To say Amy Vohs is a momtrepreneur is doing her a disservice. Granted, NBC’s Today Show chose to spotlight her and her brand Lil’ Sidekick as one of five baby product highlights on their International Women’s Day “mompreneurs” segment. (She gets a little squeamish to admit they called her a “genius” on national television.)
Amy Vohs is an entrepreneur. Like any individual who sees a problem and won’t stop until they’ve solved it, or perhaps won’t ever quit solving, she’s a creator, an innovator and a fighter. She just also happens to be a mother.
Vohs “put a stop to the drop game” nearly six years ago when her son was only six months old and had an affinity for chucking things, like all kids that age. She recognized the limited availability of products that could tether in proximity to her son weren’t good enough. It was time to take that into her own hands.
Anyone that’s familiar with Lil’ Sidekick knows the rest is history. In 2014, her product launched at Suite Dreams and sells at several local baby boutiques, but can now be found at Babies R’ Us, buybuy Baby and as of January, a launch into one thousand Walmart locations. Add to that an international sales network and you’d be hard-pressed not to call Lil’ Sidekick a success story.
But what you might not know, unless you find yourself sitting across from Vohs with her glass of iced green tea accompanied by her true-blue transparency, is the web of midwest connections she was able to weave in order to be where she, and her brand, is today.
When she approached a manufacturer with a sketch that resembled a monkey made of noodles, they told her to come back when she had something they could work with in AutoCAD. Vohs picked up the phone and zeroed in on calls targeting Iowa State University’s College of Engineering, transferring from one department to another until she landed with David Ringholz and the Industrial Design Department within the College of Design.
“This is a classic napkin sketch story,” Ringholz said, who came to ISU in 2010 to start an Industrial Design program within the College of Design. Ringholz, who had helped create similar success as associate chair of the industrial design program within the Savannah College of Art and Design, stressed the importance of the community seeing universities as a partner in collaboration.
“My goal is to reduce the gap between students and practitioners so that those ‘real-world experiences’ people refer to are actually happening within our classroom.” He turned the project over to two ISU juniors that would be instrumental in bringing the concept to life over the course of a semester.
From there it’s like a game of startup Chutes and Ladders where Vohs is only climbing upward.
A manufacturer in Garnavillo, a tooling company in Monticello, countless meetings set up with the Iowa Economic Development Authority, the Small Business Development Center and Square One DSM, which would lead her to discover the angel investors available to Iowa startups, including the Plains Angels and Ankeny Seed Capital Investors. In addition, Vohs was quick to point out the dozens of family and friends that came forward to surround her in support, from early stage investing based on a belief in her, to weekend neighborhood packaging parties to save production costs, Vohs continues to keep moving forward.
“I told myself that we’d go until no more doors open,” Vohs said. “But even then, I know there’s always another way.”
Those doors will continue to open for Vohs, because she will make them open and she’s not done yet. The brand is growing, not just in retailers and shelf space, but Vohs is just one week away from pitching the brand’s second product to Wal-Mart executives. (Walmart has pledged to purchase approximately $250 billion in products that support the creation of American jobs by 2023, including a commitment to increased sourcing from women-owned businesses.) She’s eager to add to her brand, solving one unmet need at a time, and solving them with local midwest ties.
I asked her what the finish line was, wondering when she would feel successful. “The goal isn’t the product. The goal is to take care of my family in a way that they can thrive. There’s no finish line to that.”
Editor’s note: Vohs spent 12 years working in the mental health industry, with a focus on children. She recently left to be able to concentrate full-time on growing the Lil’ Sidekick brand. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t call-out her love of 90s rap music.
Jami Milne is the interim managing editor of Clay & Milk. Send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.