Women-Owned Small Business Entrepreneur Series // Jen Burch of Blue Bear Aware

It’s May which means it’s Food Allergy Awareness Month.  All this week we are featuring a new small business week in our Women-Owned Small Business Entrepreneur Series. Today we are featuring Jen of Blue Bear Aware.   

Blue Bear Aware is an amazing online resource for fun and functional allergy apparel and accessories.  They carry clothing, cards, lunch boxes, epinephrine cases, and more… and their mascot is just adorable! 

I would like to thank Jen for giving us a glimpse into her busy life and sharing Blue Bear Aware with us.  After the interview be sure to connect with Blue Bear Aware on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself?

I am a wife and mother. Like many other strong women, I probably work at least 3 full-time jobs daily. My Monday through Friday (and sometimes weekends) day job is that of a Senior IT Project Manager. In the early mornings and evenings (and always weekends) I operate Blue Bear Aware. Across all of that, I grocery shop, cook, bake, parent, connect with family and friends, etc… Basically, I’m probably just like you or many other women you know. Go go go! 🙂
What does your business do? 
Blue Bear Aware is an online resource for fun and functional allergy apparel and accessories. Our goal is to empower children (and adults) and heighten awareness of food allergies, sensitivities, and celiac disease through hip and trendy clothing and accessories. We provide our customers with the ability to be “Aware with Flair” #bbawarewithflair
Who is your target audience or market?
Our target audience is caregivers of children with food allergies or sensitivities, EoE, and celiac disease, or even teens and adults who have these conditions as well. The majority of our customers are parents and caregivers of children with any one or multiple of these conditions, though.
What year did you start your business? 
I acquired Blue Bear Aware in 2016 but the original storefront was established in 2006.
What were you doing before starting your business?
I chuckle a bit as I answer this but – Same things that I am doing today. I have made some changes in my life to allow me to be able to operate the business without losing my hair but for the foreseeable future, I will continue to work in IT while also operating Blue Bear Aware. We are growing though so you never know what tomorrow will bring.
Where is your business located? Do you have a dedicated workspace?
We operate out of Ann Arbor, MI, with our main office in our home at this time.
What would you say your biggest success has been? What was the key action that led to this success?
On the business side: It was exciting to see the original investment recovered in the first year and watch as operating costs were covered by sales but more recently, we’ve finally been able to generate a profit while still adding inventory and investing in new items that will be available this year. On the personal, community side: I just love that people know us now and we can bring a smile to everyone we connect with. Whether it is through customer connections or social media, we are part of a very close community and (from what I’m told) people experience a similar warm response to seeing our mascot “Blue” that I did when I decided to buy the business.
What would you say your biggest failure has been?
This one is easy: Trying to take on too much at one time. In the first year, and blind with excitement and my eternal optimistic nature, I failed to accept the reality of having too many active projects. We didn’t have a single sale in the first 3 months and only saw a few over the next 3 months. I realized then that I wasn’t putting in nearly enough time to connect with people like I wanted and needed to do. I also realized that I couldn’t find enough time to do so. Yikes! I practically preach this at work but when it came to my own personal actions, I just didn’t stop to think about the many things in my life and what they meant to me. I had to reevaluate what things were top priority to me and be okay with reducing how much time and effort I put into the lower priority items. It didn’t mean that I wouldn’t still be involved in support groups and community activities. It just meant that I couldn’t lead them any longer. That was a rough experience but it all worked out for the better and I’m happy to help support others who are probably doing things much better than I ever did any way!
What did you learn from this failure and how have you changed things to prevent this from happening again?
I learned to focus on the things that mattered most to me: Was it important to my family? My day job? Blue Bear Aware? Or my personal well being? Every new interest is evaluated against those top things and if it isn’t related to or supporting one of those things, I toss it into a folder of ‘Cool ideas’. Sort of a no commitment activity to say to myself that I thought about it but didn’t value it much at the time. For the things that do matter, and Blue Bear Aware is in there, I keep an Asana Projects Space. Once a month I look at everything in the Blue Bear Aware section and I review the list to prioritize things and plan for the month. Each Monday AM, I go through and grab the top items to focus on for that week based on the many other things that I have for that week, always leaving time each day to respond to customer inquiries and shipments. As requests from other businesses, media personalities and community organizations come in, I have to consider how much we can support and when. We will always try to help but often need at least several weeks of notice to be able to commit to something.
What has been your biggest challenge as a small business owner?
Taxes. Thank the lovely stars for awesome accountants. It might seem expensive but they are absolutely worth it.
Was there ever a point where you wanted to give up? If so, why?
