This entire episode is full of knowledge. Grab your pen and paper because Laura Bleill, Mom in Chief of Chambanamoms.com and associate director of the University of Illinois Research Park shares:
- How to combine your passion [10:27] with your upbringing [6:00] and find a pain point for your community to grow into a raging success story [10:45]
The need for hiring great people [9:00], being patient and hardworking [4:35], and generously sharing your knowledge with others [34:25]
Expertise in entrepreneurship, start-ups, incubators, and community building [the entire episode]
She is perfect for giving you advice and direction.
Important Links for Laura
Complete Transcript Below
Michelle: Hello Wonder Woman. Thanks for tuning in. I’m excited to introduce my guest Laura Bleill. She is Mom in Chief of Chambanamoms.com and the associate director of the University of Illinois Research Park. If it sounds crazy, that’s because it is. At Research Park, she works with early-stage tech entrepreneurs and corporate Innovation partners and manages the park’s Communications marketing and branding portfolio. With chambanamoms.com, she has built the top online resource for moms and families in the Chambana metro area with a dedicated staff of seven. An avid volunteer who is committed to building communities within communities, she sits on the boards of the Champaign-Urbana Jewish Federation and Visit Champaign County. She also volunteers with many other area organizations, focusing her passion on public education, food insecurity, and disadvantaged children. Laura has two degrees from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and spent the first half of her career as a sports writer. She’s a rabid Northwestern University Wildcat sports fan and she and her husband Tony are the proud parents of three girls. I don’t know about you but I’m exhausted just sharing all of that. This is a woman you want giving you advice and direction. So let’s dive in. Hi Laura. I’m so happy to speak with you. Thanks for joining us!
Laura: Well, I am very excited to have the opportunity to be here with you today. I don’t know if it’s inspiring or just crazy so you can decide on that.
Michelle: Well, I think it’s both inspiring and probably a little bit of crazy! As a mom, I can only imagine what your life is like to manage a family, have children, work as an entrepreneur, and work for the University of Illinois Research Park, but it’s one of the reasons that I started this podcast: because of all of the amazing women out there running their business and running their families and working for the greater good. I don’t know about you, Laura, but I often get asked the question of, “I don’t know how you do it all?” And I often think to myself: I’m not doing it all because I know so many others who are doing so much more and you are one of them and it’s really why I asked you to be here. Do you think of yourself as having a superpower?
Laura: I actually I have this ring that I wear and it’s kind of obnoxious and big and fancy and it was my grandmother’s and I joke that the reason I wear it is because it gives me superpowers. So if I take the ring off, all the superpowers go away. But I think I just have a naked ambition inside me, which I guess is my superpower, and I couldn’t really tell you why or how and some people are just made that way. So I guess I you could decide if I was lucky or unlucky. Some things you just can’t turn off. I think that that’s how I’ve always been, even, you know, back to high school, middle school, etcetera. I was always kind of an overachiever and somebody who bit off a lot just because I don’t know how to do things any differently.
Michelle: Normally I talk about this at the end of an interview, but you brought it up and I am so interested in families and how children are raised – in how women especially are raised – and you brought up your grandmother’s ring: were you close to your grandmother? Did you have the opportunity to have a relationship with her?
Laura: I was very extremely close with her. She’s passed. I think it’s been eight years ago now, but she remains, to this day, somebody who is one of the most influential people in my life and somebody who really inspired me in the way that she was uniquely elegant in everything that she did – the way that she treated people and she was also a quiet philanthropist. And so if I could be even half the person that she was I would consider myself a success.
Michelle: I love that and I feel my driving ambition rests in the strong women in my family as well. Do you remember any lesson that she taught you or or it was just observing her and being around her?
Laura: So it’s funny you say that. I used to give a presentation – people would ask me to talk about some of the lessons I’ve learned – and it sounds really cliche but one of the things she would always say to me is, you know, “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” and she would always repeat that.
I don’t know how many people listening to this are familiar with Chambanamoms, but now it looks like this incredible success, but I’ve done a lot of digging into the past and thinking about what was and can share that it took three years before I ever paid myself and we’ve been doing it for nine years.
