Family-Friendly Entrepreneurship


Digital be damned: Blackberries aren't for everyone. Paper day planners still give ubiquitous PDAs a run for their money, especially when it comes to moms.

Dotmine Day Planners, helmed by the Ann Arbor duo of Lisa Edwards and Sarah Nicoli, sells more than 100,000 day planners each year in three formats. And they retail far below the $200 price point for most electronics, often landing somewhere between $14 and $20 each.

"You can't rip out a list with a hand-held anything. There are still places in the world where technology doesn't do a better job. This doesn't have to be backed up. You can see everything at once – daily, weekly and monthly views," Nicoli says.

Almost anything goes for the arty covers of the company's calendars. There are only a few must-haves. Buttery yellow is an upward-trending color. Cherries are a signature motif. Pink is a Dotmine classic.
"I love it just as much as I did 10 years ago. We updated the fonts once. We change the quotes every year," Edwards says.

The pair left corporate life at the same time and decided to launch Dotmine together in 1999. After careers pitching underwear and laundry detergent, the Dotmine founders have embraced entrepreneurship - never forgetting that family comes first. They say the company came from a combination of the right ideas and the right people. People who met in their first-borns' play group, that is. "Ten years ago, we had kids in diapers. Now we have kids that can drive themselves. We're in such a different place. The amount of time we have (to give to the business) has grown," Nicoli says.

They've branded themselves as mom-slash-organizers. Their mantra: "If it’s right, we'll figure out how to get it done." With seven children between them - Edwards has four, Nicoli three - they're living la vida Dotmine.

In all, the Ann Arbor company offers twenty or more covers each year, including several that are exclusive to Borders. Dotmine's products are sold in Borders calendar departments. The book and music chain's 2,000 sales points hold much allure for small companies such as Dotmine. They also sell on Amazon, in independent stores, and online at

One new cover design features stylized roses that recall the work of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, a Scottish designer who worked in the early 20th century. Roses are replacing formerly stylish chrysanthemums, the Dotmine partners say. "We draw our art from many sources. We work with a young local artist who really gets the colors, brightness, and esprit de corps. Big companies can't do that," Nicoli says.

Conversely, there are colors and looks to avoid. "Brights - colorful things - sell better. Naturals and earth tones don't have a good shelf presence. It's a challenge to grab attention and hearts," Edwards says.

"Almost every year, there's one clear favorite with customers. A few years back, the whole layering thing came out. Our product line matches fashion, in that case, lots of accessories," Nicoli adds.

Many Dotmine products have pages lined with perforated strips for making lists, which can be torn off and taken on the road. The baby sitter page can be left open as needed for a display of essential contacts and information.

Dotmine's annual sit-down with Borders finds Edwards and Nicoli loaded with two or two-and-a half times as many covers as the retailer will eventually order. Their sales cycle is seasonal, but it's a long season – April through February. Next year's planners will be shipped in March and will cover August 2011 through December 2012. All of the books offer 17-month coverage for calendar and academic years.

Yes, snort in derision, you digital schedulers. But be honest. How many times do you really look more than a year and a half into the future? How often have you wished for a permanent, easy-to-access record of past events?

"Planning ahead is a key principle for resiliency and how families work. Sometimes that just means having a conversation or divvying up responsibility so there isn't just one person who's in charge," says psychologist Barbara Fiese. Dr. Fiese is professor and director of the Family Resiliency Center at the University of Illinois and the author of Family Routines & Rituals. The center's work focuses on advancing knowledge and practices that strengthen families, helping them meet life's challenges and thrive.

"It's important for families to be a little bit flexible and find their own unique way to organize their daily routine. I appreciate the use of calendars and schedules. That works for some families. For others, it can become a burden and they can become driven by the calendar," Fiese says.

The mom/writer behind the blog has no doubts about the value of a family calendar: "The calendar style is my favorite part about this planner. Each day has its own box where you can write down the information. On the sides, there is room for notes!" she raves. Pull-out master schedules for fall, spring and summer, stickers for highlighting events and pockets to hold anything that can't be crammed between the pages are other plusses that Deal Wise Mommy calls out in her review of the family.time.mine model.

Nickelodeon's ParentsConnect blog is even more enthusiastic than Deal Wise Mommy. A recent posting reads: "We wanted to shout Hallelujah! when we got our hands on a dotmine day planner not too long ago. When we realized our former planner wasn't cutting it, we searched and searched for an alternative, and boy, did we find the answer to our scheduling prayers."

That enthusiasm has been reflected at cash registers. "Sales are going well – going fabulously, in fact. We've hired our first employee – she's in charge of social media and blogger outreach. We've been mentioned on more than 50 blogs this year -- blogs for pregnant moms, home-schoolers. The home-schooling market is huge for us," Nicoli says.

"Our presence had made a huge difference with fans on Facebook. Lisa and I make sure we call or email everyone personally. They so appreciate hearing from us. They feel like they're part of the family."

Despite the growth of competing lines, Edwards and Nicoli say their product is still superior. "There are more and more competitors: In office stores, art/graphic supplies they are everywhere, but they're not as carefully thought out as ours. They have the wrong blue," Edwards says.

On the pesky question of when and if to present Dotmine in a digital format, the future is clear - it's going to happen. "Our (current) product line doesn't sync with the electronic world. It's for people who need a tactile planner, who like to check things off. Our next big undertaking will be an app – bridging paper with the technical aspect," Nicoli says. "More than likely the app will be a download. We want to be sure we aren't a me-too. We want to know our customers' needs. We'll learn with focus groups."

They're also considering other types of life management products. Anything that's added as a brand extension must be meaningful for Dotmine customers, they say.

The rest of their wish list includes working with a big mass market company – ideally Target. Nicoli admits to a yen for a celebrity spokesmodel or at least an admitted Dotmine user. Most of all, they'd like more time to develop all the marketing and product ideas on their lists.

"We've grown mostly through word of mouth," Nicoli says. "Social media has exploded for us. We feel we've grown authentically. We haven't compromised personal standards. We're moms first."

Constance Crump has an impeccable sense of timing. Must be her ability to schedule. She's also an Ann Arbor writer whose work has appeared in Crain's Detroit Business, The Ann Arbor News, The Detroit Free Press, and Billboard Magazine.  Her previous article was Urban Destination: Washtenaw Avenue?

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All photos by Doug Coombe


L to R Sarah Nicoli and Lisa Edwards  on the steps of the Dixboro Schoolhouse

Sarah and Lisa at Dixboro's MoonWinks Cafe

Lisa, Sarah and planners in front of the Dixboro Schoolhouse

Sarah and Lisa at MoonWinks Cafe

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