Oh yes. Still do. It’s challenging to be able to balance multiple jobs with being present and invovled with my children. On top of that, I have my own health issues to manage. Family is everything. Always will be. I grew up with a mother who worked very hard. She had to. She was a single parent until I was in fourth grade. Even after my stepfather was in the picture, my mother was known to work hard. LOL. Even in retirement she still works a part-time job. Anyway, what I’m trying to say is that while I am incredibly proud of my mother, I also missed her. A lot. Every day I am aware of the importance of balancing work with family and it is not an easy balance. Not in the least. Recently, my daughter started showing signs of developing issues with wheat or gluten and strawberry. I have to pull back on the work side to be present and involved. We’ll figure it out and we’ll navigate it just like we do with my son but in the most stressful moments, I want to toss in the towel and simplify our lives. To be a mommy first and foremost.
What do you love MOST about being an entrepreneur?
I’m a social person. I have a big heart. I’m a creative person. I’m also a very VERY independent, headstrong, and determined woman. Being an entrepreneur gives me the ability to combine all of that into one outlet. Something that creates a focus for me to channel all of that into.
What do you love LEAST about being an entrepreneur? 
Money. Yes. Money is important and most people probably want to be an entrepreneur to make gobs of it but for me, it’s actually more of a burden. You need to make it to continue business. I need to make more of it to focus my 16-18 hour work day on just Blue Bear Aware. If I had the money already, I’d be more of a philanthropreneur. Come to think of it, that’s not off the table still.
How have you funded your business? How long has it taken you to see a profit?
Personal income
Did you always see yourself owning a business? If so, is this the business that you thought you would be owning? If not, what did you think you’d be doing?
Yes. Blue Bear Aware was definitely not what I thought of when I thought of owning my own business. I’ve had many, many ideas for businesses over the years but the one that stood out most was a community center. No joke. I’ve dreamed for years of opening a facility where multiple religions and spiritual beliefs were all welcome to practice. There are rooms for classes and even a large room for yoga with garage style windows that open up to a huge garden courtyard. There is also a cafe opens the same way to the same courtyard. Onsite daycare and play area. I could go on about this one. I’ve had other ideas ranging from software products to physical inventions like the perfect pancake but none have lingered in my dreams as much as the center.
Where do you see your business in the next 3 to 5 years?
In 3 years, we’ll be THE leading resource for food allergy, food sensitivites, and Celiac disease awareness apparel and accessories. In 5 years, every child affected by any one of these conditions will think fondly of Blue and his family and be that much more empowered because of us.
What advice would you give to other women that are interested in starting their own business?
Do it. Goodness knows it is not easy and you will probably have to make some adjustments in your life to be successful but you CAN do it. You should appreciate that you are human and you have limits but seriously, you’re also a woman. We women are bad at remembering just how strong and capable we really are. Need some advice or support? There are a bunch of us out there who are more than willing to boost you up and cheer you on. (I wouldn’t be doing this interview if it weren’t for my friend Tracy – Nutrimom!)
What is one program, tool or app that you can’t live without for your business? (If you have more than one, please feel free to share more!)
My laptop. My phone. G-Suite and Asana.
What does your day to day in your business look like?
6am: I get up, have a cup of coffee while reading/responding to messages to Blue Bear Aware 6:30am: pack my lunch 7:00am: get cleaned up and dressed (right now the caregiver helps with packing the kids’ lunches but come Sept 2018, I’ll be doing this the night before) 7:45am: Head to the office for my IT Project Manager job 8-12pm: IT PM 12-1pm: Lunch and check in on Blue Bear Aware messages 1-5pm: IT PM 5-5:45pm: Head home and swing by grocery store on way home 5:45-6:45pm: Make and eat dinner 6:45-8pm: Time w/ Family, kids’ homework, bathtime, prepare Blue Bear Aware shipments 8-8:30pm: Check in with friends 8:30-9pm: Get the kids’ to bed 9-10pm: Depending on how much energy I have left, work on items in the Blue Bear Aware project list.
As a business owner it can often be hard to find time for ourselves. What are your favorite hobbies and what do you like to do when you are not working?
I love drawing and creating new design ideas so this hobby is actually part of Blue Bear Aware. Aside from that, travel, hiking, and reading are big on my list of enjoyable activities. I don’t get to do any of those as much as I’d like to but I make sure to allow myself to take trips at least twice a year and on those nights when I have too many ideas floating through my head I stay up reading. I’m surprised how much I spend on Kindle given how little time I have to read.

Is there anything else you’d like us to know about you or your business?

We have quite a few new products in the works and are planning a fun announcement this summer. I can’t say much more but there are exciting things coming for Blue Bear Aware.
Thank you so much to Jen for taking the time to share her story and Blue Bear Aware with us.  Remember to check out the Blue Bear Aware website to learn more and to check out her fun and functional allergy apparel and accessories.. You can also connect with Blue Bear Aware on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.
Are you a small business owner?  Do you have a story to share?  Help others discover, learn, and support your business too!  Contact Katie at: kate (at) busybeekate.com for details or through our contact page.
Be sure to stop back next week for another interview and don’t forget to check out our past interviews here.
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