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Nights are notoriously hard for all parents of newborns or very young children, but they had become particularly difficult for Rose Morris, her husband, and their son Abram.
More nights than not, Morris would check in to find that Abram, who had been diagnosed with autism at a young age, had restlessly fallen out of his crib or was trapped amid the blankets following a temper meltdown.
“For a short while, my husband and I had a homemade, immediate fix to help Abram get through the night,” Morris said in an interview with Free Enterprise. “But we needed a long-term solution.”
When she couldn’t find one, Morris designed the perfect solution to her own problem, and in doing so, she embarked on an entrepreneurial journey that would eventually garner national recognition and take her and her innovative products around the world.
Started in 2007 and based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Morris’s company, Abram’s Bed LLC, makes the Safety Sleeper™, an enclosed and portable bed system for special needs. In the decade since, Abram’s Bed has eclipsed $1 million in sales, and the firm now exports to a more than a dozen nations around the world. Last month, the company was named the 2017 National Exporter of the Year by the U.S. Small Business Administration.
None of that, though, was initially the aim.
“When my husband and I created Abram’s Bed, we were not thinking that we were starting an award-winning business,” Morris said. “Instead, we were asking, “What would we do without this? How would our family be able to function without this bed?”
In our interview, we had a chance to speak with Morris about her startup story, the hurdles her company has faced, and how she went from a basement business to the country’s top small business exporter. Here’s what she had to say.
Once you had the idea, when and how did you begin to build the business?
The bed was conceptualized in 2007 and Abram’s Bed LLC officially started in 2010. I basically made this business during nap time in my kitchen. I hired my first employee in 2012, and that is when we really started growing.
How did you scale up to where you are today?
My husband and I would say to ourselves, “We cannot be the only ones out there who have this problem. There have to be other families out there.”
The success of our Safety Sleeper™ spread around our family friends quite quickly. We attended a neighborhood Halloween party and started to ask around to our small business savvy neighbors how they started their businesses. We were told we needed to make a website and attend conferences to meet and network with more people that have the same needs as Abram.
I started to attend conferences, and I would share with other families my success with the Safety Sleeper™, and people would want to speak to me about it for hours. Once we heard the need from other families, my husband and I decided that we had to expand our business. We told ourselves, “As long as we aren’t losing money, we have to do this.”
Going through my unique peer-to-peer business research process taught me that people want to help you; you just have to be willing to ask. I think that asking for help is a sign of strength. I knew I had a product that helped my family, and I hoped it could help others, too.
What were some of your early challenges?
At first, we struggled to keep sales and manufacturing even. When we first started, our friend was manufacturing the beds, but as orders kept flooding in, we knew we needed to scale up. Suddenly, we had 30 sales of people wanting beds with no manufacturer.
In order to address this problem, searched online for businesses that had the materials that I thought I needed. After I bought the parts, my husband and I started to assemble the beds in our basement with awning and fabric supplies. Neither one of us was a mechanical expert or engineer, but we had a vision. Even when we had 30 orders on backorder, our customers did not mind the wait, even for months.
As you have been growing, tell me about your hiring process and what you look for when you are bringing on a new employee.
I do not hire lightly. When I hire someone, I am hiring them into my family. To be honest, it is not easy to find people with the right fight for our company. We need employees who are dedicated to the cause but also skilled in the practice of alternations, sewing, and the like. Many of these skills are not heavily trained now.
My employees and I depend on each other, and we rely on each other’s families to grow.
We also rely on the word of mouth to market our product, so I must trust the person. We currently have 11 employees, including myself. We are a small business, and we are too passionate to not care about the person we are working with. I follow my gut and my intuition when I am deciding to hire someone, and I stick to what I know. I look for employees who have integrity and compassion, and I look beyond just the skillset; it’s about attitude.
Why did you look abroad and start exporting internationally?
My first export was accidental. By word of mouth, some families in Ireland and England wanted our Safety Sleeper™, so we didn’t let the distance stop us. I just leaned on my motto to “never say no,” and we got to work to make our first export. Our customers are family, too.
I knew I had to expand if I wanted to be able to manufacture more beds for people around the world, so I started to hire employees into my team and we moved from my basement into a facility where we could produce more beds.
How did you figure out how to navigate the complexities of selling and shipping to different countries? Did you run into any challenges?
Learning how to export was quite the process. I knew where I wanted to go, but I was just unsure how to get there. The Safety Sleeper™ got stuck in customs, so I had to ask someone who went through the same customs issues, and we began to work on streamlining the process to get our beds overseas. The families that placed the orders in England and Ireland actually helped us, and we learned how we could better the process for ourselves and others.
We got involved with the SBA because a family friend encouraged me to find mentors that could help guide me through the exporting process. I started taking small business development courses and began capitalizing on some SBA’s resources that taught me how I could use grant money to export overseas. I then attended a conference in England where I was able to foster distributor relationships.
SBA was my guide into the larger exporting market, and I was able to stop relying on exporting on a one-off basis.
How’s your business – both domestically and internationally – doing today?
Our sales recently hit the $1 million mark, and now we export to more than 12 countries including the UK, Canada, Australia, Denmark, Netherlands, Mexico, France, Ireland, Norway, Germany, Spain, Guatemala, and New Zealand.
What did you think when you found out you had won the SBA’s National Exporter of the Year Award?
When I opened the envelope, I thought they had made a mistake. I didn’t believe it. It was actually the SBA’s Office of Women’s Business Ownership that encouraged me to apply for the award when our exports starting growing.
What are some of the other rewarding moments you have experienced as a small business owner?
Through social media, I am able to hear back from my customers. Every comment left on my Facebook page or any email I receive encourages me. It is important to realize that there are families that go through pain that is worse than most can understand, and that leaves me compelled to help them through my business. I am in awe of this company. I am in awe of what it has done and what it can do.
Do you have any advice for new business owners or prospective entrepreneurs? And do you have any helpful hints for those that are thinking about exporting for the first time?
I have six points of advice for anyone thinking about starting their own business, and they all hold true for someone thinking about exporting internationally, too.
One, remember that everything is relative: You must see ideas from someone else’s point of view before you can share your own.
Two, driven people are driven in all areas: Try to find the employee that sharpens others. I fully believe in the idea that iron sharpens iron.
Three, you must experience the bad to appreciate the good. Failure is just a step on the ladder. Simply use failure as an opportunity to learn. We must take the bad with the good.
Four, believe that perception is reality: You cannot always be trendy. You must also be professional. If you are want to get to point B, you must act like you are already at point B.
Five, it is easier to get into something than it is to get out of something: It is easy to hire someone, but it is harder to fire them or remove them from a contract. Consider hiring like a marriage, and trust your gut.
And six, focus on your strengths and hire for your weaknesses. The impact that my company has had on other families is amazing. To say that I am blessed just falls flat. I get more gratitude back from families then I ever could imagine. I look at my product, and I think, “Having this bed is life or death for some families. It is their life preserver.”
Click here to learn more about the SBA’s export assistance resources for small businesses.
For more small business exporting tips, check out our “Trade Tips Tuesday” series.