For an individual to succeed at any desired venture, they need to possess a clearly defined purpose. Success becomes guaranteed when one has a purpose that stems from a societal cause that they’re connected to on a personal level and passionate about.
When a person is driven by causes that are for the greater good of humanity and not just something that they’re doing for the sake of monetary and material benefit, then it is apparent that they will be perseverant in the face of any adversity that may surface while striving for that goal.
One such inspiring personality who set out to serve society through her business venture is Michelle Tunno Buelow. Michelle started her firm Bella Tunno in 2005 in honor of her late brother, intending to address the hunger problem prevalent in society.
In the following interview, Michelle talks about the vision, purpose, and drive behind her successful venture and what challenges she faced along the way as the Founder and CEO of Bella Tunno, a company that makes modern baby products that are fun and functional.
Michelle, please give us a brief overview of your journey as the CEO of Bella Tunno.
I launched Bella Tunno in 2005 to honor my late brother, Matt Tunno. He was hilarious, brilliant, and gentle. He was an academic and was three months shy of completing his doctorate when he died. He was so many amazing things, but he was also a drug addict. I started Bella Tunno in his name while simultaneously launching the Matt Tunno Make a Difference Fund in hopes of helping people in vulnerable situations.
My path to becoming a CEO was based on passion and purpose, not performance or merit. I started Bella Tunno with no experience in design or manufacturing and very little experience in managing people. My journey as a CEO has been a story of failing forward and figuring out how to ‘learn and turn’. As we have scaled the business nationally and launched with massive retail partners, I’ve learned to be comfortable in the uncomfortable.
Having been the CEO of Bella Tunno for 17 years, I’ve navigated through a global recession, an unprecedented pandemic, and the fallout that has become the current production and logistics crisis. With each challenge, I learn more about myself and how talented and dedicated my team is. Bella Tunno is making more of an impact than I ever imagined possible, and I approach the leadership of Bella Tunno as a daily lesson, one that helps both the brand and me to continuously improve.
Tell us more about Bella Tunno, its offerings, and its stronghold in the retail space.
Bella Tunno is a purpose-driven baby and children’s product company on a mission to end childhood hunger.
For every product sold, we donate one meal to one child. To date, we’ve donated more than seven million meals, and that number is growing by the day. Our products are best of class in terms of safety, innovation, and functionality, but it’s truly our purpose that differentiates us from other brands.
We specialize in innovative and modern tabletop feeding products and teething products for children from birth to age 3. Our best-selling assortment includes our silicone Wonder Bib, Happy Teether, Pacifier Clips, Teething Flashcards, and our Home Collection.
Our products are meant to be conversation starters. Some are cheeky sayings that remind us how fun kids are and that we need to have a sense of humor when it comes to parenting. ‘Cheeks for Weeks’ and ‘Too Tasty to Wastey’ are some of our best sellers. Other products speak to larger movements, like our Kindness Collection and our Little Activist Collection, which feature words of empowerment and encouragement and highlight mantras like ‘love more’, ‘choose joy’, and ‘be kind to all kinds’.
Bella Tunno is sold in more than 3,000 independent boutiques across the country, as well as key national accounts like Nordstrom, Target, and Buy Buy Baby. We also sell online through bellatunno.com and on Amazon.
From a business leadership perspective, what is your opinion on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the retail industry?
Covid has endangered our industry. The rules of retail have changed, and the production challenges and the supply chain fallout will have ripple effects for years to come. Labor, container, and production shortages will impact both availability and pricing for the foreseeable future.
Material costs have increased nearly 300%, with energy rationing limiting many of our manufacturing plants overseas to only operate three days a week and a substantial increase in the cost of talented labor. This will inevitably lead to the consolidation of the retail industry as well as price increases.
The way people shop, where they shop, and what they shop for has all shifted. We were already seeing a huge move toward digital, but the pandemic had a rapidly accelerated impact on consumer shopping behavior.
