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Elke Govertsen's chaotic success

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On a recent warm afternoon, there's a bit of relative calm for Mamalode publisher and Missoula entrepreneur Elke Govertsen. She sits on her deck in the Rattlesnake as kids bounce on trampolines in her yard. A hummingbird flits by. The Disney-esque moment doesn't last long. "Mom, can I have another Gogurt?" says one of Govertsen's two sons around the time the family's 13-year-old dog, Truly, approaches for a sniff.

Five adults, four kids, three dogs and two cats live in the the two-story orange home that Govertsen and her husband Paul Donaldson own. Neighborhood kids stream in and out many days. The living room has a drawing wall: Kids and adults are permitted to scribble on it with permanent ink. It's all symbolic of the controlled chaos that inspires Govertsen's personal and professional exploits. She calls herself the "anti-perfect mom."

Before launching Mamalode, in 2009, Govertsen helped nonprofits get off the ground. But she had no formal publishing experience. Today, she's learning as she goes, reading up on business, publishing and entrepreneurship and asking experts about their favorite tricks.

The homework is paying off. Govertsen hit a milestone last week when Lisa Stone, CEO and cofounder of the website BlogHer, which draws 40 million unique visitors monthly, declared Mamalode "America's Best Parenting Magazine in Print."

Stone, a Missoula native, says that the depth of Mamalode's content stands out among other parenting magazines that lean heavily on how-to lists, recipes and weight-loss plans. By contrast, Mamalode, Stone notes, "is about the emotional lives of parents."

Govertsen began brainstorming what would become Mamalode after giving birth to her eldest son, Boone. At 26, the new mother felt isolated. She didn't know many other young parents. She felt unsure of her parenting skills. "I was just, like, 'I'm a really bad parent. Something that was supposed to happen to me didn't. I'm scared,'" Govertsen recalls. "I loved him. But still, there are all these conflicting emotions. And I hadn't really heard about those." Govertsen set out to make friends. To her relief, the other young parents she met shared her feelings of inadequacy and loneliness. Talking about those feelings made Govertsen feel better. It was "just an instant pressure valve," she says.

Govertsen gave a party for those new friends, her first annual "Mother's Day Eve Bash," in 2005. They did yoga and pilates and drank wine. They shared stories. Within a few years, hundreds of moms were attending.

Local businesses called, asking Govertsen if they could sponsor the bash, she says. It became clear that not only was she filling an emotional void, she had tapped into a highly desirable demographic: Market research commonly shows that mothers control upwards of 85 percent of household spending. "Now that I'm in business and people ask me to sponsor stuff, I realize that I missed huge opportunities to make a bunch of money," she says.

She's no longer willing to miss those opportunities. In 2009, Govertsen carried the Mother's Day Eve concept over to Mamalode. She had only $400, she says, just enough to print advertising rate cards. She used them sparingly, taking them back if a potential advertiser didn't seem interested.

Govertsen printed 10,000 copies of Mamalode's first issue that year, distributing them free to locals. Content then and now is written largely from a first-person perspective. There are no full-time Mamalode writers; it's all freelance. Govertsen and her staff, including editor Dori Gilels, encourage professional wordsmiths and novices alike to contribute. They edit lightly; the idea is to leave writers' voices intact. "I want our readers to be, like, 'I have a story for you,'" Govertsen says. "We're like user-generated content, but really curated."

Print and online contributors include local notables Jennifer Savage and Missoula City Councilwoman Caitlin Copple, who, for Mamalode's most recent issue, wrote a piece titled "Baby Fever," detailing her growing desire to have a child.

New York Times bestselling author Kelle Hampton, whose blog Enjoying the Small Things lured more than 100,000 unique visitors between June 26 and July 2, writes for Mamalode and was the publication's first paid subscriber. Hampton says she signed up because of the magazine's honesty. "It just felt like you were walking into somebody's home," Hampton says. "There's a certain rawness."

Govertsen is clearly pleased with recognition from writers like Hampton and Stone, but she says her work isn't about ego. You won't see her on the cover of every issue of Mamalode. "I don't want it to be a magazine that's about me," she says.

Mamalode continues to distribute 10,000 free magazines quarterly in Missoula. Prior to last week's BlogHer recognition, the publication had more than 1,000 paid subscribers in 50 states and 10 countries. While many publications across the nation have been laying off staffers and declaring bankruptcy, Mamalode has almost always run in the black, Govertsen says. She's now focusing on increasing its national presence online and in print while turning to mobile applications.

When she isn't publishing the magazine and herding kids, Govertsen oversees The Main Thing Is, a side project that focuses on custom publishing, branding and facilitating small business workshops. TMTI recently rolled out a custom publication for Community Medical Center, which is a regular Mamalode advertiser. And this spring, she says, she licensed use of her trademarked Mother's Day Eve Bash to an organization that aims to to roll it out nationally in 2013.

Financially, Mamalode and Govertsen's various endeavors look promising. But there's more to this tale, she says. "I think it's going to make a lot of money. But I think it's a byproduct of something better. I think it's going to make a really good story first."

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