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How a Young Mother Built a Company From Her Guest Bedroom

Insights & Ideas Team •  June 1, 2016 | Focus on Women, Self Made Women

There were two major turning points in Emily Ley’s career. The first came in 2008 when she decided to launch a graphic design business out of her home after feeling unfulfilled in more traditional office jobs.

“I craved creativity and really wanted to use my gifts. I decided that I would create my own dream job.” 

She began by selling wedding invitations and monogram design on Etsy. A few years later, with her first child now in the family, she had a second epiphany while looking for a daily planner to keep her busy schedule organized.

“Every planner I found was completely overwhelming. Everything had so many boxes to check and things to fill out. I needed something that gave me a fresh start every day.

“I was trying to be the perfect mom and wife with six-inch heels, perfect hair and dinner on the table at six. I wanted to do it all. But the chase of perfection left me feeling empty and frazzled. I started to recognize that there were so many women in the same place. I wanted to create really purposeful products to help empower women.”

She mocked up a design of her own, and the Simplified Planner was born. The aim is to allow women room to think, write and create, as well as keep track of appointments, write down dinner ideas and be inspired by quotes. Her planners are now sold in more than 600 stores around the country.

Ley’s company was not without its early stumbles, though. “I messed up a lot, fell on my face and learned how to get back up gracefully.”

An example was the time she made a production mistake with one of her first orders. When the product arrived, it was all wrong, costing her $6,000.

“It was really hard. I thought, ‘Maybe I’m not cut out for this. I have so much to learn; maybe it’s too big a hill to climb,’ but I really just decided that I was going to give it another try.”

She also had trouble finding a way to print her first copies. “I asked every printer I could find if they would print 500, and they asked me if I was missing two zeros.”

Eventually, a printer took a chance on her. At first, she was a company of one, leaning on friends for help in exchange for lunch and having her toddler son put shipping stickers on boxes in her dining room. But it wasn’t long before she was able to expand to six employees, all women.

“I had to learn how to put together a really strong team. That’s been a challenge for me because I worked solo for so long, but it was one of the best things I have ever done. We have to have a tribe, and I have a great one.”

A solid financial plan from her Northwestern Mutual advisor was also key.

“We have been debt free for eight years. Our advisor has been wonderful about helping us make smart financial decisions so we have something to fall back on if we have a tough year. We have payroll to meet and other obligations.”

Creating a Solid Financial Plan: Your Guide to Money ManagementFollowing Her Heart

Ley started following her heart in college, switching majors from education to English writing at the University of West Florida.

“I had an identity crisis trying to choose a major in college. It was the first time in my life that I said, ‘You know what, I’m just going to do what I love and see what happens.’”

She went on to earn a master’s degree in public administration. After college, Ley sold advertising for a magazine and then worked as executive director of an arts program. It was there that she began to blossom.

“I found my confidence, and I learned how to run a meeting; I learned how to be one of the only women in a Rotary Club.”

She held a few positions in corporate and nonprofit businesses but had known since kindergarten that she wanted to be an artist of some sort. Ley and her husband had recently moved to a new town, and she bottomed out in terms of job satisfaction. Attending a conference on creative entrepreneurship in 2008 helped spur her to make that first jump to graphic designer.

“There were women and men in that room who thought differently. They thought, ‘I don’t have to follow the track that the world says is right or the one my university set forth for me. I don’t have to work a ridiculous number of hours a week or sit behind a desk if it’s not where I’m feeling most fulfilled.’ Life is so short, you know?”

A New Chapter

Ley calls one of her greatest professional achievements her first book, Grace Not Perfection: Embracing Simplicity, Celebrating Joy, which comes out this fall.

“Writing this book was a big triumph for me. I’m a writer at heart, but I didn’t know if I would have time to do it. Every night for eight weeks I went up to Starbucks and sat from my children’s bedtime until closing and made it happen. I poured my heart out at that little corner table, and I feel really proud of that.”

She’s hoping her story might inspire other women to pursue their true callings while focusing their hearts on what matters most.

“Women have so much to give to the world, and women bring something incredibly unique to the table. I would say there’s no time like the present to start. There’s nothing wrong with starting in your guest bedroom like I did. There’s nothing wrong with starting with $50 in the business bank account to get going. Go easy on yourself. You’ll mess up, and it’s okay; it’s all part of your story.”

Balancing It All

Ley now has three children and continues to work from home. Things can get hectic, but that’s exactly why she created the Simplified Planner.

“Women want to be given permission that it’s okay to slow down and focus on what matters most. I heard this analogy once that balance is like riding a bike. You’re never really balanced, you’re always just trying to shift your weight from side to side to keep from face-planting; and that’s me.” 

She finds ways to combine career and family by taking her kindergartner on some work trips. This spring they traveled to see a paper manufacturing plant in New York. While she got to meet one of her suppliers, he learned the stages of producing paper.

“I wanted to be able to give my kids a unique childhood. I wanted to show them that you can have a dream and you can chase it; and that when you put your heart and soul into something, you never know what’s going to come out of it. My 5-year-old sees mom making a difference. That’s priceless. I just feel so grateful to do the things I love.”

Photo credit: Tim Klein/Northwestern Mutual

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