Have you ever come up with a great idea and thought of starting your own business? Debbie Zinman and Alison Smith did, and in 2008 they took the plunge and launched the social enterprise ECHOage. In Canada, only 15.6 percent of all small and medium-sized businesses are owned by women. So what led these two to launch their successful and thriving business? We got to know them a bit better to find out!
SB: Tell us about ECHOage and how it works.
ECHOage is an online birthday party website with a charitable twist. Reinventing the birthday party experience, ECHOage gives parents the tools they need to plan and manage an effortless birthday party, while teaching their children about the value of giving at the same time. Guests contribute to a child’s birthday gift online. The funds are split in two: half go toward the charity of the child’s choice, like Because I am a Girl, and the other half go toward the child’s desired birthday gift(s).
SB: Alison and Debbie – can you tell us a little bit about yourselves, and what inspired you to create ECHOage?
Debbie: I am a person who wants to be excited by life and feel passionate about my work, and who loves to seize a great opportunity. When I first met Alison, we quickly realized that we shared many of the same values and we soon hit on our passion of the “birthday party topic.” We both felt the same way: The old-fashioned birthday party was ready for reinvention! We realized that children could turn their birthday parties into a truly meaningful time in their lives, get the gifts they actually desired and inspire other kids to follow in their footsteps. That is when our little gem was born, and the rest is history.
Alison: As a busy parent of young children, I was fuelled to find a way to bring the birthday party experience into the 21st century from the vantage point of both meaning and convenience. Ultimately, I was inspired by my children’s innate generosity and capacity for kindness, aw well as by my own parental need to be efficient with a busy schedule.
SB: What challenges do you face starting and running your own business? Do you face any as women entrepreneurs in particular? How did you overcome these challenges?
Alison: Innovation is both thrilling and uncharted. Since our idea was new, we were not able to directly learn from the success of others when facing specific challenges. We had to build our own path. Our vision, drive and gut led us through the murky waters of process, technology and designing a new user experience. As a woman entrepreneur in particular, it is a continuous struggle to manage my time and the often-conflicting priorities of work and family. Setting my own boundaries and clearly defining work vs. family time (without any guilt attached) has been the most effective way to deal with this challenge.
Debbie: I was faced with quickly acquiring the necessary skills to succeed in running a social enterprise. I also had to acquire these skills while our business was growing rapidly and required a lot of our time. I used to joke around about going for an MBA in the evenings, after work. But now, eight years in, I realize that having an MBA was not what our business needed. We needed instead to remain open to what our audience wanted, to what would deliver the most meaningful experience to children and parents, to what would be the most valuable to our partner charities and schools, and to our own intuitions.
SB: Can you tell us a about the partnership and history between ECHOage and Because I am a Girl?
Debbie: Since July 2012, ECHOage and Because I am a Girl have enjoyed many wonderful milestones and together have raised over $70,000. And this is just the beginning. ECHOage kids and families are eager to support Because I am a Girl at their parties, and we see great potential for our partnership to evolve and grow in many ways over the next few years.
Alison: Significant funds have been raised through ECHOage for Because I am a Girl, all through the kindness and generosity of children who are open to the needs of their greater community—their global sisters. It gives me tremendous pride to have created a service that plays a part in Because I am a Girl’s tremendous reach and positive outcome.
SB: What has been the public’s response to a birthday service that donates 50% of children’s gifts to charities like Because I am a Girl? Has the response surprised you?
Alison: The public’s response to ECHOage has been overwhelmingly positive. The parents who have chosen to celebrate with us are appreciative of the many conveniences that the service offers, as well as the opportunity to begin the important dialogue with their children of what it means to give to others.
Debbie: The response has been exactly what we expected: Children and their parents appreciate the opportunity to give to causes that have so much meaning in their lives. Specifically, when a Canadian girl hosts a birthday party in support of Because I am a Girl, her eyes are opened to the many issues faced by girls in the developing world. She becomes a global citizen, and can feel empowered that she is investing in the future of girls globally.
SB: What have you enjoyed about being an entrepreneur?
Debbie: I love innovation—working on ideas that are practical and helpful and that improve society with simple, creative, doable solutions. As an entrepreneur, I get to use my creativity and see my ideas quickly come to life. And whether they succeed or not, I enjoy growing and learning through lessons learned.
Alison: The extensive learning that has come from being an entrepreneur. I’ve also loved the thrill and joy that comes from placing something socially positive with lasting impact in the marketplace. Lives have been improved through the resources that ECHOage has generated. Tummies are being filled. Kids with cancer are going to camp. Girls are getting an education and changing the trajectory of their families. I’m proud of each and every child who has chosen to take part and be a leader in healing the world.
SB: Do you have any advice for women interested in started their own business?
Debbie: Go for it. If you have a good idea, and you know that it makes sense, get going and make it a reality. When people tell you “no, that won’t work,” prove them wrong. Also, learn from your challenges. When times are very tough—and there will be many—you will feel kicked in the stomach. But there is no time to wallow as an entrepreneur. You have to view challenging experiences as valuable learning and find creative solutions.
Alison: The best advice I ever received was to “bring yourself to the party.” Let your authentic self emerge and trust that things will fall into place. Entrepreneurship is not an easy road, so make sure that you are taking the ride along with people that you trust, admire and respect.