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Today’s Home Work: Cindy Elder

Home Work: Lessons from Work at Home Parents. Like many of us, these parents juggle kids, work, and childcare (or lack of it), but their unique situation requires that they squeeze in worktime at home, whether working for someone else or running their own business. Hearing how these parents manage to make it work along with the challenges they face may help the rest of us with our own home work.

Today Cindy Elder, founder of Bristol Harbor Homemade, shares with Katy Killilea of Kidoinfo how she deliciously does her Home Work.

CIndy and her girls on Kid o infoCindy was born in New York and moved to Barrington, RI, when she was six. She graduated from Barrington High School and received a BA with a double major in creative writing and career writing from Roger Williams University. She and her husband, Bob Elder, live in Barrington with their two daughters — Elizabeth, age nine, and Emily, age ten. Cindy’s business, Bristol Harbor Homemade, is an artisan food company (formed in May 2004) that produces all-natural gourmet baking mixes such as cookies, breads, scones and biscotti. (Read Katy’s review on Kidoinfo.)

Kidoinfo: What inspired you to start your business?

Cindy: I’ve always enjoyed producing homemade treats for the holidays. When we were living in Harvard, Massachusetts—a very rural town—I noticed that many of the local farm stores carried baking mixes packaged in mason jars. I decided to package my own favorite recipes for gift giving, and it became an annual tradition. These pre-made mixes were a time-saver for me at home, so I often made extras to have on hand for quick baking with that “made from scratch” quality. They really came in handy when we were sailing with the kids in the summertime, because storage and work space are scarce commodities on a boat. It made sense to pre-mix as many things as I could so that we could eat well on board without a lot of fuss.

How did you start your business?

Cindy: When we first moved to Rhode Island, we enrolled our kids at the Gordon School. At one of my first PTO meetings there, they mentioned they were looking for fundraising ideas. I offered to make up some of my cookie mixes, and we sold out of the 120 jars in a few hours. After the fundraiser, people kept asking me for more. “I don’t care what you put it in — just get me more of that mix,” they’d say. Several of my fellow moms, along with the school’s kitchen manager, encouraged me to turn it into a business. The next step was to become a certified food safety manager, incorporate the business, and refine the recipes. Then we had to settle on a logo, an image, and packaging concepts. I worked closely with a few local retailers who gave me great feedback on my designs, and these people became my first retail customers. In the beginning, most of my sales came through fairs, events, and fundraisers where I was able to showcase my products.

How do you balance work and family?

Cindy: That’s a constantly evolving challenge. There were times when it was very difficult, because I was often working on the weekend when I would have rather been spending time with my family. Sometimes the kids joined me for fairs and events, or my husband shared the responsibility with me. However, the most important thing I’ve done is to set boundaries around my time in the last year. My customers know that I no longer do weekend or evening events, unless it’s very, very special. I limit my off-site time to school hours, so that I can be there when the kids come home. I also wake up at around 5 a.m. to get work done before everyone wakes up.

Please describe a typical day.

Cindy: That’s changed a lot in the last year with the growth our company has experienced. In the beginning, I rented kitchens and made mixes (by hand — with a measuring cup) while the kids were in school. I did my paperwork at five in the morning and did events in the evening and on weekends. Later, we opened our own facility, and I had to be there by around 4:30 a.m. and work until the kids got out of school. However, we now have our mixes produced for us, and my work is limited to paperwork, marketing, deliveries, demos, and special events. So I don’t spend as much time slinging flour and I have more flexibility in my schedule.

Do you have any time-saving tricks that you could share?

1. Finish what you start, as soon as possible. The longer you wait to finish something, the larger the task appears.
2. Multi-tasking is great for motherhood, and it is also an important business skill. But it can also distract you from completion. Try to focus on one task at a time — the most important one — and finish it. Then work your way down the priority list so that you can do a good job on each task.
3. Teach your children to do laundry, vacuum, dust, set the table, and make their beds.
4. Have a leftover night once a week.

If you could give your past self (pre-kids or pre-business) any advice, what would it be?

Cindy: I’ve always believed everyone’s greatest asset is also their greatest weakness. My greatest asset is creativity. However, I’ve generally underestimated the effort that is required to turn my ideas into reality. Fortunately, I’m a very hard worker and I’ve followed up creativity with the sweat necessary to make things happen. Nowadays, when I get an idea, I try to think carefully — and realistically — in terms of what will be needed to make it happen. Will it affect my family life? Will it be worth it financially, emotionally, spiritually?

Where do you find inspiration?

Cindy: Just about everywhere I look. I’m inspired by fellow moms who balance any number of challenges on a daily basis. I’m inspired by my husband who has been able to shift and change, as my business grew, despite the fact that he has a very difficult and consuming job. I admire his ability to remain balanced and cheerful. I’m inspired by my mom who raised seven children while building a tremendous career as curator and associate director of the Haffenreffer Museum of Anthropology.

What is the one kid or parent product that you could not live without?

Cindy: Coffee. Hands down. That’s for me, of course, not the kids. But nobody wants to see me in the morning without my coffee.

What is your favorite children’s book or music CD?

Cindy: We always loved Raffi. Now we’re really into long books on CD — our favorites are the Narnia Chronicles and the Lord of the Rings series, both of which have been recorded by amazing British actors.

What do you do with your kids on a rainy day?

Cindy: Make cookies, what else? They love to make anything in the kitchen. They also just entertain themselves, making up games and doing crazy things. But the best thing of all is to put on swim suits and run around in the rain.

What is the last great non-kid book or film that you loved? What made it so great?

Cindy: I have to confess I really enjoyed Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series about a British woman who travels 200 years back in time to Scotland. These are easy reads, but I just love historical fiction that takes me for a good ride.Packing orders from home

Do you have a guilty pleasure?

Cindy: Chocolate. Extremely good chocolate.

If you had an extra hour each day, what would you do with it?

Cindy: Read or go for a walk.

Can you share a story or anecdote that is symbolic of your dual life as a business owner and a mother?

Cindy: When our company was two years old, we received our first big order from Miles Market in Bermuda. It was a complete surprise. Unbeknownst to me, a customer of mine had carried one of my mixes down to Bermuda and presented it to the manager of Miles Market. Through my fax came an order for 500 mixes! For the next two weeks, I woke up before dawn and worked well into the night to get the mixes made and packaged. The kids watched in disbelief as our living room was piled higher and higher with boxes. When all was ready, my family loaded them in the van, with my then six- and seven-year-old girls in the center of the assembly line. We took a great picture of the kids among the boxes, and then my husband drove the delivery to New Jersey, where they were loaded onto a container ship bound for Bermuda.

How has the experience and on the job training of being a mother prepared or changed you in business?

Cindy: Motherhood teaches you that being tired is not an excuse. When you have a responsibility, you deal with it, somehow. I also think I came to expect the very best from myself, because it didn’t seem worth the effort and the time away from my kids to do something average. Bristol Harbor Bakery

What is next for you and your business?

Cindy: I am in a phase now of stepping away from the day-to-day operations and focusing on the bigger picture. Also, I am taking this precious time to be more focused on family. My kids are nine and ten now, and they refuse to stop growing, so I’m going to be as involved as I can over the next few years and allow the business to grow at a reasonable pace, rather than try to make it grow rapidly. We are happy to provide a quality product on a small scale, and keep our life in balance.

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