketing executive. They became my dream team, and the three of us spent many nights at their kitchen counter discussing Pigtail Pals and it’s potential. Her husband told me I was sitting on top of a genius idea, but I was three years ahead of the market, and would need to be patient. Turns out, he was right. I went to a childrens buyer market twice in Chicago that year, and tanked both times. The buyers wanted me to put the designs on pink shirts and add rhinestones and glitter. I refused, saying that I had talked with thousands of parents, and this isn’t what they wanted from my company. The buyers would turn and walk out of my showroom. It was a learning experience, but it felt a lot like a punch in the gut.

In October 2010 I did not get a single order in the shop. Not one. It sucked. I had start up costs to pay off. I didn’t know what to do and didn’t think I could wait out the economy, but I knew I didn’t want to give up. I decided to go outside on a gorgeous Indian Summer day and plant 84 tulip bulbs with my kids. I told myself I would wait out the winter, and when these bulbs bloomed I would make my decision. When I stopped focusing on sales and focused on my writing for the blog, I wrote some really amazing stuff. Ms. Magazine picked up a couple of my posts, and others were shared far and wide by my amazing group of colleagues. Lots of people were talking about Pigtail Pals, and our mission to Redefine Girly. The facebook community was also taking off, so I really focused on turning that into a learning place for parents. I decided to invest time that winter into developing my relationship with my social media community. That paid off, too. The facebook page is now over 10,000 people strong, which makes Pigtail Pals one of the largest girl empowerment groups in the world under the big orgs like Girl Scouts and Girls on the Run, etc. Not too shabby for a mom working out of her dining room. Sales during the Christmas/Holiday season were nice, and things were looking up.

2011 was under way, and the business was going well. I had introduced two more lines, Whimsy Bees and Curious Crickets, plus added school supplies, bags, stickers, and hats to the shop. I was getting fabulous feedback from customers, the blog was doing great, and I had strong relationships with both my circle of colleagues and my social media groups supporting the company. But I was just breaking even every month, which meant I was paying the bills for the business, but not bringing in any money for the family. My husband Jason and I had invested everything we could into the business, my parents had given me a start up loan, but with two small kids and Jason having to start his career over after getting out of the Navy, we were strapped. There were several months we had less than $10.00 in our checking account the week before payday. I cried more than once in the grocery store, realizing I didn’t have enough money for food, I could only buy diapers for Ben. I was feeling like a failure even though at this point the business was doing well, I wasn’t earning any money for my family. With my husband’s work schedule and how busy I was managing the business, a part time job wasn’t going to work. I thought about taking in childcare, but I was usually working until 3-4am and I was barely making it through my days. I was also crazy busy with my little kids. Playdates and preschool beckoned. I was teaching swim lessons in the mornings, but that was just too hectic. By summertime I was exhausted, and was existing on three, maybe four hours of sleep a night for months and months on end. My body was about to have a little Come To Jesus Meeting With Me.

I had started donating plasma as a last ditch effort to make everything work. It was an extra $200 a month for the family, the kids loved the child watch, and I got to lay on a chair and read. I used the time to read books to review on the blog, and things were fine. I felt a lot of stress lift off of me. But I was still getting no sleep, and it is very hard to be creative or write well when your brain feels like a pretzel. Once, driving home from a playdate, I fell asleep while driving and went through a red light. My kids were in the car. This was not okay. Later that week, I was walking to my car after donating plasma, and the bandage slipped off my arm. You know, the one holding my vein closed. Blood started running in rivers down my arm and off my finger tips. I remember standing there, not realizing for several seconds it was my own blood. I remember thinking “God that’s a mess.” I was able to walk back into the facility and ask for help, my arm over my head and blood everywhere. I realized as I pulled into the garage later that night I had to make changes. Immediately.  A week later, my dog died in my arms from cancer. When it rains, it pours.

It was July 2011 and I felt done. I asked Jason how he felt about me selling my wedding dress in order to make it for one more month in business. He said okay, he supported me and what I was doing, but that he really didn’t think we could keep this up. I started crying because I hate to fail, and because I thought about all of the emails from parents that had taken the time to thank me, to tell me I had changed the way they looked at their girls. I was also failing them. Most new businesses don’t make it, and I felt like I was headed to the start-up graveyard. I had been told all along the first three years were the hardest, and that is absolutely true.

