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Running a business despite an illness

Lisa Disbrow's doctors urged her to slow down. Could the entrepreneur find a way to manage her illness and her business?
Image: Lisa Disbrow
Despite being told by her doctor to slow down, Lisa Disbrow wasn't willing to abandon the business she loved.Andrew Cutraro / Courtesy of Inc.
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Lisa Disbrow was lying in bed with her laptop open one night in late 2008 when an e-mail caught her attention. A customer of her popular Raleigh, N.C., clothing boutique, Scout & Molly's, was interested in opening a branch of the store in the Dominican Republic. After seven years in business, Disbrow had two locations and was about to open a third. She got frequent inquiries from developers and entrepreneurs wanting to help her expand to other U.S. cities. But setting up shop in a Caribbean resort seemed like a dream. Excited, she read the message to her husband, Jarrett. He quickly threw cold water on the idea.

Disbrow wasn't used to hearing no from her husband. But doctors had recently diagnosed multiple sclerosis in the 34-year-old mother of two. The tremors, numbness, dizziness, fatigue, and, on occasion, slurred speech and difficulty walking — not to mention frequent visits to the doctor — had upended her family's comfortable existence and made managing the business alone nearly impossible. Already, Jarrett had been pushing his wife to scale back her hours. Now, he implored her to put aside thoughts of expanding Scout & Molly's, at least until they could regain their balance. "Give it a year," he pleaded.

After years of skillfully juggling a fast-growing business and a full personal life, Disbrow faced a gut-wrenching dilemma. Not only was the breakneck pace to which she was accustomed becoming difficult to maintain, it was now a hazard to her health. Stress, her doctors warned, would cause more frequent flare-ups of her MS, during which her symptoms intensified and put her out of commission for days or weeks at a time. And keeping the disease at bay required drugs that suppressed her immune system and left her susceptible to other illness.

She and Jarrett were fortunate in one sense: His own start-up, a pediatric drug marketing company, was doing well, so the couple didn't need her income to get by. Her medical bills, moreover, were covered by their existing private insurance. Yet Disbrow was reluctant to relinquish any control of Scout & Molly's, which she named for her two Labrador retrievers. Running the business, she recognized, kept her from dwelling on her illness. She also feared that without her constant presence, sales might suffer and new opportunities might pass her by. "Your business does better when you're there," she says. "No one is going to care about it like you do."

Disbrow had loved clothes since she was a girl but never envisioned herself working in fashion. After college, she earned a graduate degree in education and planned for a career as a college counselor. One day, though, while she was shopping in a chic store, she found herself in a long, friendly conversation with the owner. She eventually took a part-time job at the store and discovered that she loved selling. In 2002, backed by a $60,000 loan and $20,000 in savings, she opened Scout & Molly's.

The store offered hip brands such as Nanette Lepore and BCBG, with a personal touch. Disbrow painted the walls bright colors and hired an interior designer who handpicked vintage furniture and original artwork. Disbrow was rarely away from the store, and she insisted her sales staff welcome customers warmly, to make them feel as if they "were shopping in their best friend's closet." By 2006, sales hit $1 million; Disbrow had opened a second store in Chapel Hill and was making plans to license a third in Greensboro. (She took the Scout & Molly's name off that store after a year.) Says Gary Rosenblum, a national sales manager for Parameter, a New York clothing line that has sold to Scout & Molly's for seven years: "She's an incredible merchant."

Disbrow's health, though, was another matter. Not long after giving birth to her second child, she began to notice a mysterious numbness behind one knee. It got so bad that it kept her awake at night, and it was followed by weakness in her right arm and fatigue that was unusual for her. An MRI turned up minor irregularities, but her neurologist brushed them off, attributing her symptoms to stress. Believing something more serious was wrong with her body, Disbrow sought other opinions and underwent tests for nutritional deficiencies, Crohn's disease, and a host of other maladies.

On a normal day, Disbrow's symptoms were imperceptible to others, but she sometimes dropped things and tripped over her own feet. One day in the store, she was talking to a vendor when she started feeling dizzy, slurring her words, and dragging her right foot when she walked. It took two years for doctors to arrive at a diagnosis. By the summer of 2008, every possibility but MS had been ruled out.

Urged to slow down
Friends and family members urged Disbrow to slow down. Jarrett, a former sales rep at GlaxoSmithKline, picked up some of the slack at home by getting the kids ready for school and cooking dinner. But he was also in the midst of his own start-up. They discussed the options, including selling one or both of the stores. Yet Disbrow found herself unable to scale back. She fielded offers from people wanting her to expand to Atlanta; Washington, D.C.; Wilmington, N.C.; and Myrtle Beach, S.C. She made plans to open a new store in Charlotte with one of her employees. "I put the business before myself," she says. "I wasn't ready to say, 'OK, let's hire somebody,' because that would have been admitting to myself that this illness was affecting me."

But on many days, she didn't make it to the store, or, if she did, she had to crash in the backroom for a midafternoon nap. After one flare-up, her neurologist scolded her for not taking it easier on her body. "Take your foot off the gas pedal," he admonished. Seth Weinreb, a general surgeon who has treated Disbrow, says, "Most patients with MS would be sidelined. Lisa just would not stop."

As she and Jarrett confronted the reality of her diagnosis, Disbrow made it clear that she could not walk away from Scout & Molly's. But she could no longer ignore her limitations. She would have to find a middle way that relieved the stress on herself and her family without giving up her work.

Disbrow developed a plan, consulting closely with Jarrett and her brother, a close confidant. First, she hired a full-time salesperson. Even with nine part timers, Disbrow needed to ensure that the store was always fully staffed. She then gave much more responsibility to her manager, a trusted friend; the manager's new duties included making schedules, managing personnel, and handling returns and reorders. Disbrow retained a bookkeeper to manage cash flow. That left her only buying and marketing to do herself.

The added personnel cut into profits but allowed Disbrow to come in when she felt up to it and still do what she loved — sell. "It's taken some work for me to get OK with it mentally," she says.

Next, Disbrow needed a realistic strategy for managing store expansion. For the Charlotte store, which opened in December 2008, she worked out an agreement that gave her an upfront fee and a share of sales for three years. Disbrow also retained the right to be involved in choosing the location and hiring employees but made it clear that she might not always be available. So far, she has made all but one of her scheduled monthly visits.

Disbrow still envisions future licensing deals, and she is considering a possible franchising strategy. "I definitely want to open more stores, but it is going to be determined by my condition," she says. "I'm a risk taker. It's tempting, like candy."

Every other day, Disbrow injects herself with interferon to slow the disease's advance. She now has tremors in her hands, and a recent MRI revealed that the disease had spread to her spine. But she continues to spend time in the Raleigh store when she can, and the business is running smoothly, with sales down less than 10 percent this year despite the recession.

"I'm learning to be happy with what I have now," says Disbrow. Yet she still tends to push her limits. In September, she participated in a two-day long-distance bike ride to benefit MS. Though the stress caused her to have another flare-up, Disbrow managed to host a swank fundraising party after the ride that raised $45,000. The future is scary, but neither she nor Jarrett thinks she will ever stop being involved in the business. Says Disbrow: "I would be really lost without it and sad and less healthy."