Art, Entrepreneurship, and the Joy of Learning

Debbie Barbarita, Bebe Blu Designs

Episode 19

Join us in this episode as we explore the remarkable journey of Debbie Barbarita, founder of Bebe Blu Designs. Discover how Debbie transitioned from fundraising to owning a successful business, leveraging her creative skills and passion for art. This episode is packed with stories of navigating through retail, e-commerce, and wholesale markets, as well as the importance of quality product and brand consistency. Listen in for inspiration and practical advice in entrepreneurial marketing.

Show Notes

  • Bill and Debbie discuss Debbie’s background in fundraising and her transition to entrepreneurship inspired by personal experiences.
  • Debbie's initial steps in forming Barbarita Design Group and the evolution into Bebe Blu Designs, focusing on artwork for various products.
  • Debbie's creative process and inspirations, including learning graphic design tools like the Adobe suite and the significance of the lace cap hydrangea in her brand.
  • Navigating retail, e-commerce, B2B, and wholesale markets and the importance of quality and brand consistency.
  • Personal reflections and advice for lifelong learning and creativity, and the importance of staying open to new opportunities and challenges.

Episode Transcript

Bill: Thank you for joining the Missing Half podcast where we're discovering what's missing in manufacturing and B2B marketing. Today, I have a very, very special guest who's been a friend for many, many years, and I have been an admirer and someone who's been watching this person grow in their career, their profession, and their business. So I would like to introduce Debbie Barbarita from Bebe Blu Designs. Good morning, Debbie.

Debbie: Good morning, Bill. Thank you for having me.

Bill: The pleasure is mine. So, Debbie, so much to talk about. And you and I have a lot of history with our families and relationships and professionally. But I just want to start maybe if you could tell us a little bit about your background and, you know, kind of what has brought you through your career and your development, certainly some of your pro bono and volunteer experience and just kind of start at the beginning and walk us through some of your history.

Debbie: You know I am old. The beginning is a long way from now.

Bill: You're young at heart, Debbie, so that's what matters.

Debbie: Okay. Well, anyways, most of my adult life I have done, I've been involved in fundraising. I have served as president of the 25 Club of Magee-Women's Hospital. I was on the leukemia board. I am currently still a member of the Magee-Women's Hospital of UPMC's board of directors. So I really did a lot of that for my husband's business, but also because I took care of our grandson. I babysat him every day. So I needed to be home, but I needed to be involved in something. So I did an awful lot of fundraising and got great rewards from it. But when he got a little bit older, I felt like I needed to be involved more. And that's sort of where you came in.

Bill: It's all my fault, right?

Debbie: It’s all your fault. You know, out of the clear blue sky, you had asked me to maybe do some, you know, work for you. And so I formed a business called Barbarita Design Group. And I did just sort of, gosh, I think I did charts and I looked up CEOs for companies and things, but it was really a lot of fun. So I thought, well, this is, you know, something I really enjoy. And then unfortunately my younger sister passed away and she was sort of always the artist in our family. And so I started drawing a little bit and somebody asked me if I could put it on a note card and I said, well, I could give it a shot. And anyways, so then I formed a DBA called BeBe Blu Designs and put my artwork on flour sacks, totes, pillows. And I've recently, you know, as if I don't have anything else to do, formed another company called Tree Swing Designs. And I'm going to focus on my note cards and any paper products through that company.

Bill: Excellent. So let's and such an amazing story. And I've followed along through the years, we've worked together a lot of we could talk for probably six or seven hours, but we'll keep it limited to some more specific topics. But I wanted to explore this passion you have for art, Debbie. And, you know, you kind of came out of that a lot of those volunteer efforts, board efforts, some of which you still are very active with. But you had that corporate experience, but then you kind of wanted to get a little bit more hands on. And it feels like your art and that creative process was really important to you as you started this journey. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Debbie: You know, it must have been, but it's funny. I don't think I knew it when the time came when I started to do it. I, of course, you know, doubted my ability because I've never had any kind of formal training in, any kind of art at all. But I, the more I did it, the more I, you know, I taught myself, I taught myself to use InDesign, Photoshop, Adobe Illustrator. And I I think I'm always wanting to learn something. Don't ask me where that came from either. You know, I find great passion in learning, accomplishing something. And through my art, I feel like I accomplish things that I truly never thought I would be able to.

