Editor’s Note: Melissa Ahonen and Erica Hager were co-workers at American Eagle over ten years ago. They both switched jobs, then became reacquainted through Etsy, when they started their businesses. The two ladies have a lot in common and appreciate the opportunity to talk business, kids and fabric.
Melissa Ahonen’s son, Easton, was six weeks early and spent four weeks in the NICU prior to coming home. He was very sensitive to illness, especially bronchitis, rsv and ear infections. One of the doctors suggested keeping his head and ears covered. As he grew, it was hard to find something to fit and when a friend showed Ahonen a photo of a fun hat, she decided she would try to make one like it.
“I got some fabric, some buttons to make it look cute, made one and really liked it,” she said. “So I made quite a few more, then friends and coworkers started buying them. Baby Button Tops became an official business in August of 2010.”
She added headbands the next spring because her niece loves headbands. Her business has continued to grow and just recently she changed the name to BBT Style to broaden it, so people know it is more than just baby products.
Ahonen and her sisters learned to quilt and sew from their grandmothers when they were growing up. “In high school I would make quilts for people as gifts,” she said. “But in college, I got away from it. Now my sister owns her own (sewing) business, too. She makes dolls that look like your child.”
The sisters actually do some shows together. They always do The Big One in Minot and this year added the Pride of Dakota show in Bismarck. Ahonen was overwhelmed by the response. “I thought I had more than enough and every night I would come home and grab my husband to sew,” she said. “Our state just loves hand made things.”
Ahonen sews everything herself, while continuing her full time job at St. Alexius. But, if she gets in a bind, she will recruit her husband to help!
As her business has grown, so have the number of styles she offers. One of her newest headbands is the Sports Style. It is designed to wick away sweat. “Sometimes people will ask for different things and I will try to make them, that is how the Newsboy Style was created,” she said. “I am a fabricaholic, so I always have a wide variety available. It is important to stay current with colors and patterns. I will also customize anything, for instance embroider names or phrases on hats.”
The Adley Stump Collection came about through a tweet Ahonen sent. “I sent her a tweet saying I loved her look on The Voice and could I send her some headbands to try. I was just going to send her some to see if she liked them, but she replied back, we started communicating and she eventually said she would like to start a line with me. That started last May, so it has been almost a year that we have been working together.”
BBT Style products are available in North Dakota at Hey Ocean and the St. Alexius gift shop in Bismarck, Eco Chic Boutique in Fargo, Moe Moe’s Garden in Dickinson, Adley Anne’s in Grand Forks. She also has product placed in stores in Texas, South Carolina, Oklahoma and Arkansas. “It is awesome to get an email saying, ‘I have people coming in asking for your product,’” said Ahonen. “Some stores have found me through my Etsy shop and some through the Adley Stump Collection.”
BBT Style has also had headbands placed in the MTV movie awards gift bags and Ahonen has also gifted celebrities through her membership in an artisan group. She recently sent off a bag to expectant parents Josh Duhamel and Fergie. “Last year for Mother’s Day I sent off about 40 hats to people like Beyonce and Jessica Simpson,” said Ahonen. “Jessica Alba’s daughter was photographed twice wearing one of my sashes and Nia Peeples wore one of my headbands in the movie, ‘Dark Desire.’ I get a lot of thanks you’s through emails and tweets, which is great.”
She does not see herself stepping away from the sewing machine anytime soon. “I would love to grow my business and expand it into more stores nationally and internationally. This is my passion, making things that people truly enjoy.”
To see the complete line of styles, visit BBTStyle.com. Follow BBT style on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.
When Erica Hager and her husband started their family, it was a priority for her to become a stay at home mom. However, giving up her salary and adding all of the baby expenses was a little scary. She decided to use her graphic designer skills to do some free lance work and that was working well for her after their daughter was born.
As their daughter became more active, Hager found nothing would stay on her feet except a pair of booties she had made. “I thought I could make them even better, so I set up my sewing machine on a card table in our unfinished basement to make some adjustments,” she said. “I made 15 – 20 pair, and finally I had one that was perfect. I also had a lot of friends that were having babies and I sent out a few for gifts. They really liked them and asked for some to give as gifts. My husband is an accountant and didn’t really like the personal check idea, so I did some research and found Etsy.”
She made a few more pair of booties, took photos and got her Etsy shop up and running. She sold four pair in the first couple weeks and then got an email from a lady in Arkansas. “She wanted to carry them in her store and I had no retail packaging, no wholesale pricing, nothing. We worked through the process, and she was my first wholesale account.”
The name for her business came from a blog Hager already had. She started it to keep in touch with her family that lived outside of North Dakota. “I wanted a North Dakota name because I love it here, so I named the blog Bison Girl,” she explained. “When I made the booties, it just seemed natural to call them Bison Booties. But, they are in no way made with bison fur.”
She finally had to give up the graphic design business, which was not easy. “It was a frightening decision to think I could sew all day,” said Hager. “If someone would have asked me what my dream job would be, I would have said sewing. I never thought I could do this as my job, and the fact that I can do it with Kya and that she thinks it’s really, really exciting when we come down and sew, is great. It is just a cool thing I can pass that on to her, that there is a value in sewing and she can see it at work every day.”
Hager’s grandma has been able to assist her with pressing and her great aunt has gained some sense of purpose by cutting the in-sole/out-sole fabric. She has had to add a couple ‘amazing women’ to the assembly process, but Hager still starts and finishes every single Bison Bootie. With the extra help she can focus more on marketing, designing, responding to emails, shipping and the logistical business side.
Bison Booties has grown as Kya has grown. “I have made larger sizes as she has grown, said Hager. “I now offer up to a toddler size 6, roughly 24 months. I do make custom orders of Bison Bootie Slippers, maybe a couple times a year where people can order larger sizes and I give a few different fabric choices. That is why Etsy has been fun, too. North Dakota is a little behind on trends and I had people from Japan asking for chevron years ago. I couldn’t even find the fabric for awhile.”
“One of the big things that have really helped me grow my business is wholesale. For instance, there is a baby store in Dickinson – Moe Moe’s Garden. All of these people came in asking for Bison Booties and the owner Jayme, said, ‘I do not even know what they are, I just know I need them in my store!’ Stores like hers have really helped me to reach people that wouldn’t buy online.”
Hager summed up her thoughts about her business this way: “The best part of this business is that I can spend the day with Kya, but also have this incredible creative outlet. And, I am in constant touch with the outside world. I feel blessed that it has been so successful.”
Bison Booties are available at Moe Moe’s Garden in Dickinson, La Di Da in Minot and Unglued in Fargo. Shop for Bison Booties at Etsy, follow them on facebook and visit bisonbooties.com.