Unsuspecting mom births major business

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CJ Miller never expected her recipe for diaper rash cream to turn into a global line of body creams and lotions. She and her husband, Mark, opened a retail shop downtown earlier this month.

CJ’s BUTTer and CJ’s Unique Boutique

Owners: CJ and Mark Miller

107 N. Tejon St.

344-9867

cjsuniqueboutique.com

There are wildly ambitious entrepreneurs in Colorado Springs who have always known they would start their own business. CJ and Mark Miller are not those people.

“Three years ago, CJ was a stay-at-home mom,” Mark said.

She never imagined that, today, CJ’s BUTTer would be a global corporation selling product in 350 retail stores across 15 countries. Or that her company would have 11 employees manufacturing and shipping products around the world. Or that she and her husband would open a retail shop in downtown Colorado Springs while they shop for a larger warehouse and manufacturing space.

“I really had no aspirations to have a business,” CJ said. “It just kind of fell in our lap and grew from there.”

Three years ago, Mark was working and going to nursing school. CJ had three little redheaded babies at home in cloth diapers with sensitive skin.

“I couldn’t really find anything to use for the diaper rash,” CJ said. “So I made something.”

She went to a mom’s conference on essential oils and developed a cream with all-natural ingredients that helped with her oldest son’s diaper rash. It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time.

“I had intended for it be for my own use — for our family,” she said.

But she started meeting other moms with similar problems on cloth diaper forums, and she sent some free to other parents.

“These cloth diaper moms are the most connected people in the world,” Mark said.

It didn’t take long before strangers started emailing CJ to ask for some of her diaper rash cream. They were offering to pay.

“I figured I better find a way to put it in a jar and sell it,” she said.

When the emails became more frequent, she put up a website. But she was still buying one-pound bricks of shea butter.

In January 2010, everything changed. One of the moms posted pictures of her son’s eczema before using CJ’s BUTTer, another after one day of using the cream and another after the second day. The terrible eczema was completely cleared up after the second day.

And CJ got really busy.

She went from cooking two to three orders a week on her double burner in the kitchen to packaging 15 to 20 orders a day. She outgrew the kitchen and bought commercial cooking equipment, which filled the living room.

The family had to walk sideways through the front door and around the perimeter of the living area to get around boxes filled with hundreds of pounds of supplies, Mark said.

It took up a lot of time, too.

“I got to a point where I had to hire employees, a babysitter or cleaners,” CJ said. “I decided to hire cleaners for my house.”

Soon, retailers started reaching out to CJ and Mark wanting to sell their product.

Mark said he was on holiday break from nursing school in December 2010 and spent eight to 12 hours a day packing orders and getting them shipped out. He finally finished the last wholesale order late on the final day of his break and leaned back in his chair.

Then CJ dropped four new ones in front of him.

“We just looked at each other,” Mark said.

He left school. They found a location at Maizeland Road and Academy Boulevard where they could operate a manufacturing facility and start a boutique.

“That was the moment when we had to decide if we were going to stay small or if we were really going to do it,” CJ said. “I guess that’s when I started to have aspirations for a business.”

Mark sees a strong future for CJ’s, which is no longer just diaper rash cream. It’s a full line of skin-care products in more than 30 scents. It’s in sticks, sprays, lotions, creams and butters. He’d like to continue expanding the retail arm of the business beyond the downtown Colorado Springs store.

“This next year, I’d like to see stores like this open in LoDo in Denver, in Breckenridge, Boulder,” Mark said. “I’d like to expand our brand.”

He can picture it having the downtown presence in different city centers that Bath and Body Works has in malls.

They went to a trade show in Las Vegas earlier this month to pitch CJ’s BUTTer to national retailers like Sprouts and Whole Foods. It was their first active attempt at marketing, CJ said. It definitely took her out of her comfort zone.

“The whole business side of life is new and a little scary,” she said.

The Millers have used their own money and some borrowing on credit cards to get where they are. They have no small-business loans. But Mark said he expects the wholesale business to grow and support retail expansion. CJ’s is currently selling in Canada, Mexico, Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and other locations.

It’s seeing healthy distribution in Europe even though it hasn’t yet received certification for sales in the European Union.

When that certification goes through, CJ said she expects sales to skyrocket. The company will have to find more space and hire more people, she said.

The Millers have made a conscious decision to make all product by hand and invest in employees rather than machines.

“We’d rather give someone a job,” Mark said.

There have been growing pains, CJ admits. It’s been hard at times for the couple to keep up with the expense of expansion. They’ve had to make each step as they could afford it and they’ve stretched themselves and their resources when they felt confident, CJ says. And it’s paying off.

“Our family is fully invested now,” she said. “So, we’re going for it.”