Bill: I think that's really part of your entrepreneurial journey is this lifelong love of learning because the things I have seen you take on and learn and become proficient in in the past five to eight years is just impressive. I mean, you learned the Adobe suite. You learned the e-commerce platforms to run your e-commerce store. You learned how to deal and we're going to talk about this in a couple of minutes. You learned how to deal with wholesale platforms. And the new wholesale economy that exists in your vertical. So I think that's just fantastic. But when we talk about art, and one of the things I want to ask you about, and I am no horticulturalist, so I might butcher the pronunciation of this, but the lace cap hydrangea is part of your logo. It's part of your brand. Could you tell us a little bit about what inspired you to use that lace cap hydrangea and why that is Bebe Blu Designs personified?

Debbie: Well, it ended up being the first thing I ever drew. So that was part of it. And that was the one that somebody asked me, could I put it on a card? I've always had a love of hydrangeas. I love that color. I don't know. It just, I think it mainly was because it has roots in the fact that it was really the first thing I sat down and drew.

Bill: Well, as entrepreneurs, sometimes it's that first thing we do that is so seminal because it was the breakout moment. I remember a number of conversations we had and you I'm referring back to what you said earlier about you doubting your abilities and lacking that self-confidence. And I've always referred to you and I hope this doesn't sound bad, but I always think of you as the little engine that could. Like you you doubt yourself, but then you're cruising up that mountain and you just keep like every time I talk to you, there's a new peak that you're going over.

Debbie: I don't know. You'd think at this point I might settle down a little bit, but you know, I just, I don't know. I just keep on going.

Bill: Never change. Never change, Debbie, and stay forever young. That's the key to the whole process.

Debbie: Well, you really did have a hand in giving me confidence to do it, helping me develop websites, helping me figure out how to put things on websites. You had an awful lot more influence than you think you did.

Bill: Well, kind words, Debbie. Another thing I want to ask you about is not only do you have a deep appreciation for nature, a lot of the artwork we see in your products is around flowers, nature, and I'd like you to explore that. And then the follow up to that is also a deep appreciation for Western Pennsylvania. So could you talk about kind of the intersection of those two, those two muses, those two inspirational areas for your artwork?

Debbie: Well, you know, it's funny, I've always loved nature and art. And I think one of my concerns is I had somebody ask me if one of the flowers that I drew were botanically correct. And I said, no, absolutely not. I have no clue if they're right or not, but it's the way I see them and the way I want them to come across. So, you know, that's really a lot of it. You know, I just feel that, first of all, Pennsylvania mountains, that has always inspired me. So I think that that really is reflected in an awful lot of things that I draw. And I also like things, you know, sort of basic. So, you know, when I do, you know, my animals or my trees or something like that, they're never too elaborate.

Bill: Sure. No, I love the clean lines and I'm not an artist. Like my daughter's an artist. In fact, right now she is at the studio that she participates with volunteering to help seven and eight year old kids learn about a little art camp. I hope that it doesn't dissuade her from wanting to have her own children, but that'll be down the road. But I think when we look at what is our muse? What really inspires us? The other thing I see in your work is an appreciation for Pittsburgh. The inclines, the three rivers, the Cathedral of Learning, iconic Pittsburgh. You've grown up and lived in Pittsburgh your whole life, or the Western Pennsylvania region, and you and Mike, your husband, have certainly been involved in Pittsburgh through corporate activities, through fundraising activities and those type of things. So what really inspired you to capture some of those key Pittsburgh items, those areas that you've done so well to capture?

Debbie: Well, you're probably gonna laugh at this one because we have a mutual friend who convinced me to start draw. I truly never thought I'd be able to do it. So I have to give credit to Jeanne Caligiuri, who you know. And she came to me one day and she said, Debbie, you have to start drawing Pittsburgh. And I said, Jeanne, I don't think I can draw Pittsburgh. I don't know how to do that. Yes, you do. Just do it. So truly, and I tell her, of course she takes complete credit for it.
Bill: Absolutely, as she should. And I wouldn't, I would expect nothing less from Jeanne.

