Maia McDonald Smith, the Sacramento-based graphic designer, has proven that she has an impeccable taste and a sense for trends. She was one of the early adopters to jump on the Pinterest bandwagon when nobody actually knew where it was heading — today she has 2 Mio followers!
With her keen design-eye Maia is the art director of Rue Magazine, our favorite online magazine for all things interior and lifestyle, and she has done projects with Williams-Sonoma, Shopbop, and many others.
Last year, Maia joined forces with her mom Sara and launched Bitte (means please and you are welcome in German) — an online boutique selling classics for modern kids. From cute clothes to sustainable toys and everything in between, Bitte curates only the best for the little ones. Being mom and grandmom of a three-year-old cutie, Maia and Sara understand the need for quality and knowing the story of the products.
While Maia brings her design eye to the team, Sara contributes a 25-year long experience in the toy industry.
As a young mom in the 80s Sara, too, had an entrepreneurial spirit. She founded Magic Cabin, mail order catalog focusing on handcrafted natural toys, that grew from a kitchen table business into a multimillion-dollar company. After selling her company, Sara sharpened her business and product development skills as Creative Development Lead at Faber-Castell. For both, is came naturally after Ingrid, Maia’s daughter, was born to start something on their own, so they can spend more time together and create something lasting.
We were very excited to talk to Maia and Sara about the inspiration for Bitte, how is it actually to have a family business and how they spend their weekends. Read on and follow Bitte on Instagram; we are pretty sure there is something for a special little one in your life.
From Oakland to Sacramento? How did you get here? Tell us a bit about your career journey?
Maia: I started out as a graphic designer, working for brands such as shopbop.com, Williams-Sonoma and Rue Magazine. My mom and I had often discussed starting a business together, in the children’s category since that is the area she had worked in for so many years. But it wasn’t until after my daughter was born that the idea for Bitte really started to form. I was looking for a trusted marketplace where I could find high-quality clothes and toys that focused on sustainability but also beautiful modern design. I would scour the internet finding small vendors here and there but no one place where they were all brought together to make it simple for new moms to find them. So I thought why don’t we create that place. Thus Bitte was born.
Sara: As a young mother in the ‘80s I started a mail order catalog, Magic Cabin, specializing in handcrafted, all-natural toys. I later sold this and moved from Wisconsin (where Maia was raised) to Ohio to lead the Creative Development team at Faber-Castell, USA. While I loved my team there, I always dreamed of coming back to my true passion of toys. Maia and her sisters and I we’re always dreaming and scheming about starting another biz together but one with more of a modern aesthetic. In 2013 I left my position in Ohio to travel for a year and near the end of that year Maia and her husband welcomed their daughter Ingrid. I was now looking for a new venture, and Maia was so inspired by Ingrid and motherhood, so the stars aligned and Bitte was born. For the first 1-½ years, I was still living in Ohio, working remotely and visiting Oakland and then Sacramento several times a year. In July we finally made the move to Sacramento! We live just a few miles from each other so we can share in childcare and all the bitte daily biz. This is Grandma Heaven!
Where did the idea for Bitte come about?
Maia: I wanted to create a company that had a focus on sustainability and clean, modern design. I also wanted to create a work environment where my husband and I could be at home with our daughter. It’s been a dream come true.
Sara: Maia and I had discussed many business ideas through the years. Both my father and I were entrepreneurs, and Maia was already self-employed, so business was a natural topic of conversation whenever we were together. For a long time, I thought it was just fun to dream and talk about running a business together, but each of my girls had successful careers in separate states. This all changed when Ingrid was born, and Maia was newly inspired by baby and children’s products. For me, as a toy designer and one who’d spent 25 years in the toy industry it was so exciting to have one of my girls want to be in this space. Our talents and values are such a good match – we both love good design, natural materials, and small batch, handcrafted items. And we LOVE babies!! And all those years of planning and dreaming and other business experiences helped prepare us for honing in on our brand.
How does your typical day as an entrepreneur, graphic designer, and mom look like, from am to pm?
Maia: It’s hard to have a typical day because I wear so many hats, it feels like I’m always doing something different and since I work from home it’s also a balancing act coordinating everything with a toddler running around. But usually, I try to take the morning to answer emails, help my husband send out orders, photograph new product, discuss new items that we want to add to the shop with my mom and making sure to post to our social media accounts and keep on top of marketing. Typically we have lunch together as a family, and then I will usually get back to work in the afternoon, but I also slow down a little more after lunch and try to take the time to spend with my daughter. I make dinner every night so between 4-5 I stop to start dinner and just spend time with my family. After my daughter goes to bed if I’m not feeling too exhausted I’ll try to get a little more work done.
What are the most rewarding aspects of your work? What’s not so great?
Sara: I have an equal passion for designing new products and working with other designers and small businesses. I love getting to know the people we buy from and sharing their stories on our site. I also nerdly love to keep data organized! I love me a spreadsheet almost as much as a sweet little baby toy or adorable soft onesie! But of course, best of all is that I get to work alongside my daughter and granddaughter – nothing could be better than that!
