Editor’s Note: This is one of seven women entrepreneurs named to our Fearless #Over50 list.
Anita Mahaffey knows how important a good night’s rest is.
After all, it’s her business to know — since 2007, when she celebrated her 50th birthday, she’s been selling moisture-wicking pajamas, bedsheets and more through her online shop, Cool-jams Inc.
But she also knows from personal experience how difficult losing sleep can be. Just before starting up, the former product manager and social enterprise founder was going through menopause, as well as dealing with a thyroid issue. Hot flashes were a regular part of life, and they frequently disrupted her rest. After designing a solution for herself, she set out to sell it to the masses.
Today, she has well-rested customers in 150 countries, she says, and Cool-jams has garnered media coverage from regional television stations and online publications such as Newsday, She Knows, and a range of topical blogs. Her company’s annual revenues fall between $1 million and $2.5 million — making Cool-jams the largest wicking sleep products company in the United States, she says.
Mahaffey urges her fellow 50-and-over business owners, “If you have an idea, don’t be afraid to try to bring it to life.” She continues, recalling her own startup story, “Use your life experience to do something great.”
[Related: 16 Popular Small Business Ideas for Women Entrepreneurs]
One Cool Idea
Mahaffey leaned on her decades of professional experience, and the contacts made along the way, when she started up.
Before Cool-jams, she was a product manager with a business administration degree she earned from the University of San Diego in 1980. She worked at a range of companies, from Bumble Bee Foods and restaurant chains to a bank.
Then, her interests in international business, coupled with time spent in Turkey while studying abroad as a teenager, inspired her to start something of her own. She launched a Turkish social enterprise called Funika Holding in 1987 that paid villagers to make and ship mohair sweaters to the United States. It still exists today, and she has remained involved as a partner.
But in 2007, she happened across a moisture-wicking fiber that she thought would work perfectly as pajamas. In need of cool clothing at the time, she figured she would be the perfect initial test subject. The morning after her first night in them, she awoke cool as a cucumber and ready to get to work on a new business idea.
Following a brief testing phase, Mahaffey called upon her product management experience to construct her supply chain, and tapped into connections to find manufacturers and secure friends-and-family loans.
[Related: A Fashion Veteran Takes on a Tired Market With Chic Nightwear]
Learning Later in Life
Financing wasn’t her only early challenge — Mahaffey also faced a steep learning curve when she chose to start an ecommerce business.
“I knew nothing about online marketing,” she says. “My marketing training was traditional — I’m 61.” She adds that the extent of her tech training came in the form of a coding class taken during her senior year of college, which focused on a coding language that no longer exists.
So when she launched, “I felt like I went back to school.” And she played the role of both teacher and student, choosing to educate herself rather than taking on partners or outsourcing jobs. “I wanted to have control of my business, and be able to make 100 percent of all decisions.” She wanted employees, she clarifies, “but regarding decisions and strategy, and what to do with the profits, I wanted control over that.”
Today, Mahaffey’s team has four in-house employees who handle design, customer service and marketing, as well as six part-time staffers who handle web development, social media, pattern-making and other duties. The rest of her team consists of contracted help — from the workers who run her call center to the SEO experts who keep people coming to her site.
And thanks to her personal crash course in online sales and marketing, she says she’s able to effectively gauge the quality of the work everyone is doing, while focusing the rest of her time wherever she sees fit. Presently, that means overseeing Cool-jams’ new marketing initiatives and move to Shopify’s ecommerce platform, where she hopes tools like translation software will fuel international sales.
[Related: A Retirement Career Emerges from a Beloved Hobby]
On the Horizon
Looking ahead, Mahaffey sees herself one day exiting the company so she can enjoy retirement. And she’s had interest: “Quite a few companies have approached about acquisition,” she says.
But it isn’t the right time to sell. “I’m not ready yet — there’s still so much I want to do,” she says. And she has more to give — Mahaffey commits at least 20 percent of her company’s annual profits to charities like the Breast Cancer Research Foundation and the International Hyperhidrosis Society. She also donates clean excess products to organizations like the Center for Community Solutions, which helps victims of domestic violence get back on their feet.
A lifetime of work experience informs her decisions — “I have much more self assurance and wisdom as a woman over 60,” Mahaffey says — making her confident she’ll know when to take the next leap.
[Related: More on Women Entrepreneurs Who Give Back]