Debbie: I said, I draw flowers. I don't draw Pittsburgh. And she said, no, no, no, you have to do this. So really that has led to a lot of it. And then I thought, well, okay, I can do this. And, you know, that also has led to me being able to do custom designs for people. People will send me, for instance, I drew the diamond at Ligonier. And I've drawn 13, and quite frankly, I didn't even know there were 13 landmarks in Bridgeport, West Virginia. So yeah, really cool landmarks and, you know, just different things like that. I drew the West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, you know, and I found that to be really challenging and a lot of fun. So that's another vein of my business, I guess.

Bill: So that I have, I'm having a little bit of a flashback right now, Debbie, where we did some work for the 25 Club years and years ago. And I still remember getting together with you and Jeanne Caligiuri and Carol Massaro and a couple of the other ladies in that group. And I tell you what, that was a tough crowd. I mean, I still remember those meetings and trying to help them out and, but great work the 25 Club does for anybody who might be listening. The 25 Club does neonatal intensive care fundraising for Magee-Women's Hospital, an amazing organization that is funding that neonatal intensive care unit. And just the things that I'm aware of that that organization did and has done is amazing. So just a free plug for that organization as we go through this.

Debbie: Yeah really. There's a lot of strong women involved in that.

Bill: Yes, that was one of my main takeaways. Yeah, it was trying to navigate those waters and God bless each one of them and their work. But wow, it was a tough room. I've been in boardrooms that were not as tough as that room. So it's great. Good stuff. Well, one of the things I would like to really get into, Debbie, is your entrepreneurial journey around Bebe Blu and now Tree Swing Design. I mean, when you started that, there was a direct-to-consumer component where you were doing custom work, then you transitioned and added the e-commerce functionality. Then you added wholesale and B2B. You explored online marketplaces with Faire. I mean, when you think about the whirlwind you've been through, you navigated COVID, which all of us had to figure that situation out.

Debbie: Yeah, that is true.

Bill: Could you just walk us through maybe some of those things and why you, because we've had a number of clients who have pivoted or had to not only have D2C direct-to-consumer, but also add B2B to grow their business, wholesale and those types of things. So I just like to explore that conversation and understand that journey and why you did what you did. Recognizing we all make mistakes and we all like, I mean, it's the journey, it's not the destination. So if you could walk me through some of that.

Debbie: Well, you know, I look back and a lot of it was just word of mouth. Somebody said to me, you know, have you ever heard of Faire? And I said, no. And, you know, because I hadn't. So it just really is maybe being able to be open to hearing other people give you suggestions and, you know, trying it out. I really always worry about failing, but for some reason I keep doing it anyways. But I was accepted through Faire actually for both businesses now. So I find that a great accomplishment, it was very lucrative through COVID because a lot of people couldn't go to shows and things like that to purchase their things. Quite frankly, a lot of people have just been so kind to come back and or, you know, suggest somebody else that might be able to use some of my products in their stores. I've made an awful lot of friends through Instagram, which, you know, I don't know if that's good or bad, but, you know, it's funny. You know, you had you'll probably never meet them in your entire life. But, you know, but it is, a lot of it is just word of mouth.

Bill: No, that's great. When whenever you look at the transition you made to B2B, certainly I'm sure that brought its own unique set of challenges. The packaging, the quantities, the way you approach that business is different as opposed to more of that custom packaging. I mean, I know you're very, very pleased with your packaging. I always remember there was a movie that Robert De Niro and Anne Hathaway was in where Anne Hathaway was this startup executive. And there's a scene in that movie where this, Anne Atheway, and I don't remember the character, she played, the name of it, but she obsessed over the packaging. Like she unpacked and repacked this box and she was like OCD on it, right? Like she was, but that was key to her brand. And she felt it was key to her brand experience that not only buying and using the product, but the unboxing experience was so important. Every time I've seen that movie or that reference, I think of you, Debbie, because I know that you're that passionate about the entire consumer or customer experience with your products. So.

