American Dream Achieved
IBA, as an approximately fifty-year old business brokerage firm serving the entrepreneurial community of the Pacific Northwest, has been uniquely positioned since before the American Bicentennial celebration of 1976 to witness and hear the stories of thousands of people who have lived the American dream through entrepreneurship creating beloved businesses by employees, customers, and communities while finding personal fulfillment and financial prosperity through execution of their ideas, hard work, perseverance, and ability. In an effort to share these stories heard throughout the years by our team of business brokers, who are commonly regarded as the “best listeners” in the M&A industry, IBA has retained highly regarded writer, Nesha Ruther, to tell their stories. It is our goal to share one story a month. It is our hope that you will find the stories as inspirational and motivational as they are to us and the buyers who bought the businesses in IBA facilitated transactions in Washington, Oregon, and Alaska.
The Story of Karen Mollison of Peek-a-Boo Creations & Chasing Treasure
By Nesha Ruther
If you had asked Karen Mollison in her early twenties if she thought she might run her own business someday, the answer would have been yes. Raised in an entrepreneurial home, her parents instilled in her the value of self-motivation and a can-do attitude. If you had asked her if she thought she would start, grow, and sell several businesses over her career, that question would have surprised her.
Karen’s journey as an entrepreneur and small business owner unfolded naturally. After completing Religious Studies at Capernwray Bible College in the UK and studying data processing at Bellevue College, Karen accepted a Government Account Sales Representative position for a fast-growing software reseller. “It was a great job; my co-workers were fun, we were a tight-knit team building a new department, and I was learning a lot while making an excellent income at a young age,” she says.
While on maternity leave as a new mother, Karen found an opportunity and caught a case of the entrepreneurial bug. “In the early 90s, organic cotton was emerging as a trend, and finding baby clothes made in the US was uncommon,” she says. “I shopped for soft cotton accessories for my newborn and couldn’t find what I wanted in stores.”
Acknowledging the lack of selection, Karen and her mom made a few items for her new baby girl, Kasey. Karen designed hats and headbands reflecting her love of classic, simple designs, solid colors, and clean lines. “My mom is an excellent seamstress, so she made the designs come to life,” Karen says.
Their hats and headbands were made from soft cotton fabrics for babies to wear safely and comfortably. Interested in seeing if retailers would carry her designs, Karen showed samples to local boutiques and took orders at every appointment. Before long, she realized they had a successful concept on their hands. Karen left her software sales job and used her sales skills to get the headwear line into more boutiques and the department store chain Nordstrom. She called her business Creations and then changed the name to Peek-a-Boo Creations when it came time to incorporate.
As word spread, Karen received interest from more retailers, and customers seemed to love the product. While at playgroups with her small children, she recalls hearing other mothers talk about how much they loved the hats they had bought their little ones, not knowing they were from Karen’s line. The business multiplied, and Karen began to branch out after exhausting local markets. She hired a pattern maker, local sewing contractors, and a sales rep in New York who was pivotal in the brand’s success on the East Coast.
Soon after, her husband Jason joined to take over manufacturing, “In clothing production, pattern pieces are cut from tall stacks of fabric with a machine called a cutting knife.” As an essential part of quality control, Jason handled all cutting in-house and “became a critical piece of the manufacturing process.” Karen, Jason, and her mother, Donna, sold their line at childrenswear trade shows, meeting retailers and taking orders.
As demand grew, she hired more sales reps nationwide and sold directly to larger department stores, including Dillard’s and Costco. She also leased commercial space to house production and order fulfillment. Sewing remained outsourced to reliable contractors in Seattle that sewed the cut fabrics into finished products to be brought back in-house for Donna’s quality management, packaging, and shipping. Karen’s father wrote the office software they used for inventory, packing slips, and shipping labels.
One element of Peek-a-Boo Creation’s business strategy that made it a success was Karen’s commitment to playing to her strengths. Many businesses can stretch themselves too thin by trying to do too much. However, Karen relied on her sales experience to inform her choices and kept the product line focused. “[Peek-a-Boo Creations] was operated as wholesale only,” she says. “We concentrated on selling a high volume of a small line.”
In her previous job, Karen worked with government agencies, selling Software. Karen built relationships with government clients and negotiated deals for the software licenses that they needed. “That job gave me a strong grasp of the importance of profit margin and relationship selling. It was innate for me to price my product profitably and build good relationships as the foundation for my business.”
When building solid relationships with clients, Karen recommends having a sincere interest in the individual and business rather than simply trying to make a sale. “It is important to have a strong interest in the person you’re building the relationship with. I find business interesting and compelling, so building relationships with different retailers and store owners was engaging and came naturally. Being genuinely interested in what your client is doing for their customers and their business model creates the opportunity to provide value.”
