Her 'Crude Prototype' and $50 Craigslist Purchase Launched a Side Hustle That Hit $1 Million in Sales — Now the Business Generates Up to $20 Million a Year

Her 'Crude Prototype' and $50 Craigslist Purchase Launched a Side Hustle That Hit $1 Million in Sales — Now the Business Generates Up to $20 Million a Year

This Side Hustle Spotlight Q&A features Elle Rowley, founder of Solly Baby, a company that produces sustainably sourced baby wraps made of 100% certified TENCEL Modal and other baby gear. In 2023, Rowley stepped away from her day-to-day role (she now serves the brand as a strategic advisor and is on the board), and the company welcomed Nicole Newhouse as CEO to lead the next stage of Solly Baby’s growth.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Solly Baby. Elle Rowley.

When did you start Solly Baby as a side hustle, and where did you find the inspiration for it?

After having my first baby in 2009, I was surprised to find a surge of creative inspiration that I had never known before having kids. My husband was still in school, and I was hungry to start something to supplement our meager student income. By the time I was pregnant with our second child in 2011, the online world was fertile ground for mothers looking to start a side hustle from home. I tried a few different things, but I intuitively knew that there was a gap in the market when it came to aesthetically pleasing baby gear, so I was pretty focused on that space throughout my pregnancy.

I loved wearing my first baby, and I’d heard that wraps were the most comfortable way to wear an infant, so being industrious and broke, I made two wraps out of cheap jersey knit fabric — one for me and one for a friend who was also pregnant. While my crude prototype was far from what the product became, I could see the potential for this long piece of fabric to actually be a fashion accessory for the wearer rather than “baby gear.” What really sealed it, though, was the first time I timidly ventured out holding my toddler’s hand and carrying my baby wrapped on my chest. Before we left the front porch, he was asleep and breathing deeply on my chest. The increase in confidence that I felt with each step was palpable. I felt liberated, and at the same time, I’d never felt more connected to my baby. I knew I was on to something.

What were some of the first steps you took to get the side hustle off the ground?

I found a fabric supplier in the fabric district of Los Angeles, purchased a few thousand dollars worth of fabric (thanks to credit cards and a loan from my in-laws), bought a used serger on Craigslist for $50 and opened an Etsy shop. Then, I got to work mostly when my babies were sleeping. I turned our house into a factory to make the first 50 wraps. I signed up for every local handmade market that I could find, which didn’t garner great sales results, but the feedback I received from people in real life was invaluable. Lastly, in a decision that felt reckless at the time because of the cost, I hired my favorite photographer to take photos of me wearing my son. I had a nice camera and could have “made-do” on my own, but I knew that having beautiful images would help compensate for the many other areas where the brand was weak.

Image Credit: Courtesy of Solly Baby

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced while building the business, and how did you navigate them?

Growth is expensive: I had no capital other than the $4,000 loan for fabric, and finance is not my area of expertise, so I knew I would need a very cash flow-positive business model. In the first three years, it was very challenging to finance our growth, but I can see what a gift it was now to have that constraint. Because we had no factoring terms with our suppliers or credit lines, we’d have to pay a hefty deposit on our production when we submitted the purchase order. Then, we’d pay the remainder of the balance upon completion. This made growth slow, and we were constantly underselling. As demand for the product grew, we started placing everything on preorder on our website, which gave us enough to pay for the order. This made it so our customers were essentially funding our growth.

How long did it take you to see consistent monthly revenue? How much did the business bring in at that point?

Sales had been growing year over year in 2013, but we were still only grossing a few hundred thousand dollars a year and taking home less than $100,000. Daily sales were still very inconsistent, which made it difficult to have a lot of confidence in hiring employees or even believing that this was anything more than a side hustle. I was hitting a wall of exhaustion when my husband and I made the leap of faith to bring him into Solly Baby with me. He’d finished school and was working with another startup, but we both felt his time would be better spent if we focused our efforts together. This shift immediately led to new growth and vision. His help also freed me up to work more on the business rather than in the business. We then hired our first employee, Kortney, who took over customer service and fulfillment in a way that freed my husband and me up to focus on growth.

Just weeks after hiring Kortney, and days before I had my third child in the spring of 2014, we released our spring collection, and the demand went through the roof. Sales went from anywhere between zero to $3,000 per day to $2,000 becoming our new daily baseline — and releases bringing in tens of thousands of dollars in a day. We hit $1 million in sales that November, and by the end of that year, we knew this was much more than a side hustle.

You’ve since turned your side hustle into a very successful business. What does revenue look like now?

It’s been amazing to experience the growth we have been able to achieve. To see this business grow from my house to an Etsy shop to reaching millions of mothers, parents and families is truly humbling. As we continued to build the team and find our footing in the market, some years, we saw revenue double year over year. Today, Solly Baby operates at $10 to 20 million in annual revenue.

What’s your favorite part about running Solly Baby?

As a mother of four, connecting with, encouraging and providing products for postpartum mothers during a very transformational time of life has always been life-giving work for me. It will never get old to meet a mother or father who says, “Your wraps changed my relationship with my baby.” Knowing that our products have the power to change the trajectory of a parent-child relationship is deeply rewarding.

Developing company culture and ethos was also very rewarding. I made our company motto “small things with great love” several years ago because I hold a deep belief that small things done thoughtfully create the biggest and best things. This is relevant to growing a business and equally relevant to raising children. Seeing this adopted and trickle down into every part of the company as CEO felt very meaningful.

What does your routine look like these days? Are there any helpful habits you’d recommend to other entrepreneurs?

Keeping a daily routine is my best advice. I am a big believer in getting up before your kids (unless you have an infant — then sleep as much as you can!), exercising, getting ready for the day and taking at least 30 minutes for spiritual or meditative practice.

It was easy in the early days to completely neglect myself to meet the needs of my family and the business, but I strongly believe that we would’ve grown faster and with more intention had I taken better care of myself from the beginning. I was running on empty all of the time, and it just about broke me in the first two years. What’s more is that the business was not stronger because of my “sacrifices.” I became very depressed and anxious and finally shared this with my husband. We made a self-care plan together, and everything quickly improved in my life, personally and professionally.

What’s your best advice for others hoping to start a successful business of their own?

We’re often encouraged to “think big” when it comes to business, but sometimes, thinking “small” is the perfect way to begin — mainly because it will get you to begin. I don’t think I would have had the confidence to start a multi-million dollar, global company at the age of 25, but I didn’t need to. I just needed enough confidence to make the first 50 wraps to help pay the rent and a sincere desire to bring mothers and babies closer through the product. That was all I needed to get the ball rolling, and then my confidence and vision expanded with the company. We kind of grew up together, Solly Baby and me.

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