Debbie: You might want to ask Mike how many times he's unwrapped towels for me and rewrapped them a different way. Well, maybe this would be better. And, you know, so fortunately, he tolerates me changing. But, you know, that is something that I struggle with constantly because I'll, you know, every store is going to display things differently. You know, so I try really hard to have a generic way that would, you know, go, but it's almost impossible. So I do an awful lot of wrapping and unwrapping and, you know, wrapping again. So, you know, that's definitely part of my business, you know, making new tags, new labels, you know, it's a constant thing.

Bill: So another thing I know that you did is you sourced a line of products that you could apply your art to in a repackaging venue. So that was a whole other area because you were looking at supply chain logistics, ordering volumes, some import, a lot of different aspects to your flour sack towel business, which was really, is very popular because of the quality, not only of the product, because you're very particular and want to specify a very high quality product, but then whenever your art is applied to that, it just comes up and my wife has a number of them that she loves that are just amazing. So maybe could you talk to us a little bit about that journey, not giving away trade secrets, but a little bit about that journey and how that process is going.

Debbie: Well, when I first started, I've always loved flour sack towels and tea towels. And so I started putting my artwork on note cards, which I still do. And I love that. But there was always that in the back of my mind. You know, could I put it on a product? And I really wasn't sure of where to go or how to begin, but I did know that I wanted a specific type of flour sack towel, tea towel. I wanted it hemmed on all sides. I wanted 100% cotton. I wanted a corner loop. But more importantly, I wanted direct to garment printing, which is a water-based ink that bleeds into the fabric. So it's completely washer, dryer. You can even iron on the image. I didn't want screen print. So there, it probably took me six months to find a supplier who I love in California and he is fantastic and his product is wonderful. Whatever I draw, he matches the colors. He's very particular about making sure that the image is what I've sent. And, you know, so because of that, I'm really proud and he does my, the pillows and the totes. And I'm just really proud of the end product, but it's mainly because of him.

Bill: Well, no, I mean, I think that shows an opportunity where we can align with a supplier and have a partnership and do a really good job, right? Because you need to deliver. We really believe and we've seen this with a lot of our clients that deliver a really great product to the end user, whoever that end user is, whether it's B2B, D2C, whatever it is, you need alignment from your raw material sourcing to your manufacturing, to your any value added process through the marketing of the company that's gonna take it ultimately directly to that consumer. You have to have that alignment. And one of the things I've enjoyed in my career is building those partnerships with really, really great people. And I think Debbie, you're experiencing that with your partnership with your supplier. And that's really great when we can find those things. And it's also really painful when we can't.

Debbie: Absolutely.

Bill: So when you look at you developed some B2B channels, which is, so the Missing Half podcast is where we're discovering what's missing in manufacturing and B2B marketing. And certainly you have a large B2B component to your business where you're supplying stores, you're supplying events, you're supporting other activities, whether it's invitations or whether it's gift bags or retail stock for these stores. Maybe talk a little bit about how that process has been different than the e-commerce side, because you're juggling both, right? You're juggling someone calling up today and ordering onesie twosies from a retail, which I'm sure you're enjoying that gross margin a little bit more than you do with the wholesale side, but then you have added frictional costs because of the handling and it's lower volume and it's not as consistent. Whereas with the wholesale and the B2B channels, you're really seeing more consistency, higher volume, lower margin, but a different set of support and frictional costs for that side of the business. So maybe talk about how you developed the B2B channel and what you've learned in that process.

Debbie: I'm still learning. I'm not sure I really know. You know, like you say, the wholesale part of it, of course, you're having more exposure because there's, you know, a lot of companies that need to buy product. But of course, you know, your margins are lower. I'm finding a lot are wanting a lot of the companies to this is one maybe sort of downside, want to do dropshipping. And I'm not interested in that because I am very proud or maybe in control, want to be in control of how my product ends to somebody and to dropship them, you lose all control and how somebody is going to see your product. Of course, retail, I would love to do more. It's just a little bit more difficult to navigate if you don't have a brick and mortar store. So that is something that I really love though, because I love the interaction with people and I love when people actually tell me that they think what I did was nice. I said, really? But I don't know if that's an answer to your question or not, but a lot of it is just being open to figure out what's the next best direction.

