Tue, 30 July 2019
Against the Odds
How Raegan Moya-Jones built a $100 million business from the ground up—no fancy MBA required.
Raegan Moya-Jones was an Aussie in New York City, pregnant with her first daughter, and she couldn’t find the right baby blanket.
Every Australian mother from time immemorial had swaddled her baby in a cotton muslin blanket, and Moya-Jones wanted to do the same. But no matter where she looked, she couldn’t find one.
Rather than simply becoming frustrated by the futile search, she had an idea.
“I figured that all Aussie parents couldn’t have it wrong, and if I introduced it to American parents, they’d feel the same way,” she says. “Luckily for me, my hunch was right!”
Moya-Jones went on to found the successful baby product company aden + anais (partly named for her first daughter), publish a book about her journey, and launch a second business all while raising four daughters.
Even when success turned sour, as it so often can in the entrepreneurial world, she didn’t let that stop her. Moya-Jones has weathered the heartbreaking end of a partnership and gut-wrenching business betrayals, becoming stronger, wiser, and more successful for it.
A Rocky Start
In 1997, Moya-Jones moved from Australia to New York, after her Chilean boyfriend landed a new job. She was partway through an MBA, but put it on hold to be with the man who is now her husband.
Without a visa, she struggled to find work, but eventually managed to land a position at the Australian consulate. Through connections she built there, she moved into a job at a conference company and then into a position as a sales executive with The Economist, where she worked for over a decade.
It was when she learned she was expecting her first child in 2003 that she began that fateful search for the perfect swaddle.
For three years, she toyed with the idea of starting that business. As a first-time entrepreneur, she had to learn everything from product design to manufacturing, but in 2006, she set out to launch her brand.
While she may not have had a completed MBA under her belt, she had years of experience in sales, a degree of common sense she felt she could truly rely on and, above all else, the drive to work as hard as it took.
“I really am a huge believer that common sense and work ethic are the two keys to building a successful business. They’re the two most important things,” she says. “At the end of the day, it’s how much work you’re prepared to put in to be successful. I could never, ever have estimated how much work had to go into building a business from scratch.”
For the next three years, Moya-Jones would work her day job, then return home to spend quality time with her family (which now included three daughters). But once the bedtime rituals were complete, she burned the midnight oil building her business, from 8:30 p.m. until 3:30 a.m.
“It was pretty brutal,” she says.
But the odd hours she kept weren't the only tough part from the early stages of aden + anais.
Moya-Jones launched her business with her friend Claudia Schwartz, and for the first few years, they worked together flawlessly. They initially invested $15,000 each into the company to build a basic Yahoo website, design a logo, and make their first manufacturing order. They anticipated the investment would last them six to 12 months.
The money ran out after eight weeks.
They each invested another $30,000, but at this point, Moya-Jones had run through her savings. Timing is everything, and it wasn’t on their side.
“We were starting out during the worst recession since the Great Depression, so it wasn’t really good timing in terms of having access to capital and people wanting to loan us money,” she says.
So Claudia made an additional investment that Moya-Jones was unable to match, and once they asked Claudia’s father-in-law to grant them a $200,000 loan, Moya-Jones says she noticed a bubble of resentment growing.
“I think the disparity in what I could contribute financially to what Claudia could was one of the biggest catalysts for the partnership dissolving,” she says.
Moya-Jones says she found three other women to buy out Claudia’s 49% share in the business, and in 2008, the partnership ended.
Off Like a Rocket
Although Moya-Jones was struggling through the personal blow of saying goodbye to a friend, aden + anais was steadily growing into a healthy, flourishing business.
“It was a rocketship in the early stages, for sure,” she says.
The muslin blankets were an instant hit, and thanks to 20 years of sales experience, she was well equipped to get the products to those who wanted them most. Moya-Jones loaded up taxis with samples of her product and went door to door sharing it with every store that might be interested.
“That’s where definitely my sales experience came in handy because I was extremely comfortable with that part of the business,” she says.
In the early 2000s, brick-and-mortar stores still reigned supreme, so she wasn't yet focused on the ecommerce side of the business. She also chose to build relationships with existing retailers, rather than launching into fraught competition with them.
“We didn’t want to piss off the retailers by competing against them with our own website and sales and everything,” she says. “Then, Amazon entered the picture, and of course, all bets were off at that point.”
Meanwhile, Moya-Jones was still balancing her company with her day job. She didn’t want to cause financial strain on her family, which would eventually grow to four daughters, and she didn’t want to put added pressure on her business to perform.
“It was my conscious decision to choose sleep deprivation over any kind of financial pressure on my family and on the business in the early stages,” she says. But the years of toil took their toll.
“There were definitely times when my hair was falling out,” she admits.
She still believed in her business, though, so she powered through the strain, set a goal for when she would leave her day job, and waited for the right moment to arrive.