Another component that made the business successful was Karen’s unwillingness to compromise her values. Even as demand grew, Peek-a-Boo Creations never took shortcuts or reduced the quality of the product. “We kept our designs simple and cared about quality,” she says. “I cared about the fabrics being 100% cotton and certified safe for babies; that was important to me. It was also important to make our products in the United States. That never changed, and those features made our business stand out.”
Peek-a-Boo Creations also retained the family-run feel of their business even with sewing outsourced and independent sales reps across the US. Karen, Donna, and Jason collectively made significant decisions about the company’s future. “We were all in it together,” Karen says.
With all the benefits of operating a family-run business, unique challenges also come. Peek-a-Boo Creations was born alongside Karen’s first daughter, and shortly after, she had a second little girl. This meant Karen was often juggling a lot.
Karen would take her daughters to work with her when the girls were little and not in school. She set up a play area in Peek-a-Boo Creations commercial building so the kids could be with her, Jason, and Donna. They included the girls in trips to New York and Las Vegas for tradeshows. Karen’s daughters were the reason her business existed in the first place, and having them present gave her even more motivation to succeed. “I was motivated to make it successful because I just wanted to be available for them. Having a flexible schedule allowed me to always be around for my kids,” she says of the relationship between her business and her children. “Things tend to work out when you value them highly. For me, being present for my family is very important. I felt so blessed to be with my kids so much; they were the fuel to my fire and my reason to keep going.”
After ten years of running Peek-a-Boo Creations, Karen and Jason decided to move from Western to Eastern Washington. Noting the business’s success and wanting to avoid finding new sewing contractors or losing their connection by running it from afar, they decided it was time to sell.
Karen began looking for brokers, and after several meetings, she discovered Gregory Kovsky and IBA. “Gregory was just very genuine, and I could tell there was going to be a good relationship early on,” she says.
With IBA’s help, Karen sold Peek-a-Boo Creations to a couple committed to preserving the existing business model. “They kept the same contractors we had in place. It was a nice business in terms of having sales reps to work with the customers, so as the owner, the primary role was making sure the product was made right and orders filled on time,” Karen says.
Karen has always been the type of individual who thrives when challenged. “I enjoy working,” she says. “I know for some it’s a chore, but I enjoy challenging myself and creating income, so I was getting a little stir-crazy not having a business to run.” It was not long before she began thinking about her next venture.
A particular business that caught her eye was a small espresso stand. It had a great location but was never busy. Confident in her business savvy, Karen purchased the business.
Despite the great location, the previous owners operated unpredictable hours, making it difficult for customers to trust and rely on them, resulting in very little business. When Karen took over, she branded it Doppio Espresso and set regular hours. She hired friendly, reliable baristas to staff the espresso stand on a consistent schedule. “The head barista had a wonderful attitude and cultivated a substantial number of reliable regulars,” Karen says. “We ran it how an owner should run a business. We had regular hours, good staff, good product.”
They also switched coffee roasters, finding a local roaster, Cravens Coffee, who they worked with to make a custom roast. They tested the product for the first few weeks of opening and then tweaked it to suit customer tastes better. “We built up a loyal customer base very quickly. “I think when you care about your product, it helps bring in and retain customers,” Karen says.
When a regular customer expressed interest in buying the business from Karen, she sold it for exponentially more than she had bought it for. While she only owned Doppio Espresso for two years, it proved a pivotal transition between Peek-a-Boo Creations and her next business, Chasing Treasure.
After selling Doppio, Karen was intrigued by a new and relatively unknown website. That website was called eBay, and Karen was getting in on the ground floor of a global phenomenon. “I had heard about drop shipping, and it sounded interesting,” Karen says. She began playing around with the concept and testing various products to find which ones were fast and consistent to sell, the result of which may be surprising. “I settled on a market underserved by brick-and-mortar stores, jewelry boxes.”
“I realized after doing more research and hearing from customers that when it came to jewelry boxes sold in stores, there were usually only one or two models to choose from, but on a website, I could offer hundreds of choices. It’s a unique product because everyone has a different-sized collection of jewelry, different types of jewelry, and different personal styles, so there is an opportunity with a website to show a huge selection, allowing customers to find what is perfect for them easily,” Karen explains.
As with Peek-a-Boo Creations, Karen utilized her keen sense of opportunity to capitalize on the moment. It was 2004, and e-commerce platforms were still a novel creation. Few entrepreneurs had made the connection between online ordering and business. Karen realized early on that a merchant did not need a brick-and-mortar store to run a successful business.
