The stay-at-home parents’ guide to starting a business in Pittsburgh

Photo above of Caitlin multitasking with her family courtesy of Caitlin Thomas.

Does this sound familiar? You find yourself mindlessly scrolling, a gentle hum of children laughing, yelling and asking for another snack in the background. That’s when you find yourself daydreaming about the kids going back to school.

You get choked up thinking about these fleeting summer days coming to an end. Then you snap yourself out of it: You’ll have a few extra moments to breathe. A few extra moments to focus on you… and to focus on that dream that you keep stumbling upon.

You want to start a business, but you’re terrified. “That is a ridiculous idea, we can’t afford that, and I don’t have the time,” says the voice in your head. So you put your phone down and get to work on snack number five of the afternoon.

What if I told you that starting that at-home business as a stay-at-home mom does not have to be a “ridiculous idea”? What if I told you that taking the time to start working towards your goal will actually pay off? What if your mid-afternoon scroll session time could be monetized into something that fills that corner of your soul that wants something special for YOU, while still being at home?

As a business owner, I absolutely love working with stay-at-home moms. These women are thrilled to have something special, just for themselves, to contribute financially to their family, and to make their own rules while they do it. Society tells us that you are either a working mom or a stay-at-home mom, but what if you could be both?

Photographer and business mentor Caitlin Thomas works with women who are ready to turn their dreams into successful side hustles and full-fledged businesses. (Photo courtesy of Caitlin Thomas.)

If you are staring at the screen right now thinking, “This sounds great, but I have zero clue what to do?”, but the idea of starting a business has been relentlessly nagging at you (like a 4-year-old that has to pee five minutes into a road trip), here are a few basic steps to get started on a journey that just might change everything for you and your family.

  • Brain dump – Make a long list of things that you absolutely love doing. Note things that your family and friends come to you for. Maybe they tell you that you are so organized. Maybe you are their “go-to” for updating a resume or editing a paper. As you work through this list, look for some common threads like these.
  • Ask your friends – Choose three to four of your most trusted friends and ask them two things: “What am I really good at?” and “What tasks/skills/hobbies do I have that make me really light up?” Listen to their responses.
  • Pros and cons – As you start to narrow down to a few ideas, make a pros and cons list for each of the top ideas.
  • Choose one concept – Which of the ideas on your list makes you really excited? Which is a concept that could work within your family’s current schedule and budget? Which will have the most cost-benefit for the time that you’ll need to give it?

Then, if you are a mama that has settled on one potential idea, there are a few actionable first steps to make it happen on your own terms:

1: Market research. Open a Google Doc, and start making notes about other businesses that are doing the same thing or something similar to what you are considering. What is working for them? What are they lacking?

In addition to businesses that might be considered your “competition,” do some research about businesses in similar industries. Save screenshots of their marketing, websites and branding. How do they tell the world about what they’re offering? Whenever you have a few minutes free, look around: Save links to TikToks and YouTube videos that give you ideas. Then create a Pinterest board with things that feel like the “vibe” of your future business. Get really in-depth in your research, because you will want to refer back to it as you work through the next steps. You can begin working on this throughout the rest of July and August, and then go even further with it once the kids are back in school.

2: Concept development. In a new document, start to brain dump about the concept for your business. What will your primary product or service be? How will you differentiate yourself from others in your industry? How will you market your product or service to find new customers? How will you retain customers? What will your customer journey look like from the first time they stumble upon your business to your final interaction with them?

3. Financial planning. Create a spreadsheet to budget for starting your new business. You don’t need to know yet exactly how you’ll pay for all this, but make a clear list of what you’ll need to pay for. Some things to consider are legal fees (if you’ll be starting an LLC, etc), branding, a website, packaging if you’re offering a physical product, equipment you’ll need to create your product/service, the cost of consulting with an accountant or business coach, and any software you might need. This is also a great time to inquire with necessary professionals (graphic designers, web designers, etc) to see what it would cost to work with them. Write it all down, and remember — you don’t have to pay for all this now. You just need to know what launching your business will cost, so you can begin strategizing about how to pay for it.

4. Process development. Go back to your customer journey notes and start mapping our the processes for your business. A process is a repeated set of tasks or actions that make up your business operations. By making notes on the processes that you plan to use, you’ll be able to provide a better customer experience, work more efficiently in the pockets of time that you have as a working mom, and be clearer on how much work you can really take on at any given time.

5. Branding. Refer back to your Pinterest board. It’s time to think about the visuals and voice of your new business. Here’s a tip: If you are working with a minimal start-up budget and a professional designer is not on the horizon, you can utilize Canva to create a logo, color palette and graphics.

Visuals definitely matter, but more important than your visual brand is your brand’s voice. How do you want your voice (the copy on your website, your Instagram captions, etc) to make your customer feel? When they land on your website, do you want them to feel secure in your professionalism? Warm and fuzzy? Something else? The answer is up to you, but it’s important to decide.

6. Marketing. As much as I hate to say it, this is so much more than just posting on Instagram… but Instagram is a good place to start. Consider what social media platforms you will use, and start by getting really comfortable with one first. In addition to developing a social media marketing strategy, you will also want to consider email marketing.

7. Launch strategy. This is so much more than buying some supplies and posting on Instagram, if you want to do it effectively. The goal should be to create a little bit of buzz before making your product or service available. Consider offering free products or services to trusted friends or micro-influencers in exchange for reviews, referrals or social media content.

That’s a lot, right? But these are all things you can do.

It may feel incredibly overwhelming if you are going from “I wish that I could” to “I am going to.” Don’t worry: I’ve been in your shoes. It feels like what I imagine staring out of an airplane, prepared to skydive feels like. Terrifying, but also thrilling. To go from spending your days fully engulfed in the needs of your family to considering doing something for you is a major mindset shift.

The thing is, business owner mamas get the benefit of working on their own terms while remaining at home with their children. While this unique and often stressful life certainly is not for everyone, for the women that are called to do it, it is filled with joy, pride and excitement.

My children often help with my businesses. They know my team and they have met my clients. I have built two businesses that are respectful of my children’s needs while allowing me to follow my passion and have financial independence. There is no right or wrong employment status for mothers, but this way of life works for my family.

Know that starting a business with children at home or in school is no small feat. But it can be done with proper planning. If your heart is pulling you to take a leap into this world, then take the rest of the summer to complete some of the above steps, and start planning for an exciting future. I’m rooting for you!

Want to see more stories by Kidsburgh’s guest writers? Check out this essay about mothers and mental health by Brea Schmidt and this essay by Christina Abernethy on teaching kids about autism and other disabilities.