What efforts did you take during the pandemic to sustain operations and ensure the safety of your team at the same time?
With the way, we historically did business shifting drastically and 80% of our accounts closing their physical locations in spring of 2020, we had to decide whether to hunker down and wait it out or double down and find a new way to push forward. We chose to become students of the storm and continued to find new ways to innovate.
First, we made a commitment to stay true to our mission and uphold our Buy One, Feed One promise, no matter what. We also released a Kindness Collection that donated two meals for every product sold since the need for meals got so much greater due to the pandemic. We donated more than one million meals in 2020 – in addition to donating $10,000 to the COVID-19 relief fund.
Second, we promised to take care of our team. They are our most valuable resource, so we are committed to keeping everyone employed with full benefits, making promises six months at a time. We invested in human capital and grew our team by 33%. Our yearly Employee Happiness Survey showed an increase in morale in 2020.
In order to keep giving meals and offer our team viable and sustainable work, we invested in our brand. When most companies were cutting budgets, we doubled our PR efforts, hiring a publicist and partnering with key media outlets to spread our message. We invested in new product development and kept several fresh and exciting products in our pipeline. We updated our digital technology and invested in new sales platforms to keep up with the demand for online retail.
I’m thrilled to say it worked! 2021 has been our best year yet, and it’s certainly not because our industry is thriving. It’s because we took calculated risks and believed in the power of our brand and our mission.
What is your opinion on adopting gender egalitarianism from a business leadership outlook?
I’m disappointed that in 2021, we’re still having to discuss this. Women comprise only 8% of the current fortune 500 CEOs, and that’s a 3 percent increase from the prior year. Women are still only making approximately 80% of what their male counterparts make in the same roles.
Unlike many companies, we were 100% woman-owned and 100% woman-run until 2021. We’re still 100% woman-owned, but we did hire our first male employee this year. I think it’s imperative that we pay equally for equal work and invest equally in human capital, regardless of gender.
As an established industry leader, what would be your advice to the budding entrepreneurs and enthusiasts aspiring to venture into the retail sector?
I don’t think this advice is specific to the retail sector, but I would encourage any new entrepreneurs to understand the driving force behind the brand they want to launch and tie it to a greater purpose. That could be the social impact, sustainability, equality, etc. – whatever it is, always stay focused on the mission rather than product or service.
When it’s all stacked against you, and at some point, it will be, it’s powerful to have a double bottom line to keep motivation high and the fire burning.
So, where do you start with that? One way is to identify the social issue that keeps you up at night. Think of the impact you want to have on the world. Then make a commitment to supporting that issue and tie it into your mission from day one.
It’s not all about the money when it comes to success. Meal donations are how we assess success at Bella Tunno. I didn’t think our company was big enough to get a place at the table at first. Despite the fact that we doubled year after year, our firm never seemed to be growing quickly enough or attaining the high numbers that I saw other brands achieve.
When you judge your success just on sales, I’ve discovered that there will always be a faster-growing, more profitable, and larger firm than yours. Your enthusiasm, ambition, and confidence become explosive when your success is related to something other than the numbers. Success is not just about the money. Everything we do at Bella Tunno is driven by meal donations because that is how we measure our success.
It’s not about the money; it’s about the food. The money must be there, and the two are inextricably linked, but assessing success in terms of meals has a far greater impact.
Ask yourself what you are most passionate about because passion leads to purpose, and purpose is where I believe the power originates and stays fueled. If you can link your purpose to the way, you make a living, then all of a sudden, you don’t have to choose between making a living and making a difference. That’s the gift.
How do you envision scaling Bella Tunno’s services in 2022?
We always have a full pipeline of new product development. This year, we’ll be launching products with new functionalities made from new materials. We’ve trademarked two new brands that we plan to launch in the next two years, and we plan to grow our international presence as well as our private label business. We are in a major growth phase and have the right people, processes, and products in place to reach the goals we’ve set for ourselves.