What I Learned About Entrepreneurship From My Special Needs Son



By  Julie Bombacino, Co-Owner of Real Food Blends (www.realfoodblends.com)

In your career and in life in general, you can learn and grow from experiences you never expected. When I had my son AJ, who was born with multiple special needs, I never thought being his mom would lead me to found my own company. All I knew was that my son, who relies on a feeding tube for all of his nutrition, was miserable on commercial formula and I was determined to find something to help him. While switching AJ to a blended diet eliminated almost all of the negative symptoms he had on formula, I discovered there wasn’t any real food product on the market for people with feeding tubes. My desire to have a convenient way to give AJ real food while we were traveling or just running errands led me to create Real Food Blends, which offers shelf stable, 100% real food meals for people with feeding tubes. Starting a business from scratch definitely has its challenges, and as time has gone on, I’ve found that my experiences with AJ have helped make me not only a better mom, but a better manager and entrepreneur. Although the lessons he’s taught me are too numerous to count, here are the first few that come to mind that relate directly to my work as a business owner.


1.Take care of your body or nothing else matters.

We’ve learned through the years that trying to push through a physical therapy session or feeding therapy or even horseback riding isn’t worth it if AJ isn’t feeling 100%. In the workplace, we take pride in showing how hard/how much/how late we’re working, but grinding yourself to death at work leads to bad performance. Sleep, good nutrition, and some time off can do wonders for my productivity. As a business owner, I don’t like to see my employees burning at both ends to get their work done, either. I want my employees to value their time away from work, too, and to be comfortable coming to me when they need help or guidance when it comes to their job. Stressed out employees will never perform as well as ones who take time for themselves outside of work.


2.Focus on one thing at a time.

As moms, and especially entrepreneurs, the tendency is to try and do all the things, all the time. One thing we’ve learned with AJ’s development is that when he’s working on one big skill, we have to give him time to do that and focus on just that. When he was working on trying to get into a sitting position on his own, we backed off working on occupational therapy and feeding therapy to give him the room to focus on this one skill. We’ve seen him regress slightly in some areas when a new skill is emerging (and learned to not freak out!). The same holds true for the workplace. I find when I have multiple projects going on and I’m bouncing from project to project, nothing really gets done and nothing gets done in a timely way or up to my normal standards. Turning off the phone, music, email, etc. for an hour or two to truly focus on doing one thing is tough, but so worth it.


3.Surround yourself with people who know more than you.

As a mom, I want to be everything to my kids. That all goes out the window with special needs. AJ has had an occupational therapist, physical therapist, speech therapist, vision therapist, developmental therapist (and I’m probably forgetting a whole bunch of others) for years. As an entrepreneur, surrounding myself from the early days with people who know more than me was and still is a big part of the success of Real Food Blends. I knew NOTHING about food manufacturing or medical insurance billing before this company, and if I had tried to become an expert prior to launching the company, we probably still wouldn’t have our meals available to the public! This doesn’t mean you have to outsource everything or hire teams of people right off the bat. Sometimes it’s as simple as asking an expert for a quick phone call or coffee to pick their brain a bit. Other times, it does mean hiring people, especially a good accountant and attorney!


4.Not all communication is verbal.

AJ can’t talk, so you might think that means we don’t know what he needs. You would be wrong. Humming and staring at the “big TV” means “My show has ended, kindly restart the same one again.” Scooting into the kitchen and slapping my butt means, “I would like some attention, Mom.” In the workplace and boardroom, non-verbal communication – both the kind you give and receive – can make or break a company or career.  Looking at your phone during meetings means you’re not really present. Nail biting, hair twirling, and checking your watch all say you’re not really engaged. I’m not going to hire someone who isn’t engaged. Conversely, I use my body language and tone to my advantage when presenting to doctors or clinical dietitians, bankers, investors, and partners. None of these people would want to do business with me – or my company – if I wasn’t giving this basic respect.


5.Perspective is important.

One of my bosses very early in my career at a major airline would say “Planes are still flying.” What she meant was that whatever issue or problem we were facing, nothing was as big of a deal as 9/11. AJ has given me the same perspective. The “HOLY-CRAP-THERE’S-A-WORK-EMERGENCY” doesn’t induce nearly as much panic in me as it once would have earlier in my career because I can see the bigger life picture — my son is home with our family and he continues to develop and learn. As I’ve seen first-hand from the stories people have shared with us, many of our customers over the years haven’t been as fortunate. This perspective isn’t a laisse faire attitude but helps me to maintain a clear head to find solutions. Planes are still flying. My son is still here. We can calmly figure out any work-related issue.




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