So, you know, I spent a long time building and guiding and creating this business and I think I always had that notion that things take time and everything that’s worth it takes time. That was something my grandmother really inspired in me and I think we have a tendency these days in the 24-minute news cycle to want immediate gratification.
But the reality is is that there’s really no such thing and she really was the person who implanted that notion within me and something that I remind myself of all the time.
Michelle: I was thinking about how you have a strong foundation, it sounds like in your family, but also how you were building a strong foundation as an entrepreneur.
Laura: Well, I come from a family of entrepreneurs. So my great-grandmother -her father started a company that my family went on to run and grow into one of the most successful window cleaning and janitorial services company in the Chicago area. She actually came to the University of Illinois. And was able to spend her freshman year here but had to leave because her father was sick and she had to go home and run the business. So whenever I think of struggles that I have as an entrepreneur, I just think about my grandmother who was 19 and was called back. So not only is she having to deal with the stress of her father being ill but also having to help run his company at the same time and she did it for several years. So she was a very inspiring person.
And my father’s an entrepreneur as well, so it definitely runs in the family. I will say though that I think that one of the things that has driven me is that I don’t know that my family ever expected that I would be the one to pick up the entrepreneur ball and run with it. You know, that is something that I take to heart as I created something from scratch. That’s important to me.
Michelle: It sounds like you weren’t afraid of hard work coming from a family of entrepreneurs, especially doing window cleaning and janitorial service. It’s probably just the way you were raised – to do hard work and to make it happen.
Laura: Yeah, I think that that’s definitely true. And you know, I was telling somebody the other day that it wasn’t just about hard work, but it was also about respecting the people who work for you and respecting people who you work with. One of my most important memories as a child was getting up on Christmas, my family doesn’t celebrate Christmas, but lots of the people who work for my father do and they had to work on their holiday. And so we would get up and make hot chocolate and coffee and put it in thermoses, get donuts, and with our old Oldsmobile station wagon we would drive four hours around the city of Chicago delivering coffee and hot chocolate and donuts and trying to spread a little cheer to people who had to work on their holiday. And so that’s something that has always guided me and inspired me since I was a little girl.
Michelle: That’s so wonderful. It shows respect and respect goes so far in life and owning a business and it’s good to see that wherever you see it.
Laura: Right? And I mean, I think it also taught me that you’re only as good as the people you work with. It’s really been important as I’ve been building my business. No, I didn’t pay myself for three years, but I was paying other people so making sure that if you’ve got people who depend on you to pay their mortgage or maybe it’s tuition for their kids’ school or whatever it is. But you know, that’s something that’s really drives me as well.
Michelle: It sounds like entrepreneurship, whether you knew it or not, was sort of in your blood. How did you decide to start an online magazine? It’s definitely a resource for area families to find out more about what’s going on. It’s a community of not only moms, but parents to support each other and to offer feedback and just comradery.
Laura: I mean the ultimate reason why I got started, as you mentioned my background is as a journalist – I worked in daily newspapers for many years and I kind of transitioned out of that professionally. But you know, you can take the girl out of the newsroom, but you can’t take the newsroom out of the girl. So in many ways, I view Chambanamoms as my own newspaper. The genesis of it was that I felt that there was not a lot of community resources available and I was kind of in the right place at the right time, frankly. This was something that was really needed. It was a pain point in the community and I thought that I had the ability, along with my business partner at the time, to start a digital magazine just like you described. Really what’s grown out of it has been a community. And so that’s why I like to say now that I am a professional Community Builder because really that’s exactly what happened.
I don’t think I necessarily predicted that nine years ago, but it’s evolved that way. I think that another thing that was really inspiring to me actually is that you know, the name was a gimmick, even though we of course focus on families and information for families. I really wanted a resource that would give women a voice in this community. I felt that women were underserved and under represented in the media here and that women needed a voice in that you know, really I wanted it to be a community resource.
