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When Abigail Brown first started working in the promotional products industry, orders came in through the fax machine. “I would have to take the written orders from the fax machine and type them into the computer. That was my college summer internship at Bankers Advertising Company,” she says, laughing. 

With a large company like Bankers in her hometown of Iowa City, Iowa, Brown remembers knowing about the promotional products industry from a young age. “My aunt, Sherri Lennarson [former PPAI board chair and 2022 Hall of Fame inductee], worked there while I was growing up. She would come to picnics and bring a branded cooler or, once at a birthday party, she said she would bring balloons. They were a misprinted balloon order that she kept because the balloons were still good.” 

After graduating college, Brown went on to work in minor league baseball and marketing. “I had been buying promotional products in all of those jobs,” says Brown. “When I worked in minor league baseball, I got to work in the gift shop, so I would order promotional products to sell with the team’s logo. Then, I went on to experiential marketing where we called them ‘premiums.’” Brown says her experience as an end buyer helps her to remember the details that some clients and others outside of the industry may overlook. “On my side, we need to have vector art and we know what that means. I don’t ever want my customers to feel like I don’t have empathy for them if I say they need vector art and they have no clue what that means,” she says. “I try to use that experience to be kind and understanding to my customers, so they feel comfortable with the  process.”

With two entrepreneurial parents, Brown had always looked forward to being her own boss. “They both own small businesses and are self-employed,” she says. “I never really knew any other life and for a parent, specifically. I had worked in corporate America when I first graduated college and when I first got married. So, when I got pregnant with my first child, I started to think about what my life would look like as a working mom. It was harder for me to visualize daycare and working because I just hadn’t experienced it personally. While I was pregnant, my husband and I decided that I would stay home, and I did that for a couple of years before I got into promotional products.” 

With her family in mind, Brown started Ohiowa Promo in July 2020. “The primary vision was to have as much flexibility in my job and in my life as I could, so I could also be a really good mom,” she says. 

Years earlier, a wedding guest inspired the name of her business. “I live in Ohio now, and I am from Iowa,” says Brown. “In Ohio, if a Buckeye fan sees another fan, they’ll yell, ‘O-H,’ and the other person is supposed to yell, ‘I-O.’ So, as we were driving home from our wedding, I was opening everyone’s cards and one of the guests had written, ‘O-H…I-O…W-A.’ We were like, ‘Woah! Ohio and Iowa are connected.’ So, we’ve been referring to ourselves as ‘Ohiowa’ for years.” 

When explaining Ohiowa Promo, Brown says she adapts her message to whoever she’s talking to. “The way I describe it is by saying, ‘We can put your logo on pretty much anything.’ I am not offended by words like swag or tchotchkes  because everybody has a different experience with promotional products.” 

After running her business for over a year, Brown says the flexibility is still what she’d hoped for. “I love that I work full-time, but when my kids get off the bus in an hour, I can go get them from the bus stop.” She says it’s funny how much her life now resembles her mother’s. “My mom had her office in our house and now I have my office in my house. As a kid, I had access to all kinds of office supplies, and I was obsessed. Now I giggle because my kids love to run into my office yelling, ‘I know where the paper is!’” 

While there are benefits to running her own business, Brown says there are sacrifices. “I don’t have the kind of job where I go there and work, and when I come home, there’s no work. I’m kind of always working,” she says. “I try to segment my brain when I’m with my kids because I don’t want them to feel like they are second.” Like many other mothers who own businesses, Brown is a “mompreneur,” a term introduced in 1994 to describe a female business owner who actively balances the roles of mother and entrepreneur. Entrepreneur magazine even has a section dedicated to momprenuers. 

While opening a business during the pandemic wasn’t a part of the plan, Brown says her business hasn’t slowed and that running the company gives her an extra edge. “It’s interesting opening the curtain and having full access to every part of an order. When I worked for a distributorship, they would handle the nitty-gritty. I would sell and place the order, and the distributor I was working with would do everything else,” she says. “I didn’t know about all the other components of an order, so it’s been really fun to see what happens once you place an order with the supplier. To me, there’s a lot of freedom in that and I feel really empowered that I have full control of every part of my orders. I feel like that gives me the ability to provide the best customer service.” 

Brown says she’s looking forward to more in-person meetings and building relationships with her suppliers. “It just helps to feel like you’re not alone, especially right now with how volatile the supply chain is. Being an independent distributor does strip a layer of support,” she says. “If I’m only placing orders with suppliers that I don’t have relationships with, it’s just transactional. I’m really trying to meet as many people as I can to lean on and provide support for as well.” For Brown, promotional products have a permanent place in her life. “I realized I love the industry, and I can see myself doing this for a really long time.”

PPB spoke with Brown to learn more about her journey as a mompreneur.

PPB  What does time management look like for you?

Brown I have three, very dependent, little kids. I am organized. For me, it’s mostly utilizing as many resources as I can. I am obsessed with SAGE. At first, I wasn’t utilizing it as well as I could, so I called my rep for a one-on-one training session. That was a huge benefit because there are a lot of resources in SAGE that helped me better organize my orders. I am a list-maker and I put everything in my phone. Every tiny aspect of my life is in my iPhone calendar. I am trying my best every day. I am giving myself some grace and I drink a lot of coffee. 

PPB  For someone starting their own distributorship, what advice would you share?

Brown Like any startup, you might not make a ton of money the first year. There are a lot of expenses. In my situation, as a completely independent distributor, I am my own bank. Most suppliers will not give you net terms, immediately, until you’re a more established business. That means when you place an order, you are upfronting the money until you get paid. Be prepared to budget really well. Ask a ton of questions. Do every webinar that’s offered. Go to the trade shows and meet the reps who are in your area. Say “yes” more than you say “no,” but know your worth.  


Kristina Valdez is associate editor of PPB.