Interview with MaryAnn Ross and Kimberly Lainson of PartyWorks

Do you want to know what it takes to make a Party Work? Ask our Party Girls – MaryAnn Ross and Kimberly Lainson. Life has been a Party for this Dynamic Mother-Daughter Duo ever since they became business partners in 1997. Mary Ann’s vision and Kimberly’s dynamism have led their business to great heights of success.

Instead of building just another online shop, they decided to make it a complete shopping stop and resource center for Party Planning and Cake Decorating enthusiasts.

Together, they own and operate five websites

Party Works

Cake Works

Harry Potter Birthday

Quilting Works

Baby Works

I discovered them while hunting for Cake Decoration ideas. Soon, I realized that they were all over the web! Sumptuous meals, delicious cookies, one-of-a-kind decorations, parties, holidays and what not! And behind these business and creative talents lie two of the most wonderful and lively women I have ever met! Come, see for yourself!

“Be an entrepreneur and put your money where your heart is! ” Mary Ann Ross

1. Let’s start with some background info about you. Please tell us about your life before you started your current business.

Kimberly: I am married to a chef and a mother of 4 teenage boys – 17, 15, 14 and almost 13. I started working at 13 in my parents restaurants and ended up working in the airfreight business and then at Rockwell as the administrative assistant to the VP of education. I help put on 7 day seminars with 7 different speakers for the VP’s of Rockwell. It was great fun working with them and the speakers, hotels and all aspects of running this seminar. I worked from home for a year traveling to the seminars and starting our internet business with my mother.

Mary Ann: I was a stay-at-home mom until my children were in middle school and gained great knowledge from all my volunteer work. I started back part-time as a secretary. I’ve worked for two major corporations as an Executive Assistant but my last job, before retiring, moving to a rural location and starting an internet business with my daughter, was a dream job. I worked for a group of people that were successful entrepreneurs organizing their business meetings and parties by hiring Lear Jets, limousines and sending them on trips that were out of the norm. They were high profile celebrities in the business world and demanded perfection. I learned a great deal and was sad to take an early retirement, which I failed within the first year!

2. How did your career in the Cake-Decoration and Party Biz unfold? Did you undergo any special training for it?

Kimberly: Actually mom’s answer below is totally accurate! It did start as a joke to get my mother out of her fridge… I just couldn’t see a fridge being organized… I mean open the door and place the object in an empty hole… who cares where or what shelf it goes! LOL

Mary Ann: I had taken early retirement at age 55 and moved from my lifelong residence in the Los Angeles area (big city) to a very rural farming and ranching community in northeastern Washington State. I loved and still love where I live, it is perfect but at the time I moved, I really didn’t know how to retire and I FAILED! As a woman of my generation, I was taught to take care of my husband, take care of my children and when I went back to work when my children were older, I took care of my boss. Suddenly I was retired and could do anything I wanted but I had no passions not to mention the guilt of doing something or anything for myself.

This is a true story – I started alphabetizing everything in the bathroom and pantry, including labels. When I got to the refrigerator and started putting baskets with labels, my daughter and her husband knew I needed a life! My daughter and her family moved to the same area and she was computer-knowledgeable. We talked about starting an Internet business and when trying to think of what we could do, we suddenly came upon meeting and party planning because both of us had extensive experience in this field. We didn’t want to actually conduct parties so we decided upon supply party-goods and then within a year or so added cake decorations, party favors and mylar balloons to make us a one-stop shopping experience.

3. Was your business an instant success? Or were there lots that we don’t yet know about?

Kimberly: Oh my gosh… noooooooooo it took at least a year (some of it playing) to work out the details and put together our business plan (my father said it was a must). We used SCORE which is a group of retired executives who are there to help you start your business and answer your questions. We had to learn how to create a website and then how to create a web business. We had to learn about search engines and submitting. We had to learn to add content and that it was a key to getting people to visit and hopefully buy from your site. We also learned that by adding our photo’s we created a real people site – people could see us and know we really existed and that it is not just some website that is impersonal. We started working with other sites and exchanging articles, links, ad swaps and sig swaps… it was a real challenge to build traffic and to keep getting your site out where people could find it without spending thousands of dollars on advertising. We researched our competition and have seen them start to copy what we do – so we must be doing something right!

Mary Ann: No, not an instant success, it took months, weeks, days and tons of hours, hours, hours to come to where are now today. Like many people wanting to start an Internet business, we thought we could work from home, not work hard and make lots of money, which is very laughable, as we have learned from experience. There is much to learn about cyberspace business and after the initial website design with products, traffic must be driven to the website in order to make sales. It took much dedication to get ranked as high as we are in the Search Engines so we started writing articles asking other websites to use our articles in exchange for a direct link to our website. We then became involved with several groups of websites that cater to the women and began and still do exchange banner ads, signature ads and content that is different to gain attention.