Actually, I just got back from lunch and a server noticed my pop socket where I’ve branded Chambanamoms on the pop socket on my phone and she said “Oh, I love that website. When I moved here from Georgia, that’s how I got all my information and we didn’t have anything like that.” And you know, this was a person who I’m guessing was not married and probably doesn’t have a family and so really not my target audience and you know, it’s always kind of funny because I never really know what to say in those situations. I still haven’t figured it out. So I just smiled and said, yeah, that’s great like and so and she was like, yeah, I really love that. But I didn’t out myself!
Michelle: That’s so funny. But you are providing such a great resource. Did you envision monetizing it or making it your business when you started or was it solely intended as a resource for the community?
Laura: Yeah, you know, it was a little bit of both. And this is exactly how I wouldn’t advise my entrepreneurs today. Although there is an element to this when I’m talking with other entrepreneurs, but I really just felt like there was such a need for this and that if we could do it right that the money would follow and I definitely wanted to monetize it and make us profitable.
We had paid back our investment within six months and so, you know profitable probability and making money off of it are other issues but we definitely made back that money and we were revenue positive within six months. And so that was pretty amazing and I definitely saw that but really, honestly, I always say this that I looked at it as like my ultimate community service project and in many ways I still do. I could never repay it everything that it’s provided for me and my family. So I think it’s a win-win.
Michelle: So how do you manage your other side of your professional life while doing something as massive as chambanamoms.com because your life at the University’s Research Park is also quite massive. How do you manage that dual professional life?
Laura: Very delicately, but actually I would say that I never could have done what I did with Chambanamom’s if I hadn’t been in my role at Research Park and the reason I say that is because they feed off of each other. It’s it’s seen as a point of pride to have a successful entrepreneur on your staff when you’re an incubator. I mean, that’s what we do here – we Inspire entrepreneurs. And for most of the time that I’ve worked here, I have been the only entrepreneur on the staff of the research Park. I gradually grew into this role.
A lot of people don’t realize that until three years ago, I was only at like 75%. I was doing it somewhat part-time but I’ve been really lucky, you know, it was seen as a point of pride for our staff and for our community and so much of what I do dovetails with one another but it’s never been perceived as a conflict or as a weakness. I think that in some cases when women are in situations where they have you know, different things going on, sometimes their managers can perceive that as a threat and in my case, it was never perceived as a threat. It was something it was a point of pride and so I never had to worry about that and I think really what I had to worry about was just my sanity and my time and so I’ve hired more people. I have colleagues all over the country who do similar websites to mine, but because of my role in the Research Park and because I love what I do here I have probably hired a lot bigger staff than many of my other colleagues who are maybe doing it with, you know, with only a couple of other people because that’s their full-time gig. The other thing I did though was that my husband quit his job and he runs the website for me. So that’s the secret.
Michelle: Hiring your husband or your partner. That sounds pretty good. How how did he make that transition? Was it something that he had been asking to do for a while or how did that happen?
Laura: Yeah for a long time. I think with the website he did not see a place for himself and in the beginning I can totally see why but as we kind of transitioned and evolved, his role changed. I think really what was the impetus for it was the birth of our third child, which really kind of changed the game. And as that was happening, that’s when my career at the Research Park was also taking off and my role would had evolved from you know, a much smaller role to approximately kind of where I am at today, but not nearly, and so anyway, it was at that point where we just started to talk about the possibility. He’s also a journalist by background. So it’s not like he was so far off of what we’re doing with the site. Having him able to manage it full-time is really what it needed to grow. And so it was an added bonus in that it meant that he can work from home. He can be there when our kids get off the bus and it means that I can focus on things at Research Park as appropriate. So we’re really lucky and we work together.
That’s how we met. We were both journalist at the same newspaper. And so working together wasn’t something that was foreign to us. It kind of was the beginning of our relationship and we work really well together and I’m I’m pretty lucky.
Michelle: So that leads me to ask, do you feel like you’re reinvigorating your relationship now that you’ve taken it back full circle a little bit?
