In just four years, a local mom who once had an idea to hand-craft kids' stepstools turned her vision into a hobby—and then a business that's attracted the attention of celebrities.
Katie O'Neill of Morris Plains started Kt Steppers in June 2008. She specializes in custom and personalized stepstools for children. O'Neill hand-paints and designs each one herself. O'Neill's product has been featured on national television, such as on E! News and Bravo TV's "Bethenny Ever After." She has crafted "steppers" for celebrities including Tori Spelling, Denise Richards, and Hilary Duff, who have thanked her on Twitter and sent her personalized thank-you notes.
Tori Spelling called O'Neill the "Mompreneur of the Moment" on her blog, and has been a large supporter of Kt Steppers. O'Neill has designed a "stepper" for each of Spelling's three kids, and is currently working on a stool for her fourth baby.
O'Neill said Spelling was her first celebrity mom to order a steptool, and since then they have kept in touch for three years, and got to meet for the first time in person recently.
"She has been one of my biggest fans," O'Neill said.
O'Neill is a "mompreneur," a term that describes a stay-at-home mom who starts her own business. MSNBC called mompreneurs as a rising trend, and the category is even featured as its own section on Entrepeneur.com.
O'Neill is a mom of two sons, Aiden, 7, and Keiran, 5. She said her kids were the inspiration for her idea.
O'Neill was working from home in the finance industry when her first son was born. She decided she wanted to do something more creative, and on her own time. So she made her first stepstool as a gift for a family friend who was having a baby, and then created more as Christmas gifts for other family and friends.
The "steppers" were a hit, and from there her idea become a reality, and the business took off.
O'Neill is a graduate from The College of St. Elizabeth with a double major in marketing and sociology, and credits her educational background with much of her success.
"If you're looking to start a business and keep it going then you have to find the right avenues for your product to succeed," she said.
O'Neill offered advice for other moms looking to get where she is today.
"It can't just be a hobby, it can't be something that you just wanted to do and sell because you like making them," she said. "If you are really trying to make it a business as an entrepreneur, then it is going to be nights and odd hours."
O'Neill said she sometimes found herself working in the middle of the night. She said that when her kids wouldn't sleep she would use her time to get to work done.
In addition, "social media is huge, and for small businesses I think it's key," she said.
Kt Steppers' site lists many of the celebrity "thank you's."
Kimberly and James Vanderbeek sent pictures of the stepstools and thanked O'Neill.
Courtney Cox-Arquette sent a hand-written note that said "Thank you so much for the thoughtful gifts. Coco loves the stepper and everything else."
While O'Neill's product has been a hit with celebrities, she said some of her most memorable stools have been made for kids with special needs. She's heard from parents that the stools have helped a child with gross motor skills to step up and get on or off a couch, or brush their teeth by themselves.
"Hearing stuff like that where it's not just a practical product, but that it actually is helping someone with special needs stands out the most for me," O'Neill said.
Kt Steppers was a finalist in the 2012 Cribsie Awards, which focuses on brands for babies (Cutest Step Stools for Tots in Climbing Mode), and O'Neill is currently working on a new line of initialed stepstools, for large-scale stocking.
O'Neill said there are a lot of large distributors looking to carry Kt Steppers, so designing a stepstool with just an initial instead of one that's personalized will allow more businesses to carry them.
"Hopefully there's some big things coming and a lot of business," she said.