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To say that Nicole Donnelly has had an unconventional life is an understatement. The Seattle mom and Weber State alumna has owned several companies, is a former pro-snowboarder, and is a published author.
Donnelly spoke to the Women Tech Council Wednesday during the organization’s monthly Tech Talk luncheon. Donnelly was born in California, but moved to Utah for her father’s job when she was about 10. Living in North Ogden, she quickly learned in fifth grade she was an entrepreneur when she started selling colorful phone wires to fellow students for bracelet making. A few years later, she and her sister made hundreds of dollars weekly baking and selling cookies at local community events.
Donnelly attended college at Weber State University, where she took classes in several different topics like journalism, graphic design, animation, German and photography, but she is still short a few credits of getting a degree.
“I got kind of burnt out on school so I ditched everything and lived in my two-door Honda Civic in Park City,” she said. “I was 20 years old, living in my car and I was just snowboarding. I was on the Park City Snowboard Team and I started racing boardercross up there.”
Donnelly also competed in big air, half pipe and slope-style competitions, and eventually made her way to the X-Games.
She met her husband, who lived in Seattle, in the off-season, so she left snowboarding and moved to Seattle to be with him. Shortly after, she found out she was pregnant. After giving birth to her daughter, Sara, her entrepreneurial spirit returned.
She cut off the feet of an old pair of her snowboarding socks one day in 2005 to keep her daughter’s legs warm during what she called “nakedy butt time,” her solution to frequent diaper rashes. She started selling those homemade Baby Legs online, but because of the monumental success, couldn’t keep up with the orders. She quickly landed a Japanese distributor, moved her business from her home to a warehouse, and continued to increase sales. By 2007, she had sold $3.8 million worth of Baby Legs in 50 countries.
At the end of 2008, when the market crashed, Baby Legs had a $1.4 million credit line with its bank. The bank went under investigation and because of that, the $1.4 million credit line was turned into a loan and demanded to be repaid. Because Donnelly couldn’t afford to pay back that loan, she decided to sell Baby Legs to a New York sock company that had mass distribution. The deal was completed by April 2009. Donnelly retained 30 percent ownership in the company, but was eventually forced out by the new owners.
“It’s a really common story,” she said. “The lesson I learned is that I could have turned it around if I had the money, but at the time I was so beat down. I didn’t have the confidence in myself. I realized we had great systems and in selling the company I learned that the New York company didn’t have half of what we had. It was a good experience and an expensive lesson. If I [hadn’t had] Baby Legs I wouldn’t have had some of these bigger opportunities.”
The new owners took the picture of Donnelly and her daughter out of the ad campaign, and sales dropped in half.
“That was more than $1 million in the first year,” Donnelly said. “We were so public with our story. The product was for me and for my daughter, and people could really relate to that.”
Since Baby Legs, Donnelly has started another company, Salty Waffle, a social media consulting company.
“Through Baby Legs, I learned to connect with customers online,” she said. “Even for service companies, Pinterest is the highest converting social network right now. If you pin on Pinterest, it’s like sending love notes to your customers. I get excited about that kind of stuff. That’s why I started a business (Salty Waffle) teaching other companies this. If you can care for your customers and they feel cared about on any social network they go to, then you’ll have them for life.”
Donnelly also owns another company, Condomania, which manufactures condoms out of Blaine, Wash.
Her latest endeavor, Grow 100, is an effort to create 100 jobs in 100 days in the Philippines. Her entire team at Salty Waffle is remote, and she has seen success in hiring in the Philippines. She wants this to be offered to other companies who need to hire someone but may not be able to afford a new employee at local wages.
“Our tagline is ‘Grow your business, not your payroll,’” she said.
Her next project will be to create 100 jobs in 100 days for 100 moms.