As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Anita Mahaffey.
Serial entrepreneur Anita Mahaffey is the CEO and founder of Cool-jams Inc. Her company specializes in the design and manufacturing of performance sleep products such as moisture wicking sleepwear, quick-dry travel sleepwear and temperature regulating bedding. Cool-jams distributes its products to over 150 countries via the website www.cool-jams.com, Amazon and a variety of wholesalers.
Cool-jams was recognized by Apparel Magazine as one of the top innovative apparel companies in the US and has been featured on Good Morning America, The Doctor’s Show and Dr. Oz.
Cool-jams has become a sleep industry leader with its focus on developing innovative sleep products that help to ensure a good night’s sleep.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I grew up in a small town in central California called Turlock. My dad was an entrepreneur even before the term was commonly used. I guess you could say that I was exposed to entrepreneurism at a very young age. He immigrated to the US from Switzerland in the early 1950s with hardly a penny to his name. He started a chicken ranch and then over the years turned this enterprise into a business that now sells eggs and egg products to most of N. California, Washington and Oregon.
As for me, I attended University of San Diego where I earned a business degree. I then worked in corporate marketing for several companies to include: Park City Ski Area, Round Table Restaurants, Bumble Bee Seafood and Home Fed Bank. I started my first business in 1988 and have been an entrepreneur ever since.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
Ever since I was child, I knew that I wanted to work for myself. After working in corporate marketing for 8 years, I decided that I had enough work experience, and desired to have more freedom and creative expression. After I had my second child in 1987, I felt that I needed to have a better work/life balance and by starting my own business, I could achieve that goal. I had an idea for a business, so I decided to take the plunge.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One of the funniest stories has to do with the name of my 2nd business. My idea was to start importing towels and robes from Turkey. I had been an exchange student there while in high school and discovered during my stay that they made beautiful textiles. Then 10 years after the exchange program, I connected with a friend who started Funika LTD, a textile manufacturing company and they asked me to represent them in the US. The name of my company was A & M Trading company. After about a year of doing business with them and landing a few big accounts, I asked them “why don’t I just operate as the US branch of your company Funika LTD?”. They started laughing hysterically and finally said “We were hoping you would ask us this or hoping you would at least someday change the name of your company! Do you know what the name AM Trading means?”. I found out that day that AM Trading Company in Turkish meant the trading of female body parts! We’ll leave it at that. Needless to say, the name was changed immediately to Funika USA😊. The lesson learned is that it is important to do the research on every part of your business especially when dealing with people overseas. Little things like company names are very important. Luckily my business partner had a great sense of humor!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I would have to say, my husband Mike was probably the biggest inspiration and help in my success. Raising our 3 children while each running our own businesses definitely involved a lot of team work, but he was my rock. I had to travel quite a bit when the kids were young and he held down the fort at home when I was gone. All my businesses were also self-funded, so his trust that I was making good financial decisions and his belief in my abilities was the support I needed to have the confidence to succeed. The side benefit of having a strong family unit with two parents running their own businesses is that our children all grew up to be incredible adults, and wouldn’t you know they are all entrepreneurial themselves.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
One of the hardest things for me was working day and night to try to get those first few clients. I think that this is a struggle for many entrepreneurs. No one wants to give you an order without a track record, but how do you get a track record without orders and/or customers. In our case, we were dealing with imports from Turkey and at that time there were a lot of import restrictions. Then the Iran hostage situation occurred and dept. store buyers were not going to the middle east to source product. So, two things happened for me. The first was I happened to send a sample of a robe to a buyer at Nordstrom who was looking for the exact same thing. Then Turkey suddenly was rewarded with lots of quota for towels and robes due to their assistance during the Iran hostage situation. Lo and behold, I got a huge 100,000-unit order from Nordstrom. I called that my fairy dust. I got my lucky break. After that, I could tell every prospective customer that I did business with Nordstrom which usually sealed the deal. If you’re good enough for Nordstrom, you’re good enough for us.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I come from a family of 7 children and my mom was a task master. We were always busy doing something so I was used to hard work. I got my first job a 16 as a lifeguard and since then I’ve always worked. I am a believer in balance though. I feel that it is important to nourish your mind, body and soul on a daily basis. Also… super important to balance work with family and friend time. For me the mind part is my work, body is some form of exercise everyday and the soul is a bit of yoga, meditation, charity work or family/friend time.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I’m actually 13 years into my 3rd business and it is going amazingly well. It seems with COVID-19 everyone is shopping online for things like sleepwear and bedding to make their lives more comfortable. Did I tell you that Cool-jams is now the official corporate attire for many of our customers working at home.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
The fabric we use is a specially designed poly microfiber that has been engineered to feel like soft cotton but to have all the attributes associated with the fastest-drying material in the world. The special fabric also offers anti-odor and anti-bacterial control with our proprietary antimicrobial agent.
I attribute our success to our extensive product development activities, which has resulted in some of the of the most effective fabric-based sleep solutions available worldwide — and our high-touch customer service, which produces happy customers who, via word-of-mouth, “share the magic of Cool-jams.”