Drop shipping is a business model in which the manufacturer sends the product to the customer on your behalf. Compared to what Karen had done with wholesale headwear, the production process and overhead for this new business were nonexistent because, with the jewelry boxes, she did not create or ship them. “I would list the manufacturer’s selection, take the orders, then send them to the manufacturer, and they shipped them directly to the consumer. Never actually stocking inventory; not packing any boxes. It has become a very competitive business model now that so much online activity exists. Still, when I started, it was quite lucrative and a refreshing way to run a business.”
While this no-touch business model has endless benefits, there are unique and potentially problematic challenges, namely product quality. In outsourcing every aspect of product and quality assurance, ensuring you are selling well-made items can be difficult. Products can arrive damaged if the goods are not high-quality or adequately packed for shipping.
Karen was aware of the risk. As she had done with her previous businesses, she prioritized quality and refused to compromise her values. “I studied samples from the manufacturers and made sure I was knowledgeable about what they had,” she says. “There are manufacturers focused on making mass products and absorbing products that come back due to a defect, which is part of their business model. Then, some manufacturers focus on making a product that does not return. I made sure I worked with good brands. That is key, aligning yourself with companies who care about quality.”
Because so many of the physical aspects of drop shopping rely on the manufacturer, Karen vetted them thoroughly. “Communication is huge, especially with that business model. They also needed to make new products because you don’t want a stale offering. Most good brands will make a new collection at least every year, keep what sells, bring in some fresh things, and drop what isn’t well-received.”
Another challenge of the business was its surprising seasonality. E-commerce is a highly seasonal business. The fourth quarter of the year is exceptionally active due to holiday shopping. “It would get crazy busy, with orders flooding in,” Karen says. Sometimes, the holiday season was so hectic that manufacturers would run out of stock or be too behind to ship the products in time to arrive for Christmas. To account for that, Karen would have the manufacturers send her a stash of the bestselling products early in the season and then do a bit of last-minute shipping to ensure late shoppers received their last-minute gifts by Christmas—a real-life Mrs. Claus.
In addition to standard jewelry boxes, Karen sold watch cases and music boxes. Her most popular jewelry boxes were solid wood boxes. “If you have nice jewelry, you want it housed in something quality,” she says. Another favorite was the classic music boxes for little girls with the ballerina on the inside.
While having a quality product is pivotal to running a thriving business, that alone does not guarantee success. After all, it doesn’t matter how great your product is if no one sees it. As the internet developed and changed, so too did Chasing Treasure. Karen stopped selling on eBay and began selling directly from her e-commerce website. “To grow an e-commerce store, you need new customers shopping on the website. I learned pretty early on the importance of Search Engine Optimization (SEO) and Pay Per Click ads (PPC) for traffic growth,” she says.
She began researching best practices for online advertising and implementing them in her strategies. “With SEO, the key is being the best result for what you’re trying to provide. So, if someone is looking for jewelry boxes, you need to be the best website result for that search. Have a clean, easy-to-use website. Don’t do anything risky to try and trick the search engines into thinking you’re the best; go the extra mile and be the best.”
The website received significant organic traffic, and Karen also ran Google Ads. She used the process of trial and error to learn what performed well. She discovered that well-written text ads with a compelling call to action gained clicks, and detailed product descriptions earned conversions.
While running Peek-a-Boo Creations, Karen had the support of her family; with Doppio, she had a hired staff, but with Chasing Treasure, she ran that business independently. “I would talk to suppliers, and they would do their part, but the business itself and talking to customers was all on me,” she says. “That was a challenge because the busier the business got, the more drain there was on my time.”
Another difference was that with Peek-a-Boo Creations, she had stuck strictly to B2B; now, she was selling directly to consumers. “On the one hand, it’s fun because jewelry boxes are often gifts. The husband is buying for the wife, the mother is buying for the daughter, and the grandmother is buying a ballerina box for her granddaughter, so that is a pleasant customer service experience,” she says.
With Peek-a-Boo Creations, Karen’s mother had handled the relationship between retailers and products; if, for some reason, customers returned the product, that was her arena. The intense customer service aspect of e-commerce was entirely new to Karen. “It was an adjustment,” she says. “But I like to see people happy, and I am good at doing what it takes to keep customers happy. It just means having good prices, processing orders on time, and if there is an issue, reacting and resolving it quickly.”
A benefit of having an online store is running it from any location in any time zone. Chasing Treasure fit Karen’s focus on being available for her family. Her daughters were in middle and high school during those years. She stayed actively involved at their schools and with their extracurricular interests. As their daughters were growing up, Jason and Karen prioritized family travel. Karen was able to keep the business running from any destination. They even took their daughters on a fast-paced trip to Europe, with Karen frequenting Wi-Fi cafes in every city they visited to check in and keep orders flowing smoothly for customers.
