How FlyLady nags her way to millions

A clutter-busting homemaker creates a fast-growing business empire

By Susan Hauser, FSB Contributor

(FSB) Brevard, N.C. -- Here is how Marla Cilley, better known by her nom de guerre, FlyLady, runs her business. Every morning she rolls out of bed and starts nagging. She sends a first e-mail to her 400,000 subscribers at about 7 A.M., reminding them to get up and get dressed. Throughout the day she'll send about ten more e-mails from her Brevard, N.C., home, nagging them to polish their sinks or plan a healthy dinner. She'll also pen an essay or two on topics ranging from the evils of perfectionism to the importance of self-love. Her office administrator will send a few more e-mails, giving subscribers tidying tips. By the time Cilley's last e-mail - "Please go to bed!" - goes out at 10 P.M., her flock has received about 15 messages. Last year sales hit $4 million.

It may seem odd that Cilley, 51, should spin such gold from nagging, something most of us do our best to avoid. Yet her customers - almost exclusively female middle-aged homemakers, who call themselves FlyBabies - cannot get enough. They log on to flylady.net and purchase thousands of dollars' worth of FlyLady-branded products - kitchen timers, license plate holders, ostrich-feather dusters, books, calendars, mouse pads, T-shirts, tote bags, sink stoppers, water bottles, and lapel pins. They convene at occasional Flyfests around the country, where Cilley gives personal encouragement. And every day they send her about 5,000 grateful messages - so many that Cilley has had to hire a team of six offsite readers to help respond to the deluge. "You are the mother I never had," one recent e-mail read, "loving, caring, understanding, available with a big hug and a kick in the butt when needed."

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Cilley is not the only entrepreneur to command a cultlike following among legions of housewives. Jeanne Bice, "head quack" at quackerfactory.com, a QVC clothing company, presides over her website's chat groups in the Quack a Smile Club, building such customer loyalty that she can easily pack a Princess Cruises ship (princess.com) for her annual Quackers Caribbean cruise. Stacy DeBroff, creator of MomCentral.com, parlayed her parenting-advice site into a career as a bestselling author, marketing consultant, corporate spokesperson, and frequent guest on the "Today" show. Her books, website, newsletter, national media tours, and appearances reach millions of women, many of whom bond over MomChat on DeBroff's site.

Why is FlyLady's business so successful? Comment here.

Yet Cilley says she didn't set out to become a guru. The FlyLady juggernaut began innocently enough, after Cilley married her third husband in 1996 and found that neither of them knew how to keep a tidy home. When the mess became unmanageable, Cilley turned to the Internet, finding clutter-busting pointers on a website called Sidetracked Home Executives (shesintouch.com).

Before long Cilley started posting her own tips on the site's message board, eventually building a grassroots following with her no-nonsense, country-girl wisdom, along with her unbridled joy over her newly uncluttered life. She began individually mentoring other slobs in the group, and in 1999, FlyLady's listserve was hatched, with just ten women as subscribers.

Even neat freaks can benefit from viral growth. The original subscribers recommended the list to friends, and before long Cilley's following was large enough to win her write-ups in "Woman's Day" and "Ladies' Home Journal." "We never set out to have a business," Cilley says. "We set out to help people. And the business grew because of their needs."

One of those needs, apparently, is to find out how great the latest FlyLady products are. Anytime one of her FlyBabies e-mails a gushing testimonial praising one of her offerings ("I first bought the FlyLady calendar last year, and I LOVE it!"), Cilley forwards it to her entire mailing list. The testimonials typically result in a sudden sales surge of several hundred of the mentioned item.

Cilley's growing enterprise presented new demands - namely, how to keep up with the crush of fan mail. Kelly Burns, a devoted subscriber, volunteered to help in 2000. Today she and her husband, Tom, work at Cilley's distribution center as two of FlyLady's 24 paid employees.

Cilley attracts new subscribers by writing a self-syndicated column that appears weekly in 225 newspapers and doing a live weekly call-in satellite radio show with Leanne Ely, a nutritionist and cookbook author, on worldtalkradio.com, where "The Fly Show" is rated No. 1 among more than 70 weekly shows, drawing about 140,000 listeners. Ely has also launched a successful Internet enterprise (savingdinner.com), with no small thanks to Cilley, who promotes it to her subscribers.

Now FlyLady is looking to expand her self-help empire. Her followers, she points out, face bigger issues than clutter. Already having penned bestsellers on controlling household and "body clutter" (weight and emotional issues), she is at work on a third book, FlyLady's take on spirituality. And now, with a full-time product-development officer (Jack Sgroi, whom she hired away from MiddleRiver Aircraft Systems), she is anticipating subscribers' needs with a spate of new products, including more efficient mops and roadside emergency kits.

As Cilley constantly tells her loyal FlyBabies about getting their houses in order, "If I can do it, you can do it." But when it comes to creating a business out of nagging, she flies alone. *  Top of page

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Market indexes are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer LIBOR Warning: Neither BBA Enterprises Limited, nor the BBA LIBOR Contributor Banks, nor Reuters, can be held liable for any irregularity or inaccuracy of BBA LIBOR. Disclaimer. Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Disclaimer The Dow Jones IndexesSM are proprietary to and distributed by Dow Jones & Company, Inc. and have been licensed for use. All content of the Dow Jones IndexesSM © 2014 is proprietary to Dow Jones & Company, Inc. Chicago Mercantile Association. The market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved. FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved. Most stock quote data provided by BATS.