What brought you to Italy?
I was working in film production and was called to do the first HBO TV series of Rome in 2004. At the end of the second series I fell pregnant and gave birth to my daughter in 2007.
What led you to start your own business?
It really all started from a nursing point of view. I was part of an English-language mums’ group in Rome; we spent half the time talking about where we got everything from. Often it was brought over by someone’s mother in the US, or shipped from the UK. So I said I would fill this hole.
The Milk Bar now sells a range of products – ranging from breastfeeding clothes to baby carriers – as well as running events such as yoga and baby ballet.
How did you go about launching The Milk Bar?
Being raised as an American, the national viewpoint is that if you work hard enough you can succeed.
I blindly went into it. As I went through the process of launching a business, I realized that Dante’s rings of Purgatory are not fiction. Day-to-day Italian bureaucracy is like the rings of Purgatory. It was definitely a learning curve.
How long did it take to open your first store?
I started doing everything in October 2008 and we opened in May 2009.
Then in 2010 we opened in Milan and in 2012 a Turin franchise was launched. The Turin store is run by an association that does a lot of work with women; they found me and said it was the perfect fit. We’re a retail store but also a big source of information, both prenatal and postnatal.
Last year I sold off the Milan store as a franchise to two bright, dynamic Canadian women.
Are the majority of your customers foreign or Italian?
When I opened in Rome our first customers were expats, because they knew our brands and understood what we were doing. The Italians came a little later; with Italians you have to build trust.
But whereas at first 90 percent of our customers were foreign, now it’s around 40 percent.
Was it easy to begin selling online?
We opened our online store in 2011; it made sense for us but it is different in Italy. People want to sit and look, there’s still a sense of distrust in online shopping.
I already had the business licence and used an American platform to set up online sales, because it was easier.
We also have everything in both languages, that was important to me.
When did you decide to start running courses?
We started doing English-language birth courses two years ago. It was never in my plans but I realized how much time I spent trying to explain to expat women how the Italian system worked.
Quite a few Italian mothers have asked to do birth courses and now we do a meeting for Italian women, to give them information. Our approach is giving women as much information as possible so they can make informed choices.
How has the business climate changed since 2009?
There has definitely been a decline. There’s a big difference between our big spenders five years ago and now; something in Italy is going to have to change.
In my opinion what really needs to change is employment law. There are no small to medium sized businesses because the cost to employ people is too high, so they’re not creating jobs.
At The Milk Bar in Rome it’s myself and my assistant. I wanted to have mums working part time and give them a chance to get back into the workplace, but the cost of that would be impossible.
What advice do you have for people wanting to open a business in Italy?
Love what you do! The thing that gets me through, when my patience has worn thin, is the mothers that come in and thank us.
It’s very hard doing business in Italy but I absolutely love what I do; that has a value that no business plan can show you.