From baby headwear to e-commerce, Karen has owned a wide range of businesses. Across industries, her commitment to interpersonal relationships has allowed her to succeed. “I place a high value on relationships,” she says. “With all of my businesses, I had good relationships with customers and with the resources I needed to run the businesses. There’s an important underlying commonality there, the ability to develop and maintain good relationships with the people you are doing business with and for.”
After nine years, Karen had grown Chasing Treasure to the point where she could no longer run it alone. In 2012, she felt the natural next step was to sell rather than hire employees. Thankfully, she knew a good broker.
“I had an outstanding experience working with Gregory the first time I sold a business. So, of course, he was the only phone call I made when I was ready to sell Chasing Treasure,” Karen says. “I think Gregory is excellent at evaluating what a business is worth and identifying a match for the next person to take on that business. The second sale with IBA was as pleasant as the first.”
Chasing Treasure was sold to a gentleman with other e-commerce sites looking to merge another online store with his collection. Karen traveled to his location to help transition supplier relationships remotely and train his customer service representative in person for the upcoming busy holiday season. Later, she even did some SEO and Google ads consulting work for his collection of websites. “He had a clear vision for his e-commerce stores and how they could fit into his retirement planning. He is a very nice man and great to work with,” she says of the experience.
After selling Chasing Treasure, Karen began looking into consulting and started freelancing. Her experience with e-commerce proved particularly valuable as more businesses realized the necessity of having an online presence. “I was surprised and encouraged to find that while focused on learning to grow my online business, an industry offering those services had grown around me. It was a bit of a wake-up; the skills I had honed were in demand. I got very busy personally providing SEO and SEM services working with businesses trying to grow online.” Karen says.
With expertise as a consultant and running her own e-commerce business, Karen developed a skill for identifying what a business needs and building custom processes that meet those needs. Driven to grow her new venture by expanding consulting services to include website design and development, she hired web developers. With the addition of software engineers, services grew again to include custom application development and proprietary software products on subscription, formalizing what is now QCM Media, “An e-commerce consultancy and software development company.”
In addition to software engineers, QCM Media employs a UX/UI Designer. She also happens to be Karen’s youngest daughter, Morgan. Growing a business with her daughter is a career highlight for Karen.
QCM Media operates as a remote team, serving national and international clients. Much like she did with Chasing Treasure, Karen can run the business from any location, any time zone. “We work with amazing clients. The variety of industries we get a glimpse into is exciting. Every client is unique in what they offer, how they run their business, and company needs. We embrace that, which sets us apart from other agencies,” Karen says.
Karen began her career selling Software to government agencies. Now, with QCM Media, she is developing websites and applications. It feels very poignant to Karen to have come full circle throughout her career, back to participating in an industry that has transformed from Software sold on a floppy disc to cloud-based Software as a Service.
Made of the same fabric in many ways as entrepreneurs, Karen Mollison and Gregory Kovsky developed a solid professional and personal bond through two successfully completed transactions. Today, Karen & QCM Media are a valued component of IBA’s IT and marketing team, playing significant roles in website creation, evolution, and online organic and paid marketing initiatives. Both believe strongly in doing business with people you know, like, and trust. All three of these boxes are checked on both sides of the relationship.
For small-business owners thinking of selling, Karen advises finding someone you trust. “One of the many reasons I liked working with Gregory was because some of the other brokers I met with early on wanted a fee just to list the business with no guarantee of selling. While there is never a guarantee that your business will sell, IBA takes their fee after they sell, which was quite appealing and helped me trust them. It took some of the risks out of getting involved with a broker,” she says.
For Karen, the American Dream has always been about prioritizing the people she cares about. “I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to create success for myself and others. Having a flexible schedule has been fundamental. When my daughters were in school, being the one to drop them off and pick them up each day was vitally important to me as they grew up. If something came up in the middle of the day, I could take care of them. As a business owner, I have enjoyed that freedom throughout my career. Now that my daughters are grown, I can travel with them and run my business from anywhere. That’s a luxury.”
Nesha Ruther is a writer and editor from Takoma Park, Maryland. She received her BA in English Creative Writing from the University of Wisconsin Madison, where she received a full tuition scholarship through the First Wave program based on academic and creative merits. She was a 2016 Young Arts winner in spoken word, a 2016 winner of the DC Commission of the Arts Larry Neal Writing Award, a 2017 winner of the Mochila Review Writing Award, which was judged by Nikki Giovanni, a 2020 winner of the University of Wisconsin’s Eudora Welty Fiction Thesis Award, and a 2022 Tin House Winter Workshop Participant. She has been commissioned to write and perform for the National Education Association, and has had work published in NarrativeNortheast, Angles Literary Magazine, Beltway Quarterly and more. She currently lives in Cincinnati Ohio and is the Lead Manuscript Developer at Holon Publishing and Collective Press.