We like to say that we do not just sell pajamas and bedding, but rather a way for people to be more comfortable at night while sleeping. When you sleep better, you perform and feel better!
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I touched on this already briefly. It is so important to find work/life balance. As an entrepreneur, it is tempting to work all the time, but knowing that, it is even more important to find balance of mind, body, soul, friends, family and laughter. This recipe of balance is different for every person. We all need to find out what brings us joy and create a balance doing those things.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
When Cool-jams began, one of the goals was to create a company that did well enough to be able to give back to a variety of charities in a meaningful way. Thanks to our many customers around the world, we have grown so much since our beginning, but the goal remains the same. Each year we donate a large percentage of our profits to charity. Since our beginning in 2008, we’ve supported a variety of charities that resonate with our social responsibility goals. The non-profit organizations that we support include domestic violence prevention & protection, advocating for children in foster care, cancer research and prevention, medical research and investment in education. It is my belief that we all have special talents and it is up to each and every one of us to use our talents and resources to make the world a better place. We like to say, we are helping make the world a better place one PJ at a time.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1. How important it is to analyze your competition and how to set yourself apart from the others.
I say this because in order for a product or business to be successful, you need to be able to give people a reason to choose your product or service. When we started Cool-jams, we were not the only company selling moisture wicking sleepwear, but guess what… none of those original companies are still around. By building a great product that people love and having an effective business model, we now have the longevity and success that none of our competitors have achieved.
2. How important work/life balance is so you don’t burn out.
This is especially hard for parents who have so many forces tugging at them from every direction. People tell me all the time that I should write a book on this subject. I guess you could say perfection is an illusion. I definitely was not a perfect parent, but I tried really hard to do a good job. So many young entrepreneurs need to figure this out. It isn’t easy, but balance can be found. Just make it a priority.
3. How important it is to be optimistic but also realistic.
The risks you take should always be calculated and backed by a numbers and research. Entrepreneurs have the reputation of being risk takers, but successful entrepreneurs take calculated, measured risks, not just huge leaps of faith. Every business I’ve started, began with a business plan and an extensive marketing plan. I’m a big believer in testing everything before you launch whether it is a new product, new color, new fabric, new marketing channel or new ad campaign. You’ll save a lot money and agony by testing.
4. Don’t be so in love with your idea that you can’t go in a different direction. Challenge & difficulty can be a big motivator and idea generator.
I haven’t talked about my first business much because it was basically a money loser. I like to joke that it was a social enterprise before the term was even coined! After about 2 years of trying to make it work, we could probably afford to pay ourselves about $.25 per hour. I created a line of mohair sweaters that were handknitted in Turkey by groups of village women. We helped improve their standard of living and felt good about that. The sweaters were beautiful and we ended up selling them in almost every ski resort town in the west. We even got some bigger orders from Neiman Marcus. The problem was that it was hard to scale a business making handknitted sweaters and manage the quality from the other side of the world. I loved that little business but I learned that I had to find a way to scale and needed a business that was easier from a QC standpoint. That’s when I pivoted and started working with Funika the robe and towel manufacturer which became hugely successful. When I retired from Funika, we were selling to every major dept and big box store in the US and Canada.
5. Be kind and always stay fair and ethical.
In our world today we see so many examples of bullying and people being unkind. Social media makes it really easy to post whatever you want without consequences. I think people forget sometimes that behind every email address or social media profile is a real human with real feelings. I make it my habit to put nice into everything I do. I have taught my employees to always take the high road in every situation. This philosophy has served me well in all aspects of my life.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
Yes…absolutely I have learned so much over the years. I have learned to listen more and talk less. We learn so much from our employees and customers simply by listening to what people are saying. I’m more relaxed and definitely more patient with people. I give my employees guidelines and then simply let them do their job. If they make mistakes, that’s OK, they will probably not do that again. That’s how people learn. I laugh at my mistakes and celebrate all the wins. We doubled our sales over last year and continue to stay on an upward growth trajectory. I believe the management style that I practice has contributed to our incredible success.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something; you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
I think it is good to seek advice and continually learn from others. We are good at some things but not everything! We never stop learning and, in my opinion, we learn much more from the tough experiences than we do from all the good things that happen in our lives. I believe success in life and business can be attributed to several factors: getting good advice, putting in the time to research, as well as learning from your experiences. Life isn’t perfect, so there will be challenges that occur regardless of any planning or advice that you get before you launch. I always say, what happens to you isn’t that important, but rather what do you do with it? What do you learn or gain from the difficult experience?
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would say it would be the “nice” movement. To simplify …” put nice into everything you do”. Imagine if the world practiced this philosophy, we would all have enough food, there would be no more child abuse, no more domestic violence…. need I go on? It starts with you. I know it might sound a bit naïve, but imagine if everyone on the planet decided to change their way of thinking and behaving, and tried a bit more kindness in every interaction? I guarantee the world would be a different place.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I will write that book someday in the near future — stay tuned! For now, you can find me at Cool-jams.com or any of our social media channels.