Making the case for mothers

Mom Complex CEO publishes book on conquering self-doubt

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Katherine Wintsch started The Mom Complex in 2010 as a division of
The Martin Agency. Photo by Caroline Martin

Katherine Wintsch believes many women are trying too hard to be supermoms. They are overwhelmed by demands they place on themselves, at home and in their careers.

Wintsch, 42, can relate. The mother of two is the founder and CEO of The Mom Complex, a research and marketing firm based in Richmond.

She recently published a book, “Slay Like a Mother,” which guides readers through a process of identifying and vanquishing “dragons” of self-doubt. Wintsch describes her own 20-year struggle with self-doubt before beginning a two-year self-help journey at 35.

The book reflects Wintsch’s reputation as an expert on modern motherhood that began with the creation of The Mom Complex nearly a decade ago. Over the years, she has spoken at a variety of conferences on women’s issues and has been interviewed by the likes of The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Time magazine and NBC’s “Today” show.

Wintsch previously was senior vice president and group planning director at The Martin Agency in Richmond, a nationally recognized advertising agency. After the birth of her second child, she was struck by the “profound disconnect” between the perky depictions of mothers in advertising and the stressful, hectic lives they actually lead.

“Oh, my God, nobody gets moms,” she told the top executives at the ad agency.

With their blessing, Wintsch started The Mom Complex in 2010 as a Martin division devoted to informing companies about the real needs of mothers.

“We gave her the opportunity to develop The Mom Complex because she had a great idea based on a truly valuable insight and because we believed in her ability to build a line of business around it. I’m glad to say we were right about that,” says John Adams, The Martin Agency’s former chairman.

Earl Cox, the agency’s former chief strategy officer, concurs. “Her passion and insight made management believe there was a business opportunity to provide unique insights to marketers and generate incremental revenue for the agency.”

In 2014, Wintsch bought The Mom Complex from the agency and now runs it as an independent company. It has provided research and advice to clients such as Chobani, Walmart, Unilever and Johnson & Johnson.

Wintsch’s husband, Richard, is executive director of Startup Virginia, a business incubator in Richmond’s Shockoe Bottom area. The couple met at James Madison University where Richard, a native of Geneva, Switzerland, was a member of the JMU golf team. Their children are Layla, 12, and Alex, 10.

Adams says Katherine is “one of Martin’s big success stories, and those of us who worked with her when it all started are immensely proud of her.”

The following is an edited transcript of an interview with The Mom Complex CEO in early June.

Virginia Business: What prompted you to write the book?
Katherine Wintsch: I wrote “Slay like a Mother” because, for 20 years of my life, I suffered with what I refer to as my dragon of self-doubt — just never feeling good enough no matter what I achieved or accomplished. I always felt I needed to do and be more. Then, long story short, at age 35, I went through a two-year, self-help journey to help myself feel whole. The only reason I wrote the book was because I personally changed my life so fundamentally and became so much more fulfilled that I felt selfish keeping the secrets to myself. I felt that I should write a book to tell other people about it. Prior to the book, the only other form of outlet that I had was speaking engagements, which I do a fair amount of, but that’s only 100, 200, 300 people at a time. It’s just such a smaller scale as opposed to being able to produce something that can live on for generations. I wrote it to help other women.

VB: What would you say is the central message of the book?
Wintsch: There’s a difference between struggling and suffering. Struggles are to be expected in your life, but suffering occurs at your own hand, and you can stop it. We have the power to not yell at ourselves so much, beat ourselves up, but it takes practice. It’s work.

VB: Do you think for women this is a new phenomenon or is this something that women have always dealt with?
Wintsch: I think [women have always had to deal with self-doubt]. You’re taking on a role of being a mother, and you’ve never done it before. There’s no way somebody’s escaping that without self-doubt. I think in more recent times, with the influx of social media … we have more ability today than ever before to compare ourselves to others. … We have, unfortunately, thousands of opportunities today to see how other women are doing their thing, and we just feel terrible about ourselves. My mother didn’t care whether other people were breastfeeding or [bottle-feeding their babies]. She didn’t care what other people put in [their children’s] lunchboxes. She just did her thing.

VB: With the influx of more and more women into professions and being on a career track, is that contributing to the anxiety?
Wintsch: Yes. Without a doubt. Women today wear more hats than ever before. Fifty years ago, women predominantly spent their time at home. Now you’re still having to care for the children but you’re adding a career on top of that or you’re adding 82 activities for your children every weekend. … We have more reasons to doubt ourselves because we’re taking on more roles.

VB: What was the event that started The Mom Complex?
Wintsch: I was on maternity leave with my second child. So, I had a 2-year-old at home and an infant. … I noticed a profound disconnect between the way I felt as a mother — overwhelmed and exhausted — and the way that I saw mothers depicted in marketing and advertising — beautiful and thin and happy.

I was a marketer by trade, so I knew enough that the companies weren’t doing it on purpose. Actually, I knew that they were spending millions of dollars on consumer research with mothers but still coming up with this crap that they were putting out.

