Before Kerry Leikus had children, she went to law school, passed the bar and planned to practice. But in 2005, while pregnant with her second son, she became preoccupied with another matter: She couldn't find a single stylish maternity belt.
She started to play around with vintage-inspired wovens, and realized she could design a belt herself. Soon she'd created a number of reversible styles, and her company, Keggy Belts, was formed.
It was 2005, and business was booming. Celebrities like Jessica Alba and Jessica Biel quickly became fans, and upper-middle-class women were happy to spend $250 to $650 for an accessory with homespun appeal.
But three years later, everything changed. As the stock market plummeted and the housing market fell into a tailspin, retailers began to panic. Lehman Bros. filed for bankruptcy on Sept. 15, 2008, and Congress authorized a $700 billion bank bailout. The government brokered sales of the investment banks Bear Stearns and Merrill Lynch, yet department stores continued to falter, with little help at all.
"All of a sudden I was going to meet with department stores, and the buyers had completely changed their tone," Leikus, 40, recalled. "They were nervous, and they wanted a sure sell. They told me, 'You got it. We love it. But we can't order it.'"
Like countless other small-business owners, Leikus realized that if she wanted to stay afloat she would have to change her materials, manufacturers and staffing policies. Wovens, which were hard to mass produce, were replaced by faux leather and interchangeable pewter buckles (though Leikus continued to produce a very limited quantity of the wovens). "In order to create woven belts, there are huge minimums," Leikus explained. "I had to order thousands of yards in order to make my line." That meant fronting $60,000 to $70,000 out of pocket, which became precarious in a crippled economy.
"With faux leather belts I can purchase by the yard, and there's no minimum. For approximately $30, I can make 10 to 12 belts." By bringing costs down, Leikus recently inked a deal with the home-shopping network QVC, and is due to start selling the new line of belts on the channel this April. "The bauble-like buckles can be swapped on whim," she explained, "and the straps come in hundreds of colors."
Leikus also changed her manufacturer and tapped into a talent pool overlooked by big businesses: mothers of young children. "I'm a mother of two boys," she said. "I try to do my work when they're in school or at night after they've gone to bed. A lot of my friends who are moms have the same schedule."
The only downside? "These are moms. Kids get sick. They'll say, 'Can we meet at 10:00 or 11:00 instead?' You have to be flexible."
Bonnie Marcus, the owner of Bonnie's Style Press, a high-end card and invitation business, also had to be flexible. "Ten years ago, when I was working with brides on their invitations, the sky was the limit," she remembered. "People were proud to spend a lot of money, whether it was on a handbag, shoe or card. But consumers have become savvier the last few years, and they're often looking for bargains."
Marcus's holiday cards, which were sold in high-end department stores, used to feature stylish illustrations of women with shopping bags. But the image wasn't sitting well with buyers. They felt that people no longer wanted to be associated with spending. The advice? "Cut the shopping girls."
"We've changed our whole business model," Marcus, 40, said. "We used to manufacture all our products ourselves. Now we've developed strategic partnerships with companies like American Greetings that can produce in bulk at a much lower cost."
Hundreds of small stationery stores have gone out of business, including the much-loved Kate's Paperie and Swoozie's, while upscale invitation sites like Paperless Post have started to draw a luxury clientele. "You really have to stay on your toes," Marcus said.
With approximately 2.4 million weddings each year in the United States - and an estimated $165 billion spent on them - traditional invitation companies are intent on keeping brides away from evites. Marcus believes that it's impossible to duplicate the look and feel of paper and an envelope. Nevertheless many stationery companies are now producing in China in order to remain competitive. The quality coming out of China has vastly improved in the last few years, Marcus said, and that's put added pressure on domestic manufacturers who have "been pushed to the limit."
Sisters-in-law Olivia and Hali Thornhill had the opposite experience when they decided to start their fine-jewelry business, Liv Haley, in 2008. After producing in Bali for one season, they quickly realized that the travel and shipping costs were exorbitant. So they switched to domestic production in Los Angeles.
"The recession and rising cost of metals definitely dictated how we decided to launch the brand," Olivia, a former Hollywood stylist, said. In December 2008, the jewelry magazine JCK found that almost half of the jewelry retailers surveyed were very affected by the financial crisis. Ten percent were also having trouble getting loans, credit and financing. The Thornhills were extremely aware of the problem. So they chose to set diamonds and semi-precious stones in sterling silver and 14-karat gold, instead of 18-karat. "We wanted to make the price points appealing and affordable in uncertain times."
Liv Haley's prices -- ranging from $250 for sterling silver earrings to $4,500 for a 14-karat gold piece with semi-precious stones and diamonds -- will never compete with the prices of fashion jewelry at Target or Macy's. But they're not meant to. "All our jewelry is hand-cut and hand-rolled," Olivia, 39, explained. "With a handmade product, these price points are very competitive."
Between Leikus, Marcus and the Thornhills, the women have nine children under the age of 10. On a typical day, Leikus, who works from home, has to contend with breakfast bowls, piles of laundry and a guinea pig named Mittens. But she's never considered renting an office space. There's only one thing that bothers her: "I'm near the kitchen," she joked. "And when I'm stressed, I eat."