Laura: That’s funny. I don’t know. I think that in some ways it’s a challenge to the relationship, but we’re pretty good about setting work aside and making sure that we make time for ourselves outside of the business. I will say though that I think we enjoy having a challenge that we can work on together. That’s not managing our kids attitude. Right? So in that way, I would say that we enjoy the the camaraderie and and being together in ways that we hadn’t been in a long time.
Michelle: That’s good. So owning your own business is challenging and it offers a lot of opportunities for growth. What would you say is your greatest obstacle and how do you actively work to overcome it? Because I know that you’re a problem solver – just watching you and in your business, you’re definitely a problem solver. So what would you say is your greatest obstacle?
Laura: Always the obstacles are just time really – managing time. You know, we always have more ideas than we have time for. We always have more goals than we can ever wish to accomplish. And so I think one of the main things that I’ve done or try to do is to hire smartly – hire people who are good at things that I’m not and hire people who can do things or value doing things that I don’t want to do frankly or that I’m just not as good at as they are. So that I can optimize my time and I’m continuously doing that all the time.
And so that’s really how we built our staff but you know, you still have to manage people and so managing people is probably something that’s one of the more time-consuming things that you have to do well when you own a business and when you do start hiring people, you don’t really consider. Oh, well, they can do this for me and they can do that for me. But you still have to work with them and solve their problems sometimes or work with them on the challenges that they’re having and grow them and understand that sometimes they are going to want to pivot and change roles and things like that.
So really it’s just managing my time and then also managing our staff which are two of the biggest challenges that I have as an entrepreneur.
Michelle: On the flip side of that. What is the most rewarding for you? What keeps you going every day?
Laura: Well, I mentioned it earlier and I think it really is things like some person tell me how awesome the website is and it’s not from an ego perspective. But I love what she said was, “It helped me so much when I moved here.” And that to me is the ultimate. So I love when people say to me that the website helps them or helps their family or that it made their lives better because it makes it all worth it. And I also love it when organizations in the community tell me that their whole programming has been transformed because of our website and I have been told that before by some local community organizations. So it’s an amazing thing to see. I know that I’m the face of the website and I’ve been in the media and other places but it’s just it’s not about me. It’s kind of taken on a life of its own and people have really connected to it and really identify with the brand in ways that I never imagined. So it’s almost like it’s this own living thing and it’s impacted so many people and organizations in so many ways. So that’s a very long-winded answer to your question. But to me, that’s ultimately been the most gratifying.
Michelle: I think it’s super valuable that the community is there because I remember there was a post where somebody was moving into town and they had a question about surviving the winter in Illinois and the community response was supportive and encouraging but full of resources and it’s something that I encourage people to think about is getting back to the basics of working one-on-one with people and I think that’s what’s really built. Your system is the people and the community and the buy-in and the help the others and you’ve made that possible. I think it’s just building those relationships that has been so valuable to so many people.
Laura: Yeah, and you know, I think what’s made us a financial success is that people will say to me – well you must have like, you know, all this other organization with a team of sales people. And yeah, I’m sure our revenue isn’t matching some of these other media resources in town. But the point is that you know, we’ve never had to do that because honestly our best advocates and who have become some of our best salespeople are our readers and our community and so they’re the ones who sell the website to other people and I’m eternally grateful for that. It’s made this feel like much more of a give and take process and I’m very appreciative to anyone and everyone who’s sung our praises or you know, just given a friend the name of the website as a great resource because ultimately that’s how it grows and it’s in the middle of organic growth.
Michelle: Do you have any resources like a book, a website, or a system that you recommend for women entrepreneurs?
Laura: I like books that aren’t geared toward women, to be quite honest. I am kind of appalled that some of the books I see out there that people see as motivational because they are deliberately targeting women and in some cases sort of you know, I guess I want to say targeting their weaknesses. But I’m sure they don’t mean to be exploitative but I sometimes see it that way. I think one of the things that I do in my work, and I work with a lot of women entrepreneurs, is I really want them to not feel that they are different or they are other. I want them to feel like they can own their attributes and their skills and see the value in them. Just like anyone else would see the value in any any skills of an entrepreneur. You know as women we do have different kinds of skills. Reading Lean Startup is a huge thing in my world. The Lean Startup methodology has been a really important business model.