August 2011 was when everything changed. At the beginning of the month I wrote a post you might have read called “Waking Up Full of Awesome”. It was an odd post for my blog, because it didn’t really have to do with sexualization or gender stereotypes. I caught a photo of Amelia when she struck this funny pose before breakfast, right after I had finished reading some research about how abysmal body image is for teen girls, and I was pissed off. So I wrote down what I was feeling and hit “Publish”. I was expecting maybe 80-100 people to read it. I don’t really know how that post went global. To date, that post has had nearly 600,000 views. During that same time, I got a tweet from my friend about a shirt at JC Penney. I was just about to close my computer for the night because the next day was my last day of summer before Amelia started kindergarten. I just wanted to sleep. And then I saw the shirt. You know the one, “I’m to pretty to do homework, so my brother does it for me.” I immediately called out JC Penney on facebook, wrote a blog post, blasted twitter, and started designing a counter-campaign tee. I was angry. I was so epically tired of this crap being peddled to our girls. I went to bed at 5am. The following afternoon, a writer from Yahoo Shine contacted me and wanted the story. From there, Pigtail Pals had back-to-back viral events. Full of Awesome and Pretty’s Got Nothing To Do With It tees were shown on Yahoo and FOX News and selling by the thousands. At one point, my stack of orders was as tall as my can of Diet Coke. My facebook page jumped 8,000 people in 48 hours. I could barely keep up with the blog comments. A girlfriend (waves to Erin!) practically lived at my house for five weeks as we pumped out orders all over the globe. Facebook comments and emails came in by the hundreds. More girlfriends came over to wash my dishes or write out address labels or make post office runs. They brought me groceries. I don’t remember seeing my husband during those weeks, but I imagine he was around because the children were cared for. I had to get off the phone with a tv producer and said I needed to watch my little girl walk into kindergarten for the very first time. A newspaper called on our way home from dropping off our girl at school. A magazine called during dinner. BOOM. Several nights I fell asleep face down on the table while packaging orders. The kids would find me in the morning, and crawl around the boxes of hundreds of tees to get to the kitchen to find some juice. A book publisher called wanting me to write a book. A second publisher called, wanting a second book. This was what I had worked for. Blood, sweat, and tears. This was my ship coming in. You better believe I wasn’t letting this one pass me up. I busted my butt to get all of those orders out and take every single interview offered.

One day while walking the kids home from school, a neighbor approached me. I wasn’t really familiar with her, just waves across the street and passing hellos. She said her husband was in the Army, serving in Korea. A friend had sent a blog post to a friend in Japan, who had sent it to her husband in Korea, and he had forwarded to her. She wanted to know if Amelia was the girl from “Waking Up Full of Awesome”. My story had literally gone around the world, and the lady that lived directly across the street from me came over to introduce herself to the Full of Awesome family. Oh. My. God.

2011 ended with a book offer from Chicago Review Press (so excited!!), amazing sales, more tv and radio interviews than I could count, and an army of parents solidly in place supporting Pigtail Pals. I had shipped to all 50 states dozens of times over and to 15 countries. I was proud of myself, and of what I had created. My family had definitely sacrificed, but we hadn’t been pulled apart. My kids were happy and knew they were loved. I had never strayed from my mission to Redefine Girly and fight for the right to a girlhood, and I had made charitable donations and paid my bills along the way. I’m sure there were easier ways to do all of this, but this is my story. 

2012 is now our third year in business. In addition to my mom, I brought on two artists to help with our designs. My graphic and web designer Jenn is a rock star. I love the company who does my printing. I love my customers. I have great support from fellow bloggers. I love my book editor, and she loves me when I send her finished chapters. I love my circle of colleagues and professionals, who I also get to call my friends. I have amazing friends from my personal life that have always been there for me. None of this has been easy. All of it has been worth it.

I wanted to tell you all of that, so you could know Pigtail Pals in every detail. Because in a few hours, I’m changing. Everything.

Comments

  1. Tanya Burns says:

    I am locked out of fb for some stupid reason, but I am still here listening! Thank you for your dogged determination and “one more month” attitude! You have changed the way I see things in this world, and I have a tear in my eye right this minute thinking that my recent determination in political matters in my state may not have surfaced if I hadn’t found you. You inspire me to discover ways to empower myself AND my daughter. Much love PTP!

  2. So this made me start crying like a baby. I was with you as a little customer through some of this and had no idea you were on such a shoestring. You my friend, are amazing and I will always be a fan. Someday I will even meet you and the kids I’ve grown to love through your words.

    “The buyers wanted me to put the designs on pink shirts and add rhinestones and glitter.” This made me groan out loud!!

    Hugs, Laurie

    • Laurie –
      You have been with me for so long. It is an honor for me that so many of the little people in your life have Pigtail Pals gear. 🙂

  3. Good for you, Melissa! I caught on to your work right around the JCPenny episode, bought one of your Pretty’s Got Nothing to do With It shirts, and have been a fan of yours ever since. I love what you do, but just as much, I love the passion with which you do it. I love the example of a strong, intelligent woman that you set for your daughter and for so many of us. I am an author, as well, and therapist-turned-champion for young girls facing bullying and relational aggression. I think our work intersects in many important ways. Keep going strong! Looking forward to seeing the great things you have in store!

