This Is How Overnight Success *Actually* Happens

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Romper is conducting a year-long conversation with members of the Mom 2.0 community about how to "make it." Get inspired here.

The media loves the narrative of “overnight success.” You might think anyone who has achieved something incredible burst onto the scene with a brilliant idea that everyone took to immediately. These stories do sometimes happen, of course… but usually it’s on American Idol or Shark Tank. The far-less-sparkly reality is that, usually, slow and steady wins the race. Businesses are built with crumbs in our hair and sleep in our eyes, while our babies are napping soundly. Success comes from long hours, career pivots, and, sometimes, pumping breast milk in the bathroom during the Emmys ceremony.

In an effort to demystify so-called overnight success stories, Romper spoke to five moms who are each very successful in their own fields, and played the long game to get where they are today. “I just want people to know that there's no such thing as ‘overnight success,’” says CEO Tamara Zantell. “We took huge risks and we invested along the way — that's when things turned on.”

From a best-selling author to an entrepreneur to a “momager,” here are five moms who proved that success comes to those who work for it.

The Best-Selling Author

Mary Laura Philpott. Photo credit: Heidi Ross.

Mary Laura Philpott’s first professional writing job was in the marketing department of a hospital. “I wrote brochures about diseases and website copy about how to take your baby's temperature,” she says. It was “not sexy,” but it did allow her practice writing every day under a deadline and with a word count. Most importantly, it paid the rent.

Philpott transitioned from corporate writing to the more flexible lifestyle of freelance writing when she had her children: a 16-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl. As a freelancer, she did a lot of ghost writing — penning other people’s op-eds or speeches for them.

In fact, Philpott did not first publish an article or essay under her own byline until her 30s. She was in her late 30s the first time she was published in The New York Times.

Even if I had had the time to write this book when I was 32, it wouldn't have been this book.

The Nashville-based author published her first book, Penguins With People Problems, in 2015, based on her Tumblr webcomic, The Random Penguins. And her collection of essays, I Miss You When I Blink, was published by Simon & Schuster earlier this year. It’s a national bestseller and has already had four printings.

Philpott wonders if she could have published her essay collection earlier in life had she not been raising her children. But she realizes that “even if I had had the time to write this book when I was 32, it wouldn't have been this book.” So much of Blink is about “the phase of life I was living during those years,” she says. “So I had to live through the frustration of all the things I was trying to do at once in my 30s.”

These days, Philpott tries to publish quarterly in the Times and has also written for publications like O, The Oprah Magazine and The Washington Post. And, of course, she’s working on more essays. A new theme is her children getting older, which has allowed more time for writing, she says, but also is changing the tenor of what she writes.

“As they get older and more independent, I'm getting wistful and I'm wanting time to slow down,” she says. “I'm writing about how it feels for time to be moving so fast and how much I feel like I'm going to miss them.”

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The Momager

Tamara and Zandra Zantell. Photo credit: Lela Barker.

Running a skincare company is a full-time job. And when the CEO of said skincare company is a middle schooler, managing (and parenting) that CEO is a full-time job as well.

Tamara Zantell’s daughter Zandra, now 19, started making body butters and lip balms in 2009 at 9 years old and selling them at local farmers’ markets around Buffalo, New York. The youngster added more products over time, and today her plant-based, cruelty-free eponymous skincare company Zandra is filling orders for permanent shelf space at Target.

Zantell worked as a practice management consultant working with medical specialists while Zandra the business steadily grew. But she worried her focus on her own career she was holding her daughter back. “I couldn't give her as much,” the mom says. “I was totally running all over the place helping other people build their $1 million brands. I was, like, ‘Wait a minute, this girl has something amazing here!’ I wasn't doing the best I could for her and that just started to eat at me. I couldn't sleep at night.”

She adds, “So I left my job ... to work for my 16-year-old daughter full time.

If you just stay focused on the one thing, the magic will happen.

In addition to managing her daughter, Zantell began formulating her own company, Raising A Mogul, which she launched in 2017. In the early years of her daughter’s business, Zantell had felt isolated as Zandra’s “momager” — that is, a mom who manages her child’s career. As early as 2012, she had thought of starting her own business to address “the lack of support for parents doing what I was doing and also for kids doing what she was doing,” she says.

“My mission with Raising A Mogul is to teach parents what I did in half the time or less,” says Zantell. “It took [Zandra] 10 years to get here.”

But get there they did: Zandra restructured when the young CEO turned 18, and Zantell scaled back from her role and eased into Raising A Mogul. At first the company was just her, but it has grown to six staff.

In June, the company hosted its first Raising A Mogul Family Business Summit in Atlanta, which brought together over 50 families. And on top of all this, Zantell has four other children, including one son who plays semi-pro football in Canada and another son who is an NFL prospect. It’s a lot, but when talking to Zantell, she makes it all sound easy.

“I just really want women to know that, like, when you're walking your purpose and you're doing something that's so much larger than you, if you just stay focused on the one thing, the magic will happen,” she says.

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The Accidental Entrepreneur

Julie Cole attended law school, and after graduating in 2001, practiced as a family law attorney in Australia. She had a career she loved helping domestic violence survivors obtaining restraining orders and leave abusive situations.

But as a mother, she noticed that a product was missing that she and her children could have used: labels that didn’t come off in the washing machine or dishwasher. So Cole, her sister and two friends from college put in a considerable amount of elbow grease to make this product widely available.

