March 24, 2017 MBA graduate's road to entrepreneurship

Urban Infant products

Fisher alumnus Eric Eichhorn's road to entrepreneurship has had several twists and turns throughout a journey that began more than 17 years ago. But along the way, Eichhorn (MBA '04) has maintained balance by embracing both the seemingly random direction his life has taken and an unwavering entrepreneurial spirit set on success. 

After earning bachelor's degrees in both finance and information technology (IT), Eichhorn settled in Cincinnati, where he spent the next five years of his 20s pursuing dual passions for music and technology. As a skilled musician, he applied his creativity and understanding of IT to his role in an industrial-style alternative rock band, where he played keyboards, sang, and took on the job of programming the group’s light show. 

Eric Eichhorn
Eric Eichhorn

Eichhorn left the band in 1999 and moved to Chicago, where he spent several years working in finance at an internet start-up. It was during this time when his sister, Kelly Friedl, approached him with her idea to start a business. The idea: market toddler products to parents who choose to raise their children in an urban environment. 

Urban Infant was born in 2000. 

Soon after the launch, however, the pair continued working day jobs while pursuing the fledgling endeavor on the side. What they didn't know then was that getting Urban Infant off the ground would take years of commitment and a willingness to work toward its creation. 

Eventually, Eichhorn left Chicago and moved to Columbus to pursue his MBA at Fisher. Following graduation, he and Friedl continued to work toward their dream of becoming successful entrepreneurs on a part-time basis, while Eichhorn began a supply-chain focused consulting career, which allowed him to work with clients such as AT&T, Kroger, Boeing, and eventually American Greetings. 

The turning point for Urban Infant occurred in 2016 after several consecutive years of triple-digit growth with its Amazon.com store , and running the business while trying to maintain full-time day jobs became too difficult to balance for the siblings.

"The older you get, the harder it is to give up the better pay," Eichhorn said. "I lost the financial security of my day job, but running Urban Infant allows me to utilize both the creative and analytical sides of my personality. The decision to leave the day job was actually more difficult for me than it was for my wife, who was very supportive." 

Keeping it in the family

Eric and Kelly
Eric Eichhorn and Kelly Friedl

Running a business with a sibling can certainly have its challenges. Eichhorn joked that he wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to anyone, but he said the pair makes the unique arrangement work. Eichhorn, who now lives in the Cleveland area with his wife, Qian Li, and their two children, ages 6 and 4, handles the sourcing, operations and finance, while Friedl manages the sales, marketing, and customer service functions from Chicago. The two share the strategic and product design decisions, and keep the business on track through daily phone calls. 

Eichhorn notes that part of what makes their business relationship successful is that they have complementary skillsets. He utilizes his MBA experience and his analytical skills by focusing on the numbers and execution side of the operation, while Friedl’s focus is on the branding, lifestyle and visionary aspects of the business.

"We butt heads a lot, but we also challenge each other," Eichhorn said. "At the end of the day we typically push each other to a better place than where we'd be if we weren’t working together."

The value of a Fisher MBA

His Fisher MBA prepared Eichhorn for running his own business by allowing him to use skills he gained during the program but hadn't been able to use previously during his career. Because of Urban Infant's small size, he does the bookkeeping, so his accounting and finance classes have been beneficial. Additionally, having input into the company’s marketing efforts is a skillset he previously hadn't utilized outside of the MBA program.

Eichhorn chose Fisher for more than the strength of the college's reputation and the MBA program's rankings. As an Ohio native, he was familiar with Fisher and Ohio State, and he saw the quality of the experience as "a lot of bang for the buck." As a full-time MBA student, he lived with his mother, opting for a frugal lifestyle that allowed him to graduate with minimal debt. 

Urban Infant gains momentum

Eichhorn cites the decision to focus on a narrower product line as the principal reason for Urban Infant's turnaround three years ago. Previously, the company produced approximately 40 products — ranging from onesies to jump ropes to sidewalk chalk. Although the product line boasted a high design aesthetic, which helped Urban Infant get placed in prestigious outlets such as museum gift shops, the company wasn’t profitable. Then, Eichhorn and Friedl decided to focus on their core product. 

"We cut down our product offering a few years ago and decided to focus on the nap mat," he said. "Next, we started creating new products — lunch bags and backpacks — that coordinate with that core product. Ultimately, we became laser-focused on a niche, which is preschool."

Eichhorn's five-year goal for Urban Infant doesn’t involve the business reaching a certain dollar amount. Rather, he wants the brand to be known for making the best preschool and daycare products and, ultimately, to become a household name among parents of preschoolers. The company currently sells approximately 25,000 units per year. 

Now's the time

If he could go back and alter the journey that ultimately led to the creation of Urban Infant, Eichhorn said that he and Friedl would have focused more on the business earlier in life — before there's as much to give up in terms of reduced income and financial security. 

Time flies by, so do what you enjoy the most, Eichhorn said. He also advises aspiring entrepreneurs to find a niche product rather than pursuing a commodity. 
 
"If you have a vision for a product and you can make even a limited quantity, you can test it with fairly little capital investment," Eichhorn said. "If you think you can build a better mousetrap, build it, brand it and put it on Amazon."