Cover Mom Fall 2013: Julie Aigner Clark
Creator of the Baby EinsteinTM phenomenon, Julie Aigner Clark candidly shares her journey to amazing success from her basement and how she courageously battled cancer twice.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a mom of two teenage girls, 18 and 16 years old. I think I’m so lucky, because they are such incredibly bright and great kids. My oldest starts college in the Fall and my younger daughter will be a Junior in high school. I’ve been married for a little over 20 years and currently live in Colorado.
I grew up in the Detroit area of Michigan. I went to Michigan State University and I studied English and Education. I knew from a pretty young age that I wanted to become a teacher in high school. I really loved literature and art.
In 1988, when I graduated from college, I went into teaching. After I got married and became pregnant with my first daughter, I left teaching and decided to stay home with her. I always knew that once I had kids, I wanted to be a stay-at-home mom.
About 6 months into her little life, I started thinking about the idea for Baby EinsteinTM, because I missed literature, art and what I had been doing in the classroom. However, I also knew that I didn’t want to go back to teaching, because I still wanted to stay home with my daughter.
During this time, it occurred to me that there was nothing available for babies. I wondered why kids were only given things like BarneyTM or “I’m a little tea cup”. Why do I constantly have to sing little kiddie songs to my baby instead of playing some of the timeless, classical music I enjoyed and appreciated? That was how the idea of Baby EinsteinTM began.
What was your journey to get Baby EinsteinTM as a household name?
I had the idea for one, but I didn’t really know how to start a company. I would have to say that it is real critical to always give credit to my husband. By nature, he really is an entrepreneurial guy. When I shared with him my idea, how it was unique and how I really wanted it, he was instrumental in being an amazing support, which is what we all need when we’re starting something. We need somebody who really believes in us and encourages us.
My first concept was to just make a video board book, which typically has images and not words. I would then add cool photographs on the screen with moving images that my daughter liked to look at. Then, I wanted to add an audio component of music that I loved and wanted my daughter to love as well. Since music is international, the video would reach families across the globe, which was a cool thing.
Next, I started purchasing things that my daughter liked looking at and toys she like playing with. At this time, she was about 1 years old and we would go to the mall and find things that would keep her attention. One thing she loved staring at was a lava lamp, which was incorporated into the video.
I would take photographs of outside nature, like flowers, and the things she ate, like a banana or peas and our pet cat.
I did all that with borrowed video equipment from a friend’s husband who was a videographer. He showed me how to set up light and I filmed everything on a table top from our basement.
After I had all the photos and video footage I wanted, I figured out how to edit everything from my home computer using a very old version of Adobe Premiere®.
I did all this while I was home with my baby and my husband was working elsewhere. I would do some work while she was taking naps and at night. In the end, this whole process took about a year to really get it all done. I knew what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t 100 percent sure that this was going to be anything more than a cool thing I was just making for my daughter.
So, when all the editing was done and I had a video, I really needed some audio to go with it. This was when the first really big investment came into play. I had to hire a musician to reproduce all of the music that I loved, but I wanted to do it in a different way. I didn’t want to just put a recording of the London Symphony Orchestra playing a Mozart Sonata. I wanted it to be baby friendly.
So, I called a friend of mine, who has since done all the music for Baby EinsteinTM. He is a great musician and produced the sound track, which cost us some money.
People often ask me what really made me go after my idea and make it into a reality. I always say, once you make a financial investment in it, then you kind of panic to make sure you at least make the money back. I drew the logo for Baby EinsteinTM myself and then we had to package it and create the content for the back cover. It was all a learning process.
After I got the first video done, I didn’t know how I was going to get it out into the marketplace, but I knew that I now had something that I invested in. And again I just wanted to make that money back.
In the end, that first video cost me about $15,000. Remember, I was a teacher making about $20,000 a year. So, that was a lot of money for us.
I knew I was my own customer and I thought of the places where I liked to shop. At the time, I mostly shopped at The Right Start©, which was mostly a catalog company. They didn’t have a retail store where I lived.
I was trying to figure out how to get into The Right Start. I sent them a copy of the video, but never heard back from anybody. I didn’t know how to market anything, but somebody suggested that I go to a tradeshow, because I was more likely to meet people who may want to see my video and I could easily hand it to them.
So, I decided to go to Toy Fair in New York. I just went as an attendee and walked the floor of the show literally looking for somebody with a Right Start nametag. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do, but it worked out in my favor. It was like one of those lucky, synchronicity moments.