What I don’t like so much is the finance and watching cash flow and legal, accounting, tax aspects of business. It’s critical to success, so we tend to it, but don’t love it.
What are the biggest challenges in growing a business?
Maia: For me, it’s figuring out what to spend your time on. There is always something that needs to get done but prioritizing what you do and when can be difficult sometimes.
Sara: Inconsistency is my biggest challenge. When a business is small and new there is no history to help establish a baseline, so you don’t know what to expect for budgeting and forecast. We have incredibly great weeks and then very quiet weeks, and those can be a bit scary.
We imagine, working with a family member, could eventually be challenging. How is it like? How do you keep the peace?
Sara: I think of this as more of a benefit than a hindrance. We do get on each other’s nerves or have little misunderstandings, but our underlying love for one another makes all that easier to navigate. Ultimately there’s very little time spent smoothing over hurt feelings or trying to find ways to make ourselves understood because we already understand each other on such an intimate level. I think it helps that neither of us really holds onto grievances – if one of us is bitchy we know when to back off and when to confront, and when we do, we get it out and move on very quickly. There’s never a sense of lingering hurt feelings.
Also, we decided upfront that Maia has final say on design decisions, so even though we review and discuss all merchandising and marketing together if we don’t agree, she gets the final say. I’m good with this. I think this clarity helps (and I’ve already had my time being the boss!)
Your proudest career moment?
Maia: I think the day we launched Bitte was one of the proudest for me. Seeing something we had been working on for so long come to fruition and seeing the amazing response from our customers.
Sara: I had an opportunity to meet a customer in person who had just recently discovered Bitte, and she was so enthusiastic about it! She was at this moment in her life where so many friends and family members were having new babies, and she needed about a dozen new baby gifts. She was so thrilled to have found her one-stop-shop that really spoke to her values and aesthetic (and her pocketbook!) As she went on about her love for Bitte it made me so proud to have helped to bring this to life.
Come Friday, all we want is the weekend? How do you keep up the motivation? What keeps you focused?
Sara: Weekend? Ha-ha, I’m a work-from-home entrepreneur who loves her work, so my bigger issue is how to stop and enjoy the weekend. Maia and I talk about this a lot – we both can easily work around the clock if not for family needs and keeping that work/life balance is a struggle. That said, I do have days where I don’t feel like doing anything, or at least not the tasks that really need to be done that day. I’ve learned that if something has a deadline, you get it done, and with time to spare if possible, at all costs. Everything else is a bit more fluid, and I try to work when I’m inspired and not feel too guilty when I’m not. After years of self-employment, I have the advantage of knowing I can trust myself to come back to work. Also, the best trick I have for doing things I’m not feeling inspired toward or that feel “too big” is to break them down into micro-steps…every task can be taken down to smaller parts and sometimes just committing to a 15-minute task is easier than a day or hours commitment.
What is your favorite distraction from work?
Maia: Instagram and Pinterest are always really distracting. Also spending time outdoors with my family.
You have a 30 min break, what do you do?
Maia: Probably bake or watch TV
Sara: Go for a walk, read or watch tv
What’s next on your to-do list?
Maia: A lot of planning for the Holidays since that will be our biggest season. We’re also doing a few Holiday pop-ups this year which I’m looking forward to.
Sara: Busy, busy sewing! Need to outsource that sewing!
Tell us your five favorite food spots in Sacramento…
And three favorite shops…
If we have only 12 hours in Sacramento, what should we do … Where do you take out-of-town friends?
Maia: A big breakfast at Bacon & Butter and then a hike along the river is usually our go-to activity with guests. I also love making a meal for guests, so a stop at the brand new co-op location or farmer’s market to stock up beforehand is always fun.
It’s weekend in California….
Saturday or Sunday…
Maia: Sunday, because it’s the day of the big farmers’ market here.
Sara: Sunday, usually a good hike and nice meal and game night at Maia’s
Do you have any weekend traditions?
Maia: I try to get weekend projects around the house done and spend time outside and play as much as possible with my daughter.
Sara: Hiking, farmer’s market, go to a movie.
Sleeping in or raising early?
Maia: I have a toddler, so we’re early risers, but before kids, I loved sleeping in on weekends.
Favorite weekend breakfast?
Maia: Eggs Benedict are a particular favorite of mine.
Best kept California secret…
Maia: What’s happening in the Sacramento food scene is pretty amazing, and quickly becoming not so secret. In the last couple years, the city has branded themselves the Farm to Fork capital, and there has been a huge focus on local, fresh California ingredients. The Golden 1 center, the brand new stadium is committed to sourcing a majority of its food locally. And with the recent arrival of Off the Grid to Sacramento, it’s really becoming quite the foodie town.
What do you love most about California?
The weather, the produce, and the can-do attitude. – Maia
Political climate, wilderness extraordinaire, fresh entrepreneurial attitude, climate – Sara
Thank you Maia & Sara!
-as told to California Weekend
*Images courtesy of Maia’s Instagram.