Dream makers: Couple watches babywear firm grow up

Parker Family

Sleep. It’s what all new parents long for because they seldom get enough of it.

Stephanie and Brett Parker know firsthand about the sleep problems that can arrive with babies. It’s the reason behind their multimillion-dollar Sleeping Baby brand of innovative baby apparel. Launched four years ago in the couple’s garage, the babywear company is proof that necessity is the mother of invention.

Their daughter, Charlotte, now 5, had trouble as an infant transitioning out of the calming, tight fit of the swaddle into pajamas. Her startle reflex would jolt her awake and prevent her from sleeping. It also kept mom and dad from catching any Zs.

“My kid liked to be swaddled but couldn’t be swaddled anymore. She wouldn’t even fall asleep,” Stephanie said. “The swaddle continues the feel of the womb. It’s very soothing and helps prevent the startle effect. Why couldn’t there be something in between the swaddle and pajamas that could help babies sleep all night and let them push up and roll over? That’s when this star-shaped garment came about.”

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After trying numerous products that didn’t help her daughter fall asleep and stay asleep, Stephanie sat down at the sewing machine she’s had since the eighth grade and whipped out Sleeping Baby’s first invention, the Zipadee-Zip, a wearable blanket that gives a baby the cozy experience of the swaddle but allows the freedom of pajamas.

“The first night she wore it she slept 12 hours. It blew my mind. I wondered why no one had thought of this before,” Stephanie said. “I researched literally everywhere to find a solution to what she was facing. There was nothing out there to provide her the ability to push up and roll over. There’s no other product that gives that womb-like state. That’s how the business started and it just grew more than we ever expected.”

It was an unconventional way to start what is itself a nontraditional business, the couple admit. Stephanie, now 32, and Brett, 34, met online via eHarmony (“We’d make the perfect commercial,” says Brett) and have been married seven years.

Stephanie had worked for an art gallery as a wine and art auctioneer on board cruise lines. She parlayed her sales background into the baby gear company. Brett was a manager with a Fortune 500 company, where he remained until Sleeping Baby became established and he could join the venture.

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The couple invested $500 in a website and $200 in fabric to start the business. The company was debt-free within the first week and remains debt-free today.

In the beginning, Stephanie designed and sewed each garment. She also sent handwritten thank-you notes to every customer.

The Zipadee-Zips began selling like crazy, the Parkers said.

“I’m not a seamstress. They were not at all professional but women kept buying them and telling others. Those mothers who needed sleep were reading and sharing posts and it just grew from there. We’d reinvest and go to the fabric store and buy more fabric. We grew it one Zipadee-Zip at a time,” Stephanie said.

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To keep up with demand and to relieve his wife, Brett hired five seamstresses and outsourced to a fulfillment company to process the orders. About a year and a half ago the Parkers began cutting costs to grow the business. They moved the company to a large industrial space in Haltom City where all operations are now handled in-house with a staff of 13 employees.

“Outsourcing allowed her to singlehandedly be able to do what was needed to grow the company,” Brett said, “and that was being able to reach out and touch the customers. Half our conversations were counseling sessions, helping moms with postpartum depression, etc. That led to new sales the next day as they told others. That’s really how the business grew.

“I’m a firm believer that one of the main reasons why this business took off is because of Stephanie’s work ethic,” he continued. “Opportunity is created by work ethic. Stephanie is extremely talented. It was her passion and her drive to do whatever it takes. There are three types of commitments in life – and it doesn’t matter what area of your life we’re talking about – ‘I’ll try,’ ‘I’ll do my best’ or ‘I’ll do whatever it takes.’ Stephanie is ‘whatever it takes.’”

Stephanie says trying to juggle work and family was the hardest part for her during the startup period.

“I wanted to be Superwoman. I think a lot of women can relate to that ‘I can do it all,’” she said. “Letting go is so important. I’ve learned that’s the only way to grow.”

Swimming with the sharks

Letting go taught the Parkers another invaluable lesson. About four months into their new business, the couple auditioned to go on Shark Tank, the popular TV show that gives budding entrepreneurs a shot at making their dreams come true. They were accepted but turned down the invitation.

“It wasn’t a ‘no,’ just a ‘not yet,’” Brett said.

After reaching $1 million in sales, the Parkers did appear on Shark Tank. That time they were able to ask for a significant amount more from the investors than before. In the end, though, they turned down a deal with Daymond John for $200,000 in exchange for 20 percent equity in the company. They’re happy to remain friends with John.

“We said no and it was the best decision we could have made. It was a hard decision to make but I’m so glad we turned it down,” said Stephanie. “It wasn’t the best route for Zipadee-Zip. We’d lose control of the quality and we’d lose sight of our customer. Our focus is on people and not our pockets. We’ve learned our customers mean everything.”

The Parkers said the Shark Tank experience took them to a different level than they could have imagined.

“By the time the show aired we had discovered we could do this. We learned the things on our own that we thought we needed for them to teach us and walk us through,” Stephanie said. “So many entrepreneurs underestimate themselves. You can hustle just like these big moguls did.”

Brett agrees.

“We did it together and grew the company without the help from any of the Sharks. We realized what we were capable of – working together without that help,” he said.

Today, Sleeping Baby offers about 20 designs, each created by Stephanie. The line includes the Flying Squirrel PJ for older children; Trendy Teethers featuring clip-on teethers and teething necklaces; and the Zippy OneZ, inspired by the Parkers’ son, Maverick, now 2. One day when Stephanie was changing his diaper, she became frustrated with the inseam snaps on his romper and decided to invent the first romper that replaces inseam snaps with a zipper. The result was the Zippy OneZ.

All Sleeping Baby styles can be purchased online at www.sleepingbaby.com.

Several new products and lines will roll out in the coming weeks, including a design suggested by customers who have babies in the hospital and need a garment that can allow for tubes but still give the cozy feel of a swaddle.

“One of our best assets is that we always listen to our customers. You have to know your audience,” said Stephanie.

Sleeping Baby also has given birth to a sister company, Effortless Branding, a full-service apparel and promotional products company currently in development that will let customers add their logos.

“I never imagined owning my own business,” Stephanie said. “It just occurred because of our daughter and my passion and desire to stay home with her. It’s been a gift for us and we have to use it wisely.”