I saw a group of ladies from The Right Start and was able to get a copy of my video in the hands of one of them. They had 10 retail locations across the country and they decided to try it in their stores. They bought 100 videos from me and I was so beyond excited!
I had two things in my favor in terms of just being on the shelf at their stores. One was that I had a great name. I always tell people that it is key to have a name that people will instantly be engaged with or attracted by.
The other thing that worked for us was that it was totally unique. There were no baby videos in the market at the time. In addition, the content was special, because it was classical music and beautiful real world images.
So, those two factors encouraged people to first of all pick it up from the store shelf. It wasn’t too expensive, so people bought it. And most importantly, when they played it on the television, their babies loved it. That was the most key thing, because babies never lie. Also, word of mouth really spread quickly. I had wonderful support from moms who trusted me, because I was just like them. I was just a mom who wanted this video for my own child and not this big corporation trying to make a buck.
How did you connect with The Disney Corporation?
I had a one-year exclusive with The Right Start. After our first year of success, I made another video called, Baby MozartTM and I had two little girls at home, because my second daughter was born. We just continued making more and more titles.
For the second year, we branched out to other stores, but remained in the specialty retail markets. The whole market has changed since then. In the late ‘90’s, there were these really beautiful specialty stores that you wanted to just hang out in with your baby, like Zany Brainy© and Imaginarium©.
We continued to see more and more success. Now, it was not just moms talking about it anymore. People magazine called and did a story about it. We started to get publicity and really nice reviews, which was pretty organic, because I didn’t have a PR person. I was still doing all of this from my basement.
In our third year, I got a call from Disney Publishing and they asked if we were interested in moving into books. I became so excited, because I had been an English teacher and for any writer, you always want to be published. So, they basically licensed the Baby Einstein name and I wrote the books.
In our fourth year, we moved into providing math content and were no longer just available in specialty stores. We were available in big stores like Costco, Target and WalMart. An interesting side note during the fourth and fifth year was we only had 5 full-time employees. We were such a tiny company and yet our sales were phenomenal. In 1997 when we first started, we had about $100,000 in sales and by the 5th year, we did over $20 million in sales.
During the 5th year, we sold the company to Disney. When we first started the company, we had no competition, because we were totally unique. As we became successful, more people started jumping on board making baby videos. Even though they were not as successful as we were, our feeling was if we continued to run Baby Einstein the way we had been, we would definitely see ourselves run over by one of the big companies. We felt like with our success, one of the big production companies, like Sony, Nickelodeon, Disney or Warner was going to take over this field. And we would no longer be able to sustain our company with just 5 employees.
So, my husband and I asked ourselves if we wanted to be playing in a game where we had to grow, start being cut-throat and do all of the things that large corporations typically do. Or did we want to excel and be so happy and amazed that we had even done all this and continue to be so proud at what we had created. Not only because it was a financial success, but also because we were exposing these little kids to this beautiful content. We really believed that these videos made a difference in the lives of a lot of families.
Ultimately, we decided to sell. Since we had that relationship with Disney already, it was very natural to approach them first. We called Disney and proposed an offer to sell the business to them and they ultimately accepted.
Throughout the success of Baby Einstein, what major challenge did you experience?
I’m not a business person. I’m more of a creative person. I don’t see myself as a person who likes to play the game of business. I feel like I operate from my heart and my gut. And I don’t like the stress that is caused in me by people who don’t always have the best motive.
I felt it was very stressful for me to deal with companies that were coming on board and stealing some of our ideas. For example, we had to file a lawsuit against another person who had come into this game and had literally duplicated ninety or so scenes from our videos. That was just so awful for me.
I don’t like that feeling. I try to live my life from my heart and that was extremely hard for me. And I’ll tell you; I think that really contributed to the disease that I later developed. I think stress was a huge contributor to that.
In addition, another reason I wanted to sell is that it had been very important for me to stay home with my daughters. The busier we got and the more successful we became with Baby EinsteinTM, the less time I was able to spend with them. I felt too scattered and that was not for me.
What top advice would you share with a mom who has created a product and wants to get out to the marketplace?
First of all, presentation is key. If you really are behind what you’ve done, you need to package it in a way that looks super professional. For example, I put the first Baby EinsteinTM video in a lovely sleeve with a great design on the package. Don’t send or hand something out that doesn’t look really good.