Bill: So one of the things we see as an indicator for 50 Marketing that communicates our success and that what we're doing is valuable is we, the last two years we've had a 97% plus retention rate of our clients. And I think that's also true with what you're doing because I know some, I know probably more than I should that a lot of your, the retailers and wholesale clients that you have are continual repeat buyers, continue to restock your product, continue to ask you for more different, new, exciting product. And that recurring or that retention of those clients for you is an indicator that what you're doing is successful for them, obviously, because a retailer can't buy more if they're not selling what they have, right? They need the shelves to fill up and empty, fill up and empty. So I think when I look at what you've done with your model, and I understand completely, excuse me, the idea behind not wanting to use like a 3PL or some type of drop shipping warehouse because that type of expansion would be would it would be very challenging to navigate that and maintain your brand quality and your brand control. So I completely understand that. I mean, that's one of the reasons why 50 Marketing is the size it is, is because we we owned a business before that had 400 employees. We didn't want to go back there. Somehow we've arrived at a point where we have 85 people now. So like we went from like 20 to 85 and I think it just happened and maybe I wasn't paying attention or whatever. But I think when you look at Bebe Blu Design's success in the recurring returning customers in the wholesale space, that's just a testament to your quality and your product performance, not only from an end user standpoint, but from them seeing those products sell through really well and make them money because ultimately those retailers, right? As much as they fall in love with things, they got to make money to keep their doors open. So Debbie, another area I feel that you really had to navigate when you went through COVID and a lot of your products were moving through retail directly and or through shows and you had to navigate how do we move into the wholesale markets? You mentioned Faire and starting to deal with like I mean, Faire is a powerhouse. They're huge. They have a lot of different entrepreneurs who represented there and they have a big wholesale channel. Could you maybe talk a little bit about navigating those waters, because it's not as simple as, and not that e-commerce is simple, but it's an added layer of complexity in moving your product.

Debbie: It is, but you know, Faire really makes setting up your shop, you know, getting, you know, putting they, they really give you an awful lot of support and help in many ways. So I'm not sure somebody with my inability could have done it without, you know, them being supportive as they are. And they're, you know, they're always giving you tips. You can talk to people, you can ask questions. You know, I just think all in all, it's been a good experience for me. And they do expose you to other people that you would never, ever have the ability to find.

Bill: Sure. Another thing I think I've seen you really engage with that I think has been helpful for your business is social media. I mean, certainly neither you nor I grew up with social media. Right.

Debbie: You a little sooner than me.

Bill: Hey, I was well out of college and into my career before social media came. There's no doubt about it.

Debbie: I don't want to tell you how old I was when it came around.

Bill: Yeah, we'll be polite to each other and skip that part of the conversation. But the social media, when I look at the social media for Bebe Blu Designs, there certainly, it’s a great visual tool to show your work and your products. Have you seen a lot of growth because of your investment in social media?

Debbie: Yes and no. I, there again, that's something I struggle with, you know, do you post every day? Do you post every week? You know, what is the best thing to do? I have seen, you know, a growth in, you know, the amount of followers I have, things like that. I think that it's very important to keep, you know, your product out there regardless if you're getting actual sales through that. But I do get sales through Instagram and Facebook, but I don't think that that's something that I could rely on.

Bill: Understood. Yeah, some for some businesses, it's kind of icing on the cake, right? It's a little bit extra for some business. It's core. So everybody has to really navigate the waters and figure out what the sweet spot is for each channel and how much to invest, right, to get the right return on investment for your advertising dollars for your marketing investment. And yeah, certainly we struggle with that at times. I'm supposed to be posting every day. That's what the team has told me to do.

Debbie: Maybe that's, maybe I'm okay then.