4. You have chosen the World Wide Web as your arena and media. Was it a tough decision to part ways from the stereotype business setup? How did that decision contribute to your success?

Kimberly: Not really sure – we just came up with it and we live in the middle of know where with 1 traffic signal in town and if you blink once while driving through then you miss our town completely. Having a store front just didn’t seem like it would work here – not enough foot traffic and we had seen several other local businesses fail – it was very scary to think of having a store front with rent or building payments and all the overhead. We started in my parents house in one bedroom. Moved to an outbuilding and then took over most of my father’s shop. All on their property so the overhead was minimal. Now we are in a store front in town on Main Street. We now have to learn how to be an internet business and a store front… a whole new ballgame.

Mary Ann: The opportunity existed to start a business on a shoestring through the Internet. The difficulty that existed for me was that I was use to working administration in large corporations with some retail experience. While this background lends itself to Internet businesses, there is a whole lot of information we had to learn on our own. When we started six years ago, not much was available on cyberspace business.

5. Please tell us more about your work. What goes into it? What do you enjoy most about your work?

Mary Ann: As the website grew, we added more products and we added more websites. As all of this grew over the last five years, the business became a job. Kimberly is our web guru (we nicknamed her “MS. KIM-puter”) and is responsible for accounting and payroll, inventory, purchasing, new products and shipping. I write articles (which I love) and I am responsible for administration, warehouse, employee relations and entrepreneurial stuff. Earl (husband and Kim’s father) is our CEO, CFO, President, construction worker, mover, janitor and general all-around go-fer. He keeps us in business with his 33 years of experience and his graduate work in business/finance. Thank goodness for him!

6. What would be your advice to other women who want to start their own business in the Cake/Party biz? Does it require a large investment? Is some kind of formal training essential?

Kimberly: DON’T do it! LOL Well for anyone who wants to be a stay at home mom and make money this is definitely not the right business! It is a lot of work – we were working from 3:00 am until late and after the kids went to sleep. When you own your own business you are responsible to get things done. While we do have the benefit of taking a day off if we need to or taking the kids to appointments… you still have to get the work done – so you make up for it by spending extra time. It is not a 9:00 to 5:00 job. When we started it was fun – we had time to play and were excited to ship our couple of orders a day or week… then word started getting out and we now had lots of packages to send and had to hire people. Now you were not only responsible for you but now you had employees, payroll and payroll taxes UGGH! We love what we do but I cannot stay home all day or take time off whenever I want to. Yes, sometimes I work in my PJ’s but it is normally before the rooster crows in the morning or after all are in bed sleeping.

Mary Ann: Best piece of advice I can give is for anyone (woman or man) wanted to start a business is to prepare a Business Plan and learn everything they can about how to start, set-up and maintain a business as well as knowledge of their products and who will be their market. SCORE is an absolutely wonderful organization that offers free guidance with an online mentor. I value this organization and recommend it to everyone that writes to us asking how to start his or her own business. A person in the party industry must be creative and know how to put on a party on a budget, etc. If selling cake decorations, they must be bakers and decorators. You can’t successfully sell something if you don’t know all about it. We specialize in children’s birthdays, baby showers and cake decorations. We are self-financed because we didn’t want to borrow money because of our age and the inability to jump back into the marketplace to work for someone else if the business failed. To do it right, it does take a sizable investment. We started out purchasing from local party suppliers at discounted prices and then gradually began ordering directly from the manufacture. Ordering from a manufacturer or distributor initially requires a major first order, followed by smaller re-order dollar amounts. Warehouse space is needed for storage plus office space and packing/shipping areas.

7. Party Works, Cake Works, Harry Potter Birthday, Quilting Works, Baby Works – Do you manage all your websites and ezines yourself? It must be quite a task.

Kimberly: Yes… we do manage all ourselves. While I do most of the web work – mom does add content and keeps up our products in our store – adding new products, updating out of stocks and deals more with the orders and customers. We have 5 websites and 1 store. And yes mom does scare me when it comes to web stuff! LOL

Mary Ann: Kimberly manages the websites, ezines, contests and site content. She is amazingly skilled and very creative. Me? I am way too impatient and start pounding the keyboard. It makes Kim very nervous when I am doing any type of web work or Excel spreadsheets. But hey, isn’t that what a mother is for – to be a problem to her child?

8. Mary Ann, how does it feel to work in partnership with your own daughter? Who’s the boss (smile)? How do you divide the tasks between yourselves? Who  has been an inspiration to whom?

Mary Ann: I LOVE working the business with Kimberly, we have been best friends besides mother and daughter. We get along amazingly well that it surprises everyone around us, including her father. Neither one of us considers ourselves to be the boss, it is just not a control issue and never has surfaced. We each have our own areas and talents and we respect each other immensely.