Secondly, find a tradeshow that would be a place where a buyer would be interested in your product. Go online and look up tradeshows for what your product is all about and you’d be amazed on how many you find. You may even locate one in the state you’re in.
Finally, surround yourself with people who believe in your idea. People who are the pessimists and naysayers have no place in an entrepreneurial world. We are all keeping our fingers crossed and just saying our prayers that our idea is going to be the one. Unfortunately, a lot of wonderful ideas don’t make it and it’s not because they’re not incredible and amazing ideas that could be world changing.
For example, my older daughter has written her first novel and she is trying to find her first agent who will take it on. It’s a beautifully written piece of literature, but she’s really sad because
she sent out ten query letters and she hasn’t heard back from anybody yet.
I told her that it didn’t mean it’s not great. Look at JK Rowling, who went through a lot of rejections herself!
So, when you’re an entrepreneur, you need to recognize that it’s not easy and you have to pat yourself on the back all the time that you’re even doing it at all.
When did you find out you had cancer?
We sold Baby Einstein in 2001. And then for a year and a half, we just sort of did a jig. We were so happy and couldn’t believe what all had just happened to us.
Then I started thinking what my girls were now going through as they were in elementary school. Now, they were a little bit older and starting to go to friends’ houses, camp and playing outside more. I realized that the most important thing to me was that they were safe.
So, I started another company called, The Safe Side, which is a non- profit organization. I partnered with John Walsh from America’s Most Wanted and we produced two videos and a music CD. All of our proceeds went to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. It was a way to teach kids how to stay safe with family members, strangers or if they were in a situation that was uncomfortable for them online.
In 2004, I was in the midst of wrapping up that first video when I discovered a lump in my left breast. It was a miracle that I found it at all, because it was so small (under a centimeter).
I actually found it by accident. I had been exercising a lot and my arms were sore. When I was rubbing that muscle under my arm, I felt a teeny, tiny, little lump. I didn’t think it was really anything, but it nagged at me for a couple of days. I finally went to my doctor who didn’t think it was anything either, but she wanted to get it check out anyway.
After my mammogram, they found it to be Breast Cancer. Within 1-2 weeks, I had a double mastectomy, because I was so freaked out and I did not want this to ever happen to me again. I told them to take all of the breast tissue out. I didn’t do chemotherapy or radiation, but I went through this extreme, horrible surgery. However, I came out of it feeling confident. After my next PET Scan, everything came out clear and the doctors told me that the chance of it coming back was just 3%.
After my recovery, I went back and continued making The Safe Side videos. In 2008, my husband and I decided to take our kids out of school and travel around the world for a year. We home schooled the kids and spent the year together as a family traveling to Iceland, Scotland and England. After 5 weeks, we went home to repack for our trip to Asia.
On our flight home, I had a very strange sensation that I cannot explain, other than to tell you that I believe in a higher power. This sensation was in the same area that my tumor had been, but I couldn’t feel anything there. I just went to the doctor the next day and an ultrasound determined that it was cancer again. Even though I had a double mastectomy, they can never get it all out. They tried, because it looks like there’s nothing there, but there are always a couple of bits of tissues left. So, it turned out that I was one of the 3% where the cancer returned.
The most terrible news of all was that it was diagnosed as Stage 4 cancer. The primary tumor was in the same place, but it had moved into my lymph nodes and my liver. I ended up having 12 lymph nodes and my ovaries removed.. I went through 6 rounds of chemo and was put on another treatment called, Perceptin, which I still receive every 3 weeks. It’s a targeted therapy for a particular type of cancer called HER2+ Breast Cancer.
When I was diagnosed this second time, I decided to get another opinion. I went to the top hospitals in the nation that treat Cancer. The doctor told me that I had so many tumors in my liver; they will never all go away. He then told me that I really need to go home and get my affairs in order.
When I returned home, I decided that I wasn’t going to get my affairs in order. I was 42 years old and I was not ready to do that. I might end up there, but I was not going to start there. So, I just went to my oncologist in Colorado and told them I was going to fight it. Even though it was Stage 4, I wanted to see what we could do.
Finally in February 2009, after all the treatments and surgeries, I had a PET Scan that showed I had no evidence of cancer in my entire body, including my liver. My last PET Scan was literally 4 days ago and it still showed no evidence of cancer.
In October, it will be 5 years of being cancer free.