Bill: Yeah, yeah. And it's it's I think it's a it's a little bit of a juggling act. But well, Debbie, there's another thing I want to ask you about. So you did an interview with Shoutout Colorado, which I think was great. And I would like to quote you. And then I would like you to respond to this quote. So Debbie, Debbie Barbarita, said, yeah, yeah, so you're somebody I have it in print, I can show you the reference. “I think that I would want the world to know about me and my story is that you never are too old to do something you love. And if you are passionate about what you do, somehow opportunities and a career might just find you instead of you finding it.” I read that and I was just, you know, so I read that and I also know a lot of your backstory. And I think that to me is inspirational from a number of standpoints, but I think specifically for our audience, our audience is marketing managers, it's CEOs and founders, it's people who, let's be honest, no matter where we are in our career and our lives, everybody has to wake up every morning and look themselves in the mirror and decide what they're gonna do. And you have those moments of self-doubts that you've been 100% transparent about and shared with us, which I so appreciate. But even in those moments of self doubt and on this entire journey, you have arrived at a place I think that you would never have imagined back when you started. Could you maybe talk about that? And just because it's inspirational to me, I'm an admirer, I'm a fan. And I think it's just amazing what you've done. And especially with the boat anchor that Mike is, right?

Debbie: He's pulling me down. Geez. Well, you know, that came to me like within a minute. I didn't even think of that sentence because it's so true. I really, you know, until you opened the door, I never ever ever thought about having a career outside of being a mother and a grandmother and, you know, fundraising. But when I look back, I sort of marvel about, you know, I'm not sure I even knew this was happening. Like it just was so slow. And it truly discovered me. I did not go looking for any kind of career. And I don't know, my mother still just shakes her head and just turned 95, by the way. And I can't believe that you're actually doing this. And I say, guess what? I can't either. But you know, it truly was never something I set out to do.

Bill: Well I think the other thing I look at, Debbie, with your life is you raised a family. You supported, you know, because now whenever we have dual income households, grandparents are often very, very involved in helping with their grandchildren. I know my parents helped with my children and continue to. The so you did an amazing work there, which that's lifetime legacy work that, you know, will will pass down through the generations. You also did an amazing amount of fundraising and volunteer work for organizations and then like your board seats that has impacted Pittsburgh, which which is amazing. And those impacts will be felt for generations. And then you look at you, you accomplished all of that. And then you kind of took this hard right turn and started into a career. And I think one of the lessons I think for anyone who's listening and I often try and think of, okay, what are lessons I can always teach my children is you don't have to have everything right away. There are seasons in life that you need to focus on different things. And any more of that doesn't mean you can't do something else. So saying yes to being a stay at home mom or staying yes to this career at this point in time doesn't mean you can't also have something else later. And you can invest in those things and have amazing outcomes that you may not have envisioned, but then you arrive at. So anyway, you always inspire me. I think of you as that little engine that could. I think of the amazing journey you've been on for basically the past 10 years and where it's taken you and how you've gone from, you know, we did a couple of projects together to you launch this art venture beyond just a hobby and something you enjoyed into something that you commercialized into e-commerce. Then you commercialized it into wholesale and, you know, sourcing products. I mean, like, and every time if you call or there's there's always an idea. There's something that's spinning. I know those wheels are spinning and there's something new. So Debbie, I've been excited to be part of your journey. I'm excited about hearing about the future and the next call I get with the next idea and where that's going to go because it's always exciting to hear what you're doing.

Debbie: Well, there again, I really have to give you credit for giving me the ability or maybe the confidence to start something. So you have really, you know, inspired me as much as maybe I've inspired you.

Bill: Well, thank you so much. I think you just needed a nudge because that capability, capacity, opportunity was always there. And we gave that little nudge and then you were off and running. And now we're just trying to keep up. We're all just trying. I know Mike's trying to keep up. I know others. And so.

Debbie: I guess I'll keep him around for a while, you know.

Bill: Yeah, I think he's a keeper. Well, Debbie, thank you so much for coming on today and sharing with us about your journey with Bebe Blu, sharing your journey through your entrepreneurial journey, your experiences, the ups and downs that we all experience as entrepreneurs. And no, we appreciate the insights and we're looking forward to following along and learning more as you continue to grow.

Debbie: Okay, well, I'll keep my fingers crossed that I keep going in the right direction. But I do thank you, Bill.

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