These are kinds of business books that are important for entrepreneurs to learn from in terms of customer discovery and value proposition and minimum viable product and a lot of these are used in the tech world. And of course, that’s the world where I work in with with Enterpriseworks in the Research Park. But a lot of these lessons are applicable to any kind of business and so those are some of the resources that I advocate for.
I also advocate for people to just hear stories of other entrepreneurs and so my point about how Rome wasn’t built in a day. I mean one of my favorite podcasts is How I Built This with Guy Raz and I know that that’s not so out there but if you listen carefully, you’ll understand that one of the things that he always gets at is how long it took these people to actually be successful and I think everyone looks at Rent the Runway or Whole Foods or whatever it is as overnight successes and they weren’t. It took a lot of hard work and changes and lots of different mentors and you know this whole idea that you go from zero to success in five minutes is just a fable. And so I think that listening to other people and reading stories about other entrepreneurs it vital. But I’m somebody who’s driven by stories. So I love what you’re doing and that’s why I wanted to join you today.
Michelle: Yeah, I think stories are so valuable because of all that you said, but also because I think that learning from others by hearing their stories is super valuable in knowing you aren’t alone. Hearing about the struggles other people faced and how they overcame the challenges is vital because especially as an entrepreneur there are challenges and there are struggles and it can be a process that makes somebody feel alone and isolated. Often the topics that are are not discussed in business are financial systems or hiring and firing. It’s not uncommon for people to keep these topics behind closed doors. You don’t hear everybody speaking about their profits or their losses or how much they’re paying staff or how much it costs to do X, Y, or Z and I think the more that we can share about processes and how others are doing it can open up that dialogue between people and ideally build networks and build relationships and build a support system and a library for others to go to to learn from because [00:28:30] not everything is a competition. If we can help each other learn and grow, it’s really going to benefit our home lives and our business lives in our communities. At least that’s what I take from the storytelling and the sharing of experiences.
Laura: Definitely and I couldn’t agree with you more about everything’s not a competition. I mean people sometimes ask me about competition and you know, there’s another online magazine in town and they have a different focus from mine, but oftentimes people are surprised when I tell them that the publisher of that magazine and I are very close friends. They’re like, well, aren’t you competitors? And say, well kind of but we also collaborate and we do something that nobody else does and so to your point about being lonely or things like that – we have a lot of shared struggles. And so even if you know he gets an ad buy that I don’t get, but at some point that comes around and so we never see that as competitive. It’s always collaborative. And so if I can learn from him and he can learn from me ultimately what we want us to grow our businesses and in parallel really – so I think there’s room for everyone. I’m very much about the big tent aspect, even in even in how we work with clients at Chambanamoms.
We don’t sell exclusive partnerships and my reason for that is because I view this as a community resource, and I don’t want to be seen as potentially aligning myself with one resource versus another because no resources are the same. They’re just not. So we’re excited about that and I think that attitude and that philosophy that we had in the beginning was probably looked at as reckless but I think that it’s true to my priorities and how we wanted to grow. And I think that it’s turned out for the good.
Michelle: I love that! So a little bit of a fun question. In your recent history, is there a time where you just felt like yeah, I just rocked that. I feel like my Cape is flying high. I definitely was a Wonder Woman in that situation.
Laura: Well, actually it’s something that you were a part of. So, I think that one of the things I’m most proud of is helping grow a community of mainly women who run digital magazines like Chambanamom’s, not just all over the country, but actually throughout the world. And we were able to bring about 30 of them here to Champaign for our annual Summit and it was the best Summit we’ve had yet. That group has been an incredible asset and resource and is really probably one of the number one drivers of how I’ve grown. This particular community of entrepreneurs has grown because of our ability to share ideas and collaborate and be there for one another but also to be open to other people replicating our ideas. And it was great to have you come and be one of our outside speakers. We didn’t have many outside speakers, but you are one of them and you are great. And so I really appreciate you coming and that was a pretty amazing success. I think it was just gratifying to have all these people come here and be so gracious with their time and their energy and everyone just gets so much out of it. It’s hard to describe because I just think it’s so unusual in this world where everyone is, you know, kind of keeping things close to the vest and afraid to open themselves up to, maybe it’s criticism or maybe it’s just that they don’t think that their ideas are good or valid or they don’t recognize their greatness. And so everybody kind of had that opportunity to do that at this event.
