Savvy Auntie - It's Not Your Mother's Web Site

The day Melanie Notkin launched a parenting Web site targeting women with no kids, major corporations responded by contacting her to talk about advertising deals and a well-known venture capitalist came knocking on her door.

The onslaught of interest has made her completely redo her one-month-old firm's financials "due to the interest of the ad community," she said.

Her brainchild is, a site for PANKs, also known as professional aunts no kids. And although these women, like Notkin, may not have children of their own, kids are front-and-center in their lives. Her bond with her nephew was so strong that she even wrote an unpublished book about the relationship between an aunt and a child.

Melanie Notkin founded, a Web site for PANKs: professional aunts no kids. (Photo courtesy of Savvy Auntie)

"My nephew was born seven years ago and from the day he was born, I didn't want him to think that I was a grown-up playmate. I wanted him to know I'm family," she said. Plus, everywhere she turned, all the fashionable Manhattanite could find was references to aunts as "blue-haired old ladies."

"Here I am, a New York cosmopolitan woman and when I'd go to brunch with my friends on a Sunday morning instead of being like Sex and the City it was like Aunts and the City -- all we'd talk about is our nieces and nephews," said Notkin, who now also has five nieces.

But there are scads of listservs, Web sites, magazines and more geared toward parents. "It's a mommy club, and not being a mom makes you feel excluded," Notkin said. "It's like walking into a maternity store when you're not pregnant. You feel like a stranger and so I wanted to create a parenting site for non-parents." The site is geared toward aunts by relation as well as aunts by choice, like mom's best friends. It offers expert advice on everything from coping with loss to when a niece or nephew chooses to confide in you to what to include in a care package for a niece or nephew at an overnight camp. It also has a column written from an uncle's perspective.

Notkin has held executive positions in marketing communications at places like the New York Times and L'Oreal. She boasts a wealth of knowledge in the ways of consumers and considers Savvy Auntie a lifestyle brand that will branch out beyond the Web site geared toward women.

She largely credits the stellar success of her fledgling company to social media and, more specifically, to Twitter. Twitter, for those of you who are non-Twitterers, lets users opine (in 140 characters or less) on whatever they might be doing. Fellow Twitter users can "follow" you to keep up with what's going on in your life. I have an account as postsmallbiz where links to my most recent blog posts are automatically published, and I often enter additional posts you won't find on my Small Business blog.

Notkin said she met many of her contributing experts on Twitter and was proud when "Savvy Auntie" was the most "tweeted" phrase on Twitter on the day she launched. "I have tremendous profound respect for the Twitter community," she said.

She recalls that she was perplexed when a major retailer denied her site an affiliate deal and she could not resolve the issue. She queried the Twitter community to see if anyone had a contact in affiliate marketing at this retailer. "In 15 minutes I had a contact," and was on her way to fixing the problem.

"Becoming involved in an online community is helpful because there's already somebody who knows somebody and that's important for an entrepreneur," she said.

Notkin began to get a lot of questions on Twitter about how she was developing her company so she began writing a business blog giving a behind-the-scenes look at building the firm before its launch. "The business blog has been a fantastic way for me to communicate with potential members, and they started to root for me."

Notkin said that some firms only launch a blog the moment a crisis hits, but she wanted her readers to know if a crisis was coming or if things were going smoothly "because that's part of my journey."

On June 12, 2007, Notkin said she woke up and decided to become an auntrepreneur. Her Web site officially launched July 9, 2008. In between, she went to a Ladies Who Launch business incubator, attended a SCORE small business class and bought and handed out business cards that said Auntie Melanie, although she didn't know what she would name her company yet. Last month she attended the BlogHer conference in San Francisco and has been frequenting the New York networking circuit.

She wrote a basic outline for her Web site and contacted Syrup, a New York firm that she had worked with at L'Oreal. The work they did together was nominated for a Webby award. "I knew I was only going to launch once and...they understand this demographic," said Notkin. "This was not going to be your mommy's Web site...I wanted it to feel like a fashion and beauty magazine but with tremendous depth."

She advises other women considering starting their own business to ask for help. "Sometimes women don't feel they are worthy of someone's time, but if you ask for help and you're confident and excited people will feel that and be inspired by you," said Notkin. "Ninety-five percent of the time I get the help I need, for the other 5 percent, karma is a bitch."

One of her proudest moments in the entrepreneurial process is when she met with a former, very successful colleague who offered her tremendous advice. When she asked why, the colleague responded: "Melanie, you were always nice to me," so Notkin subscribes to the adage what goes around comes around.

The entire site, which is approaching 900 members, is self-funded and Notkin currently is its only employee.

Wearing many hats, as fashionable as they may be, is not easy. She is the editor, community manager and more. Notkin is in talks with investors and one of the first things she expects to do is hire some more people.

"It looks like there are a few dozen people working on the back end, keeping it well oiled," said Notkin. "It's a pretty big and expensive Web site but really it's a woman and a dream."

By Sharon McLoone |  August 18, 2008; 9:00 AM ET Profiles in Entrepreneurship
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