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Karen Henry has been doing a brisk business with her “Icicool” popsicles, selling upwards of 700 on busy weekends. (Sean Silcoff/The Globe and Mail)
Karen Henry has been doing a brisk business with her “Icicool” popsicles, selling upwards of 700 on busy weekends. (Sean Silcoff/The Globe and Mail)

Expansion

Popsicle maker grapples with growth risks Add to ...

Karen Henry has been having a sweet summer.

Last year the stay-at-home, fortysomething mother of three from Wakefield, Que., decided to get into the ice pop business. She transformed a neighbour’s pottery studio into a kitchen, got some moulds, blenders and freezers, and after experimenting with a range of eclectic recipes, she began to make all-natural pops with such flavours as strawberry-basil, carrot-kale, coco-mint green tea, and lemon buttermilk.

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Ms. Henry went to local markets in the Ottawa area on weekends to peddle her Icicool products. Business has been brisk: she’s selling upwards of 700 on busy weekends (one for $3, two for $5), and grossing $1,500 to $2,500 a week. “I had no idea how far this would go when I started. My goal was exposure,” the easy-going Ms. Henry says. “I’m definitely past that. I’m at the point where production is not meeting demand.”

Ms. Henry is looking to expand. She has talked to a local grocery chain – Farm Boy – that is interested in selling her ice pops, but first she needs retail-ready packaging and greater capacity. “I would like to go that route. [Demand] could potentially be thousands.”

Ms. Henry’s story is not unique: Across Canada, countless “mompreneurs” have launched micro-businesses while bearing much of the burden of raising a family. Some, like Ms. Henry, experience a burst of success that convinces them they could get much bigger.

But getting there is tough. They face not only the normal business challenges – hiring, building relationships with suppliers and customers, managing costs – but the added challenge of keeping the family needs in balance.

“The problem for a lot of people is they get involved and it gets exciting for them, but this is a business,” says Karen Fischer, who runs a small-business consulting practice with her husband Rudy in Uxbridge, Ont. “When you start dealing with businesses relying on your products, you need to take this seriously. Are you a business person or a stay-at-home mom with a hobby?”

Adds Mr. Fischer: “Here’s a test: Do you go to your daughter’s play, or do you fulfil that order? That’s one of those moments of reality that start to sink in.”

Mompreneurs should think of their businesses “like another child, but a child that gives back a little more to the family,” says Amy Appleton. The Montreal mompreneur, along with co-owner Ilana Grostern, has made the kind of jump Ms. Henry is contemplating with her successful Apple Cheeks Cloth Diapers business. “It’s such a tough thing to balance childcare and business. If you want to take it to the next level , you can’t just do it at night or naptime.”

Ms. Appleton and Ms. Grostern, who combined have seven children under the age of 10, bring their kids to work – but they also put in at least four days a week each. They also have supportive husbands, without whom, Ms. Appleton says, “I don’t think we’d be able to do what we do.” They’re growing steadily and they are at the point where they could get their products into large chains, but “if we did, we’d really have no time for kids,” Ms. Appleton adds.

Ms. Henry says she will focus on her growth plans once ice pop season ends.

To step up production, she will likely dip into her savings and buy an ice pop-making machine from a Brazilian supplier for an estimated $10,000 to $20,000, allowing her to make 250 at a time. She knows she likely has to hire someone to help with production. “I’ve never had an employee,” she says.

Packaging will have to change – she now individually wraps and seals the products in plastic, and her plans call for boxes of six ice pops each. She’s getting her website operator to design her graphics, she’s obtaining a nutritional analysis of her various flavours, she’s getting bar codes set up, and she’s securing a packaging supplier. She’s aiming to focus on six flavours – raspberry lemonade is the most popular – while making sure quality doesn’t suffer as she scales up.

Experts say Ms. Henry, who earned a criminology degree and worked as a nurse before leaving the workforce after her first child was born in 1999, might want to slow down a bit. “To me, one of the issues she’ll start facing is that you can go bankrupt through growth,” says Mr. Fischer, adding many small-scale entrepreneurs quickly get overwhelmed. Not only will wholesaling lower her selling price, she’ll have to find a way to manage the cash flow between the time she pays for her costs and receives payment, which could take months.

Nathalie Jordi, co-founder of People’s Pops – a four-year-old New York City-based natural ice pop maker that produces about 10,000 a week – says “you have to learn the business from the ground up. The advice I give to (other budding ice pop makers) who call looking for advice is that people seem much quicker to invest in large-scale equipment than we were,” when they started. “It took us a long time to get there and it was a wise choice for us” to wait before buying heavy equipment.

Ms. Henry seems undaunted, but offers more optimism than solid answers about how she’ll manage the transition. Her business plan is changing monthly – she’s already dropped plans to sell cookie dough and granola bars off-season. Asked how she’ll manage her cash flow, she answers: “If something like that comes up you have to deal with that when it happens.” (She’s on track to just recoup her $15,000 to $20,000 in costs this summer).

She insists she can continue to both home-school her kids and to grow her business even though she sold her previous enterprise – a natural soap maker – because it got in the way of family life. “My No. 1 challenge is time, and it will always be my No. 1 challenge as long as I have kids,” she says. “Where I’m at is great. I can see the next step, and once I get there I’ll decide if this is where I want to be, and where I go from there.”

Fortunately Ms. Henry is keen, self-assured, organized and determined.

“I think she should be really proud of what she’s accomplished, creating demand and a delicious product,” says Ms. Jordi.

There’s no denying she has taken the first step up the ladder to success. But there are many rungs to go.

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