Today their company, Mabel’s Labels, sells dozens of products from baby bottle labels to sleepaway camp labels to customizable allergy alert labels.

Transitioning into running the business in 2003 dovetailed with Cole’s desire to create a therapy program for her eldest child, who has autism.

“I'm quite an accidental entrepreneur,” says the Hamilton, Ontario, mom.

“We had our label-making equipment in my sister's basement,” she recalls. “We would literally put the kids to bed at 8 o'clock and then meet at my sister's house, go to the basement and make labels until 2:00 a.m. and then get up at six in the morning and either go to our traditional jobs or raise our children until the same time the next night … and do it all over again.”

Not bad for a few moms who started this in the basement, huh?

After two years in that first basement, the company moved to a bigger basement for another two years, and then they needed a 14,000-square-foot facility. It is still based in that space today. Cole says the women really felt like they had “made it” when the last of the four partners was able to quit her day job. And then two years ago, the four original women sold the company for $12 million.

“Not bad for a few moms who started this in the basement, huh?” Cole says with a laugh.

Today, Mabel’s Labels has 40 full-time employees. Two of the original partners left, one stayed on as general manager and Cole is senior director. She is also now mother of six kids ages 19, 18, 16, 14, 12 and 10. (She did not hire a nanny, she says, until her fifth child).

Starting your own multi-million-dollar company out of a basement is hard, but it may not be her hardest challenge yet. “Next month,” she says, “we'll have five teenagers.”

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The Healer

Amisha Klawonn. Photo credit: Sandra Tenuto Photography.

Amisha Klawonn always knew she would work in a healing profession, and was inspired by her own mother, a physical therapist. Today the Phoenix mom is not only a physical therapist, but a certified life coach and a certified yoga instructor.

For almost 20 years, she has been an integrative physical therapist, and over time, she has crafted her career into what she wants it to be. Six years ago, she moved to a pilates studio in Phoenix; four years ago, she introduced yoga therapy, which includes practices like meditation, body scans and healing light meditation.

Klawonn says success comes when you “find that little trail of joy — what really lights you up as a person. For her, it came from working with other women who were juggling ambitious careers and the demands of parenthood. “I did great until I had a baby,” she says.

[It] just takes continuous time of putting in what you want to get out of it.

So four years ago, Klawonn introduced Centered Mama, a wellness education coaching business. It’s for women, primarily moms, to help them build resilience in their lives.

“The clients that I definitely most attract are most like me — they're the ones who are super ambitious, who really want to accomplish a lot in life, but get overwhelmed really quickly,” she says.

Now her son is 8 years old and she’s learned to not only ride that overwhelm herself, but teach others how ride do it, too. Her job allows the flexibility to handle his pickups and dropoffs, and to see clients during the school day and on evenings. She will also be introducing some online courses that clients can take online.

“[My work] just takes continuous time of putting in what you want to get out of it,” Klawonn says. “Sometimes that time is in the pockets of your day. It’s not like you’re going to have four hours to get stuff done, but if you can find a half an hour a couple times a day, then you’re really going to get quite a bit done.”

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The Podcaster

Lizzie Jacobs. Photo credit: Jonsar Studios 2019.

Lizzie Jacobs always thought she’d become an English professor, but ended up as an intern at StoryCorps. The nonprofit seeks to share stories about Americans so we can better understand each other and is most notably heard on NPR.

Although StoryCorps was at first primarily radio-based, Jacobs became the founding producer of StoryCorps’ animated shorts — a project she took on while pregnant with her first kid. Over her decade-long career there, she rose through the ranks to become the executive producer of animation and the executive producer of print editing StoryCorps’ books for Penguin Press. During all this, she became a mother to 9-year-old and a 6-year-old (and remembers pumping in the bathroom at Lincoln Center during the 2013 Emmys ceremony).

Leaving StoryCorps two years ago was “a leap of faith, a leap of fright,” she recalls. “It takes a while to be willing to hang your shingle out and do your own thing, [to] be willing to, be able to,” she says. But she wanted to be able to do creative projects in her own voice. A friend’s introduction in 2016 to Mary Phillips-Sandy, formerly of Comedy Central, led to them start producing a podcast together.

You really have to listen to your sensibilities, listen to your taste, and trust it.

“Let’s Talk About Cats,” debuted its second season this month through the podcast company Acast. Although the concept behind “Cats” was Phillips-Sandy’s and had been percolating for years, it was a perfect fit for the new twosome.

“‘Cats’ has been the first project since then that reflects my sensibility — which is funny, because I’m not a cat person,” Jacobs says. (Fortunately, Phillips-Sandy is a big fan.) It’s been “freeing,” she says, to have full creative control with her work. But it’s also daunting. “You really have to listen to your sensibilities, listen to your taste, and trust it,” she says.

“Let’s Talk About Cats” features a rotating cast of guests who sit down with her to discuss — you guessed it — their cats. It turns out that talking about our beloved felines is an entry point to talking about lots of other subjects that we hold dear.

The second season of “Let’s Talk About Cats” has some special guests, including Broadway actress Alexandra Silber and former child actor Mara Wilson.

Despite having won an Emmy in 2016 for her work on StoryCorps (an animated short called “Traffic Stop” about police brutality), she still feels like there’s a lot ahead of her. “The feeling that you've never quite made it is part of what keeps you going.”

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