I was pretty Sky High the whole weekend.
Michelle: That’s awesome and it was so much fun! And you could tell that the people in that room were full of energy and full of good ideas and loved what they did in their communities. It was an excellent experience.
Laura: I’m really glad that you could be part of it. I was lucky to find this group of people. You know, for a long time we sort of were this oddity in the online world. At the time, many women online entrepreneurs probably fell into the category of brand ambassadors or food bloggers or lifestyle bloggers or things like that. And I would go to meetings of those kinds of people and you learn something here there that was kind of universal but really what we did with Chambanamoms was so different – who our audiences were and how we were monetizing. We were just incredibly different and so to be able to source and piece together this group that’s a lot smaller than what some of those other groups are has been incredibly impactful and meaningful.
And so I would hope that some of your listeners will [if they’re thinking about ways to advance their business and kind of that point that you had about people often are as entrepreneurs isolated or feel alone] make the effort to find that group whether it’s an existing association, or maybe it’s something you have to create on your own.
Michelle: That led to my final question – how can we help other women rise up to own their Wonder Woman persona? You’ve mentioned it with your grandmother and you’ve mentioned it with turning into an entrepreneur and the incubator and it’s just been woven throughout our entire conversation. You mentioned ways that you have helped build the community of other online community builders. I think it’s just so important to find ways that we can assist others and just offer our knowledge and just offer, sometimes it’s just a conversation. Right? I mean, I’m sure you have regular conversations with people and it’s just little ideas that can help them out. But to summarize, how do we help other women rise up?
Laura: Yeah. I’m often asked to sit down with people for various reasons and kind of think through things with them. And you know, I used to kind of be annoyed by that, frankly, and sometimes mainly just because of the time issue. But what I see it for now is that it’s kind of like what you said. It’s an opportunity that I learned as much from what they want to talk about as hopefully they learn from me.
So it’s an opportunity to kind of get behind someone’s thinking process in a way that most people just don’t have those kind of conversations anymore. And you can learn so much about yourself or others or how you want to move forward with whatever it is that you’re working on through some of those relationship building conversations.
And you know, as far as how we can help others or how we can move other women entrepreneurs forward – I think it’s honestly – I know this sounds silly but kind of going back to what I said earlier – is that I always had this innate drive and ambition and confidence that probably was unjustified. But the reality is that most people don’t have that and I think that encouraging people and showing them and and being a resource for people can show them that they have options and that there are people out there who want to help them and those resources are certainly available here at the Research Park, but they’re available in many different ways and throughout many different communities.
I just encourage people that there are resources out there. I guarantee you that there is somebody out there that can help you. So it’s just keeping that faith or keeping that notion that you can find what you’re looking for. And also just being there because I think women are risk averse and so showing them that they can you do this regardless of risk. This isn’t as risky as you think it is and here are ways to de-risk and here are opportunities.
I mean the fact remains that when you talk about tech entrepreneurship – other entrepreneurship – that there’s not as much women representation. There are not as many women who get funded by outside funding etc. etc. And I don’t dispute that. But the reality is is that landscape is changing and we need to have more women entrepreneurs just so that landscape can keep changing. So we need to have people who are in that pipeline.
I’m all about continuing to get people in the pipeline and I’m also all about some of the cliches like: fail fast and fail cheap; throw things at the wall and see if they stick; and iterating and pivoting and trying and trying again; or things that we learned when we were very little are very applicable to entrepreneurship as well.
Michelle: That’s so so valuable and I think it stands to listen to time and time again, because we all need to hear it and remember it and continue acting in that way. So thank you so much for talking with me today, Laura. You give me and I know everyone else who knows you a greater hope for the future.
Answer the call Wonder Women! Get out there, embrace your powers, step up and change the world. Thank you.