I pretty quickly deduced, just from logic, that it wasn’t the companies’ fault. It was the fault of mothers. When mothers are invited to show up to a focus group — let’s say it’s eight moms — they’re strangers, so they posture and they lie. They’re going to tell you their children brush their teeth twice a day. They make their beds; their husband’s really helpful. Nobody’s going to show up and be like, “I’m full of doubt, and some days I don’t want to be alive.”

That was my only hunch — that companies are getting it wrong. I could be the one to help moms open up and be honest. I went to the then-president and CEO of The Martin Agency, John Adams and Mike Hughes, and said, “Oh my God, nobody gets moms.”

VB: How did you get moms to open up?
Wintsch: From the beginning, we developed two research tools that would prevent posturing. One is, instead of having focus groups, we throw what we call an “opinion party.” There are two qualities that make them different than focus groups. One is, they’re never in a facility. They’re almost always in a mother’s home or here at The Mom Complex.

The second thing that makes them different from focus groups — and this is more important — is that the moms are already friends or at least acquaintances. They know each other, and that prevents the posturing. If one mother is like, “We eat broccoli three meals a day,” her friend is like, “Why are you lying? You order pizza all the time.”

The other tool that we developed is what we call a passion and pain research app. That is an app that we ask mothers to carry around for 10 days. In the beginning, we ask them to input any time throughout the day that they have a particularly high passion point or a low pain point, and they indicate what it was and the degree in the intensity that it was.

The only goal was to prevent the posturing and get more real answers. My belief as a businessperson was always that these big companies, if they knew how hard it was to be a mother, they would be more helpful. They just didn’t know.

When we really started revealing this stuff to executives … it was very moving to them. All of this was new information.

VB: How has that changed how these companies approach moms?
Wintsch: Once I left Martin in 2014 and separated [the Mom Complex from the agency] we have made a little bit more of a shift away from influencing marketing and more towards influencing products further upstream.

As an example, last year, we helped Chobani develop a new line of kids’ yogurt. It was everything from what size should it be, what flavor should it be, should it have a character, should it not have a character, how much should it cost? We did tons of research about moms and kids, eating on the go and how does that happen. That’s an example of a product.

Then with Walmart in the U.K., we deployed our app and found out a huge pain point was putting an infant car carrier on top of a shopping cart. You can’t see where you’re going because it’s now this high. … They developed lower and wider shopping carts for parents. 

One other example: We worked with Unilever, which owned Ragu spaghetti sauce at the time. They wanted a program that would help make the lives of moms easier around dinnertime. We came up with this “one-pot” meal program where they would have recipe cards and Ragu, but it was all about using one pot.

The reason that we did that was because our research showed, again in the app and opinion parties, that the average family spends 12 minutes at the dinner table — if they sit down — and they were spending over 60 minutes cleaning up after dinner.

That was the spark for the one-pot meal: Let’s not just save moms money, let’s save them time, and give them time back with this. Every single one of our projects has a problem and a solution. What’s the biggest pain point? That’s something I think we’re bringing to the market … We’re like, “Guess what? Moms hate washing dishes. Let’s be more helpful.”

That’s fun. We really help our clients identify the most pressing pain point and then help them solve it… We’re not any part of the execution. We’re basically delivering a report that says, “If we were you, we would do this.”

VB: Do you see [other research firms] following your lead?
Wintsch: That is the most astonishing thing to me. There should be 50 companies doing what we do. We certainly have competition, in that our clients could hire a traditional research company who could use similar tools and certainly recruit moms and ask them questions. They don’t have the subject matter expertise. They don’t have 10 years of knowledge that … can add a treasure chest of insights that other people can’t.

VB: When you started this, you were a senior vice president at The Martin Agency. Now you’re the CEO of a small company. Is it easier now?
Wintsch: One hundred times. Everything is easier. It’s hard for people to understand … I heard all the horror stories when I wanted to become an entrepreneur. People were like, “My sister is never home, she’s a terrible mother. Her husband’s ex-wife lost her business.” It was all just tales.

I am under so much less pressure as an entrepreneur [for] two reasons: One, I have contained the size. We’re seven people. I can’t imagine a day we’ll ever be over 10. … I’m not trying to climb to the top of the mountain anymore. Previously in my career, I just had a pickaxe. It was higher and higher. … As soon as I was a senior vice president, I was like, “This is [senior vice president]. What does [executive vice president] look like?”

I’m at a point now that I’m so comfortable and so happy that I’ve reached a plateau in my career, and I have decided I’m just going to dance on the plateau. If I had started a company where I was trying to take over the world, and we were going to have offices in Shanghai and Chicago, I’d be killing myself. But that’s not worth it to me. Big is not better for me. I don’t need to be fulfilled by having 100 employees. That sounds horrible to me.

One reason that life is easier is that it’s small. I can control my schedule. I can go on field trips. Then the other reason that it’s easier is I’m no longer trying to prove myself. … Before, nothing was good enough for me. Then it was like, “I can’t go to the field trip because I’m going to miss out on that meeting.”

[Before becoming an entrepreneur] I probably could have said “no” so much more than I did, but I didn’t believe in myself enough to say “no.” I say no all the time now, with no consequence. I’m like, “I don’t care if this hurts my reputation with this person or this company. We’re not available.” … I figured out who I was before I started my own company as an entrepreneur.

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