November 6, 2017
By the Numbers

Military family finds entrepreneurship offers healing

PHOTO | Contributed
PHOTO | Contributed
Davina Ismail and her husband Gulaid started a stain-resistant baby clothes retail operation out of their home before opening a shop in New Britain.
PHOTO | Contributed
The Ismails started a mobile boutique shop.
PHOTO | Contributed
A DribbleBabies stain-resistant shirt.

While U.S. Marine Gulaid Ismail was serving in Iraq last decade two of his friends committed suicide. Later, Ismail suffered a nervous breakdown and was honorably discharged. If it weren't for Davina Ismail, his wife and caregiver, he said he'd be in jail or in a grave.

"She gave me purpose to live," Gulaid Ismail said.

Following Gulaid Ismail's military service, the Meriden couple received mental health assistance at the Veterans Center in Rocky Hill in 2008 where they also found another avenue for healing: entrepreneurship.

Davina, a legal secretary, said she always wanted to start a business with her husband, so when a staff member at the Veterans Center made them aware of veteran-owned small businesses, and the services available to them, they jumped at the chance.

Today, the duo own and operate New Britain-based DribbleBabies, an online (www.dribblebabies.com) and brick-and-mortar retailer of stain-resistant baby clothes.

Moving from soldier to entrepreneur was no small feat; the Ismails achieved their dream through hard work, veterans' assistance and help from business mentors.

The business-development ecosystem they've leveraged included UConn's Entrepreneurship Bootcamp for Veterans and a program at Connecticut Public Broadcasting Network, where Gulaid earned a certificate in video editing and Davina one in web-page production.

They also honed their entrepreneurial skills as an incubator company in Central Connecticut State University's Institute of Technology & Business Development (ITBD).

The idea for their startup was sparked in 2013, when the young parents discovered their two-year-old son had acid reflux.

"Anyone who has had small children knows about the drool stage," said Davina Ismail. "Our son went through several outfit changes and we found ourselves sacrificing quality over cost in his clothes. We wanted to provide good baby clothing at affordable prices."

The stain-resistant baby clothes concept was born.

They started the business out of their home in 2013 as a part-time gig, selling online tagless hoodies and pants — from national brands like Magnificent Baby as well as original designs from area seamstresses — stamped with the DribbleBabies name.

They hoped a fun brand name and creative tagline — "Where drool is socially accepted" — would gain traction.

Soon, with a growing family (they have three kids today), inventory took over their house and they needed more space.

That's when they turned to CCSU's ITBD incubator program, which offered affordable rental space and business guidance.

The Ismails viewed the incubator, on Main Street in New Britain, as preparation for a retail store.

"The Ismails ran an exemplary incubator business while at ITBD," said Richard C. Mullins Jr., an executive assistant to CCSU President Zulma Toro, who manages the Institute. "The couple participated in our training programs and speaking events. They took a conservative, managed-growth perspective to growing their business using smart cash flow."

ITBD mentor Chip Janiszewski, a retired manufacturing company president, now does strategic planning, cost and accounting work for incubator companies. He assessed the Ismail's business model leading to company growth.

"With Chip [Janiszewski] we learned to do research before jumping the gun," Davina Ismail said. "Our seamstresses love to sew and we value their input. Still, we needed his help on pricing."

"I wanted markups on their clothing to be profitable and (to ensure) they had a system to track sales," Janiszewski said.

They also brainstormed ideas like making use of Gulaid's veteran status to franchise their business to other veterans.

Janiszewski also introduced the Ismails to a book by business author Michael Gerber: "The E-Myth: Why Most Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It."

The book's theme is that most small businesses fail because they are started by "technicians" who know nothing about running a business. They assume that business acumen is minimal.

After several months in 2015 as an incubator company, the Ismails were ready for a retail store. They bought a building in New Britain, 53 Columbus Blvd., across from a CTfastrak station and began focusing on their business full time.

"We learned after visiting 40 fairs that we sold more in person [70 percent] than online [30 percent]," Davina Ismail said. "New moms and grandparents liked our locally made clothing and its quality."

The Ismails declined to reveal DribbleBabies' annual sales, but said their goal is to increase profit margin and their inventory of Connecticut-made clothing.

"We may charge a bit more than Walmart," Davina Ismail said, "but customers tell us they'd rather have their money going back into the community."

Most items range in price from $10 to $25.

The couple will start a new venture in 2018 when they introduce their children's clothing mobile boutique. Work Vessels for Veterans recently awarded DribbleBabies a van. Sales at town fairs convinced the Ismails of the need for mobile sales.

ITBD's helping hand

CCSU's Mullins said DribbleBabies is a perfect example of a home-based entrepreneurial business that transformed itself after joining ITBD's business incubation program.

"We're a university-based, outreach function dedicated to building the Connecticut economy — through technical and financial training, skill development, industrial modernization, marketing and networking," he said.

The Institute also provides conferencing services. Incubator companies can grow in low-rent office space of 100 to 400 square feet with a break room, copying and mail facilities. Light, heat and parking are provided at no additional charge.

Incubator companies must have a business plan, balance sheet, and $1 million liability policy to enter the ITBD facility. The city of New Britain offers personal property tax incentives to companies that incubate in New Britain.

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