I am on cloud 9 every second of everyday, living in a state of gratitude. I have no idea why I got so lucky. I know it wasn’t because I prayed more, even though I prayed a lot and many people prayed for me.
If I could say anything good about all of this, it taught me a lot. I wrote a book that was published in 2010 called, You Are the Best Medicine. It’s a beautiful book that teaches children the importance of giving their mommy a lot of love when she’s going through treatment and what to expect. I wanted a way to explain to kids all the things to expect when someone goes through cancer treatment and to let them
know that we fight for them. Nothing made me fight harder to overcome this disease than my children.
In addition, 100% of the proceeds of this book go to Breast Cancer Research. It’s been a really great giveback in a way, because I’ve been able to do something good with it.
I truly believe that being under so much stress like I was caused the disease. Now, I meditate everyday and really try to take time to be outside in nature, even if it’s for 10 minutes. I take time to sit with my cat on my lap and be okay when I’m not checking my emails or Facebook every few minutes, not answering the phone at that moment or not be connected through technology for a short time each day.
What is your new venture, Baby Bytes all about?
When Disney acquired Baby Einstein, it was great for a couple of years. However, for whatever reason, the business of Baby Einstein started to fall off the radar screen as they focused on other things. So, we watched from the sidelines with great sadness that it didn’t have the kind of exposure that it had and we weren’t seeing as many children who were being positively affected by it.
Today is such a different world. People are so connected online with various devices and the Baby Einstein content was not being produced to work on those kinds of devices, such as iPads or other tablets.
So, we started thinking about how kids could not only see great content on an iPad, but also be able to interact with the screen in a way that they couldn’t before.
Baby Bytes is a company that is making really cool apps for babies and giving parents this really neat
feedback on how their child is progressing.
We just produced a video called, Show Bytes. It’s Beethoven music with gorgeous video and photography. It allows kids to not only watch it, but also play and interact with some of the visuals in the video.
We also have this beautiful product called, Lullabytes. It’s our very first app that you can download for free right now. It’s a collection of classical music that is meant for bedtime. You would download it on your phone or iPad, play the app as you get them ready for bed and it continues to play as your child falls asleep. The music gradually gets softer and softer until it stops after the 10th song. When the baby wakes up during the night and starts crying, the app detects your baby’s cries and it turns the music on again.
The other really neat thing on the back end is that the parent is also given a feature called, the Sleep Keeper, which basically lets you know through a graph how much your baby is sleeping. So, when you go to the pediatrician, you’ll know your baby’s sleep patterns.
In addition, I want to share something new that I’ve done on my own and feel really proud of. It’s an app called, Happy Appy. It will be available by the end of July 2013. It’s an app that sends you a funny video to make you happy everyday. It’s never rude or crude or nude. You could watch it with your 5 year old and with your grandma. It’s basically a whole giant collection of videos that I found on the internet where I redirect you everyday to a short, funny, sweet video that will make you smile.
There’s a free version and a 99-cent version, which has an alarm clock feature and allows you to easily share the videos with a friend, rate it and save to your favorites among other cool things.
Everyday we see so much bad garbage in the news and having gone through all that crap I went through with my health, there’s just nothing more powerful than being happy. With this app, I could make someone smile and happy everyday. How cool is that!
What does Balanced mean to you?
In every stage as a Mom, I’ve been searching for balance. Mostly to me it means being okay at the end of the day and feeling or remembering that I’ve done my best. A lot of times I think we beat ourselves up with all the things we should’ve done that day.
I could only do my best. That’s all I can do. And if it’s not what everybody thinks I should’ve done… well sorry and that’s the way it is.
What do you do to live a balanced life?
I try to go to yoga everyday. I love yoga and meditation. I was not always good at meditation and sometimes I find myself really needing to make myself do it, but when I meditate I feel so much better.
If people have never meditated, there’s a really great program that I found on iTunes® called, Hemisync. It’s a type of meditation where I can just take my iPod and put my earbuds in and meditate for about half an hour to this particular guided meditation. I totally recommend it to people who have never meditated before.
Also I love yoga, because I think it’s a lot like meditation, because I’m so focused on maintaining a pose and it gets me out of my environment.
Like a lot of other entrepreneurs, I work from home which means you’re never really away from your work. So, getting out of your house is really important whether it’s to go to an exercise class or ride your bike or walk your dog. I walk my dog everyday and that’s like meditation for me.