“Statistically, only 2% of all women-owned businesses ever break a million dollars in revenue,” she says. “I knew it was a pretty stretch goal, and so I sort of said, ‘Well, if I can get to a million in revenue, then I’m prepared to dive fully into aden + anais and quit my day job and give it a really good go,’ which is what I did.”
In 2009, Moya-Jones went full time with the company.
But even though her business was a success, she still needed additional investments to keep the business alive. She borrowed money from just about anyone who would lend it to her for nearly a year and a half after the dissolution of her partnership.
“Initially, it was friends and family, and then it was friends of friends, and then once we got to the point where it was just obvious that we were never going to be able to scale doing it that way, that’s when I went out and looked for investment money,” she says.
Although the business had traction, Moya-Jones says that she struggled to find investors. But in 2010, her first investor came aboard. That investment led to aden + anais’ first year of $10 million in revenue.
A Dark Day and a New Dawn
With the acquisition of another business in 2016, aden + anais pushed past the $100 million mark. But even as Moya-Jones’ success continued to blossom, disaster loomed on the horizon.
In 2013, the first investors in the business departed, and their parting piece of advice to Moya-Jones was to bring in another private equity firm to share the load. They could never have known what this would mean for the company’s future. The new firm bought the majority share of aden + anais, which would lead to an internal struggle for the future of the business.
“That’s when the whole thing started to go downhill for me,” she says. “We did not agree on the way forward. I don’t think they really understood me. This is the whole Stanford, Harvard, Yale backgrounds coming up against the crazy, opinionated Australian girl who has no education on a piece of paper to show. We just didn’t see eye-to-eye on very much at all. It was sort of the beginning of the end to tell you the truth.”
Outspoken about her disagreements as she saw her beloved company moving in a direction she didn’t support, Moya-Jones was informed in 2016 that she was being moved from the position of CEO.
“My story is actually way more common than I think people realize,” she says.
After a string of failed replacements, a new CEO finally stuck, and in 2018, Moya-Jones was fired from her own company.
“It was a pretty awful time,” she says.
But the new firm had the controlling interest in the company, so they were well within their rights to show her the door. And it wasn’t as though Moya-Jones had planned to run the company forever. The luster of serving as CEO of a massive business had already started to fade for her, and she missed the rush of innovation.
“Once you get up to the $60, $70, $80 million dollar mark, you just become the person that all you’re dealing with is shit every day,” she says. “The fun stuff everybody else is handling. The only time you’re really needed is when it’s too hard for somebody else or they don’t want to make the decision and deal with it.”
But she still wishes she would never have sold the majority share, at least until she was prepared to exit on her own terms instead of being forced out as CEO.
“I’m grateful in that I ended up making a very nice amount of money from aden + anais, but it’s definitely bittersweet. If I could do it all over again, I would do it differently.”
To this day, she is still the single largest individual shareowner in aden + anais.
But her story wasn’t over. In fact, a publisher soon approached Moya-Jones and asked her to share, well, what it takes.
While she was initially hesitant because, as she says, until the business reached about $50 million in revenue, she was operating largely on common sense, she decided to move forward with the book when the publisher said they didn’t want a conventional outline of what it took to become successful. They just wanted her story.
“To say I’m the antithesis of the MBA-educated business mind is an understatement,” she says.
And in her book, What It Takes: How I Built a $100 Million Business Against the Odds, she shares just how she did it and hopes she inspires others to do the same. She believes that anyone could follow in her footsteps without any kind of training or prior experience, as long as they are willing to put in the work.
And being asked to leave aden + anais didn’t keep the tenacious Moya-Jones down for long. Today, she is elbow-deep in a brand new business that has taken her “from babies to booze.” In June 2018, she co-founded the moonshine company Saint Luna Spirits.
“We wanted to create a high-end moonshine that was served in five-star restaurants and the best cocktail bars out there,” she says.
The business has already won gold and silver medals at spirit competitions, and after only a few weeks on the market, the label already appears in renowned establishments across New York, such as Jean-Georges and Employees Only.
“It’s super fun to be back in the trenches building something and creating,” Moya-Jones says.
And no matter what she does or where she goes next, by weathering the storms of her first business, Moya-Jones has proven unequivocally that she has what it takes.
Raegan Moya-Jones Tips for Entrepreneurs
Through successes and trials, Raegan Moya-Jones has build up an extensive bank of knowledge when it comes to launching and shepherding businesses, and these are some of the tips she shares with every entrepreneur she meets.
“Not all people have common sense, but what I’m trying to say is you don’t need to be an expert in really anything, I believe, to start and build a successful business.”
“Never, ever sell the controlling interest of your company if you’re still passionately involved in it and dedicated to it.” Unless you are looking to exit a company for good, Moya-Jones recommends that founders think twice before relinquishing control, even for a nice payout.
“Everyone’s going to have an opinion. There will always be the people who want to come in once you’re successful to change the way you do things.” Moya-Jones reminds founders to trust their instincts and remain true to the things that help them launch and grow their business, even if others disagree.
Interview by Nathan Chan, feature article reprinted from Foundr Magazine, by Erica Comitalo