Sometimes we make what we call and executive decision without discussing it first and we always support the other person. I cannot think of one time that either of us made the wrong decision, it is just that harmonious. When we first started our business in a spare room in my home (we graduated to a small building, then a larger building, now to a storefront, office and warehouse / shipping), I realized pretty quick that Kimberly was not telling me what she thought. I figured out that she was raised to respect her elders and after all, I AM her mother.

Our solution was simple. If I am in the office with her, we are business partners. If I step over the threshold of the office, I am her mother. It worked from the moment we agreed on doing this. We gave a seminar at a Chicago Trade Show two years ago on family business and in the preparation of the speech, we realized we had never had a fight or argument. I started calling people that had family businesses to learn how they handled disagreements. We added this information to our data and about a week before we were to leave for Chicago, Kimberly and I had a disagreement. It was serious and last all of about 10 whole minutes before we were hugging, crying and apologizing to each other. It was funny but it was us! We inspire each other and we move each other. As things arise, one of us takes a leadership role. Our saying was that of General MacArthur from World War II: “Lead, Follow of Get Out of the Way”.


Click Here to Join Mary Ann and Kimberly on the Party Works Message Boards!

9. What do you like to do when you are not working?

Kimberly: QUILT… it is my passion in life and everyone needs a passion. My oldest son is now quilting too and very artistic in not only quilting but drawing, crafts and other artsy things. The other boys just want the quilts we make! LOL I love to spend time with my husband and the boys (when they are not at each others throats).

Mary Ann: Reading, needlepoint/cross stitching, crossword puzzles, baking, cooking, eating, off-roading, playing cards, Backgammon and board games, volunteering and being with my husband, family and grandchildren. My time is devoted to my sweet companion, Ms. Sadie, the sweetest 11-year old Pomeranian and business! And I love writing articles and children’s stories.

10. Your views on Matrimony and Motherhood? How did they affect your personal and professional life?

Kimberly: I believe that when you get married that you are committed. It isn’t always easy but just because times are rough it doesn’t mean run away. It means waiting it out and learning to fix what is broken or wrong. My husband and I have been through some really rough times and even counseling and no matter what we were committed and are still committed to each other. We have been married almost 18 years. We even had role reversal for a few years… After I had my last child I worked in labor until the men I was in a meeting with couldn’t stand it any longer and made me go to the hospital. I then went back to work 1 week later and left my husband to be Mr. Mom with 3 kids in diapers and 4 kids at home. It was fabulous – he cooked, cleaned, did laundry and took care of the boys. I hated housework, laundry and child care LOL… I love my kids but I enjoyed letting my husband deal with naps, diapers and tantrums.

Mary Ann: Celebrating our 41st anniversary in a few weeks, I have to admit I like it but only because my husband is adorable, loving and supportive. We’ve had our ups and downs, good times and bad times and feel very blessed that our marriage has survived and because it has, it is nearly perfect. I loved being a mother and spending time with my children. Kimberly will tell you and this is the truth, I MADE her play games. I love being with children, hey are so open and energetic. Many of my grandchildren’s friends call me “Mrs. Grandma” and it makes me feel warm and fuzzy all over. Because I do not have young children, I have it free and easy. Kimberly, though, has four children (ages 12 to 17) who are very active and she plays taxi driver to the point she is exhausted keeping everything going. More good news about getting older is I sleep less, don’t have PMS and the hair on my legs grows slower!

11. Who are/were the people who are/were instrumental in your success?

Kimberly:My parents were very instrumental in my success. I started working in the family business at 13 and they taught me that it didn’t matter who I worked for or what I did – just do my best and put out 110+ %.

Mary Ann: Success as a person would be my mother, my father, my husband and several warm, caring, sharing best friends. Business success was doing the best job I could for my employers, which gained me promotions and advanced skills. The job I retired from was the dream job I wanted to have for years and I didn’t even realize it was until I retired.

12. What lies ahead?

Mary Ann: A few months ago we signed an agreement with a major online corporation to sell our products on their website. The launch and media blitz is scheduled for next week sometime and we cannot reveal the name because we signed a Confidentiality Agreement. This new venture will give us a lead in the cake decorating and party supply industry… who could have known six years ago when we were in a little spare room in my house? We are blessed with this ground floor opportunity!!!! We’ll continue to work our web sites and the separate new venture, hopefully to one day sell and let someone else continue the business growth!

Kimberly: One day I really hope to have a quilting store!

13. What business/personal advice would you like to give to the women reading this?

Mary Ann: Create your dream and take footsteps towards it. If business experience is not in your background, go back to school or to SCORE to learn what it takes to be in business and make money. If you want an Internet business, it requires hours and hours of work and if you have small children, you can become computer/business addicted and ignore being a mother and wife – it is a very delicate balance. Keep the dream going. Believe in the your dream! Be an entrepreneur and put your money where your heart is!