  4. Christy says:

    Thank you for all you do! I don’t have kids, but I have 5 nieces, two of which are ‘princess’ girls 🙂 They are precious and I love them all, and you’ve made me aware of what society is doing to girls. I knew some of it, but never *really* thought about it. Since I don’t have kids, it can’t be my problem, right? Wrong! Thanks for the eye-opener!!

  5. And we all love you AND what you are doing!

  6. Wow, Melissa, you really made it work! I think you transcend awesome. 🙂
    I came across the “Full of Awesome” post through and I remember the next day seeing the expolsion of “I’m too pretty” stuff.
    You help me listen to that voice in my head when I see or hear something that just doesn’t sit well with me. You inspire me try to be articulate instead of being pissed off or silent. You have helped me remember to tell my daughter she is amazing everyday, whether she is playing with her dinorsaurs or dressed up like a princess – or both.
    I am so glad you stuck with it through the hardships and remained true to your vision, yourself, and your family.
    Can’t wait to see what is next . . .
    Laura

  7. Stephanie Alford says:

    Melissa, there are no words to tell you how much you have meant to me. I was never truly a little girl and no one taught me how to set boundaries. Basically, I raised and taught myself how to set boundaries. Pigtail Pals has given me a way to look at the world that empowers me to be the awesome woman I am and to embrace that awesomeness. I wish I could afford to buy every girl I know, and every mom to be I know (and there seem to be a lot these days) stuff from Pigtail Pals. I want every girl and boy to know their awesomeness and smash the boundaries that people have been fighting against for centuries. What is feminism? It’s the right to choose what we want to do with our lives and to be accepted for that. You and Amelia show me the way.

  8. I’m not sure why I’m afraid of what’s coming next, since you haven’t let me down yet! I am so happy that your business has become so successful. I’ve been reading your blog since early 2010 and have always loved it.

  9. I’m proud of you and excited to see what’s next. I’m also proud to be a long-time supporter of Pigtail Pals!

  10. You rock. I have loved introducing Pigtail Pals to all my friends and see them become die hard supporters too.
    I love you and everything you stand for. Amelia obviously got her Full of Awesome from her mom.

  11. Jenny McCann says:

    I have been with you through out so much of that and didn’t realize. It is only b/c of our own financial situation that I have not bought anything. I have shared your blog and you have helped me develop a vocabulary and articulate my uber feminist mission to have my daughter be anything she wants to be. It has also helped me raise my son to become a sensitive young man, who at the dinner table last night, simply could not understand why girls like his grandma weren’t allowed to play sports growing up.|

  12. Hi. I’ve been reading this blog for a few months, now. I don’t have any children, but I hope one day to have a few, and daughters especially! I’m so happy to know that there are so many people out there who worry about the same things I do. I work part-time for a large retailer, and just yesterday I heard a woman ask our toy department where she could find the “girl legos”, and I just got so angry. I wanted to tell her that all legos are for girls. I wanted to yell in her face. But I was working, so I held my tongue.

    I hope that if I get to have children, I can bring them up in a world that respects them, and that I can teach them to respect themselves. 🙂

    THANKS for this blog.

  13. I wouldn’t change those 5 weeks for anything!! I am proud to be on your team!!

  14. I love this. You just made me cry reading that (but I’m pregnant, so its not hard to do). I only recently found your blog, I don’t even remember how, and I spent hours reading every single post from your archive. You are an inspiration, and I can’t wait to see what’s happening next.

  15. Joyce Atkins says:

    From your first flutter kick inside and your first breath outside, you continue to amaze me. Love you and enormously proud of your outreach to others. It is not about $$$. Sure, it is nice and needed, but it is much MORE about the message.

  16. Hope B. says:

    What a great story! We found you back in 2010 through an Internet search. My then 4yo was deciding on her future career options and was particularly obsessed with flying airplanes. Your “captain speaking” t-shirt was an awesome match for her and she wore it lovingly until just recently. Heading over to your shop to find a replacement! Good luck and keep fighting for our girls and our boys too.

  17. My goodness I had no idea! I think it’s easy for your ‘haters’ to de-humanize you, ignoring all the work you do. All the blood, sweat, and tears. And plasma. I hope you don’t hear them louder than your fans, because we NEED you! Thank you for your sacrifice, sleepless nights, integrity, and vision.

    You are changing lives.

  18. Thanks for sticking it out, through everything. You are helping me be a better parent.

  19. I found Pigtails Pals when a friend posted the Full of Awesome blog post. And I was was one of the packages you were mailing with my own Full of Awesome t-shirt. It’s now my favorite phrase! Because we are all Full of Awesome. Thank you for sharing your hard-earned story.

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  1. […] those who liked the post on Pigtail Pals, Melissa has a post up on her blog today about just how hard it was to bring her business baby to life and keep it afloat which is […]

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