BQ Editor Mike Hughes meets three brothers on a mission – to make life better for parents and children.
There are no signs to point a wandering magazine editor towards the base of Bababing!, the Keighley nursery product designers. The sat nav says it’s right here, but not until you ring Jamie Robinson and his two brothers are you guided across a haulage yard and to the door of their ‘compact’ offices.
The three brothers run their business from here, designing and selling baby accessories like baby bouncers, bottle warmers and the award-winning DayTripper range bags, popular with mums and dads alike because they look like designer satchels or laptop cases, but actually conceal roll-out changing mats, bottle holders and even dummy hangers.
The boys do not look like baby-changing mat designers, but then they weren’t until designer Ashley – who was working for Mamas and Papas at the time – came up with the logo and company name, while Nick was an engineer making keyhole surgery equipment and Jamie was a national accounts manager involved in licensing with Umbro.
So the product could have been keyhole surgery equipment, or sports shoes, but the market research told them otherwise and the brand name clicked as soon as they saw it.
“We had no real idea of what we were going to do with it at the time, but we thought we should register it and shelve it for now,” said Jamie. “Then I was doing some work with bag manufacturers and it came back to the front of our minds again.”
This route into entrepreneurship will be familiar to many Yorkshire businesses. It starts with a single idea over a cup of coffee (and how many of those ‘I could do that better myself’ moments are left to wither away?) and then hopefully, becomes a few notes and then a talk with someone in the business and then a trial run and then....you’re a business.
But for the brothers, their first thought for a unisex changing bag (losing the butterflies and the cupcakes and going more for the laptop look) was a good start.
“The world is changing and dads are so involved in parenting now, often as stay-at-home parents, and there was nothing there for them,” said Jamie. “Product development costs can be high, so we thought of the most cost-effective item we could start with and we all put a few thousand in and didn’t have the fear of losing our houses if it didn’t work out.
“A lot of the other products we had seen were really poor – small changing mat size and paper-thin. So we started to develop the DayTripper bag with some nice features like a super-sized mat and some good detail to make it different to the rest.
“It took us 18 months to reinvent a product that basically hadn’t been touched for forty years. They were still similar to the ones I had been sat on.
“I then had contact with an agent to help us find a manufacturer in the Far East. The guy we found agreed to us using his factories as the most time-effective and cost-effective route.
“We got the first container from China with 1,000 pieces on board, and were fortunate enough to get a listing with John Lewis after I found out who their nursery buyer was and talked to her to explain what we were doing.
“They ordered 125, but that meant we still had the best part of 1,000 bags in our garage.”
Now the matter of scale becomes important. There is interest in your new product, but if it’s just a pallet-full, then that might not be enough to cover your costs and if it is for 15,000, then you have to ramp up your production pretty dramatically. So you need either guaranteed capacity to produce or you need to have done your sums and be able to survive an early shortfall in your cashflow – or have a decent-sized garage for leftover goods with a decent shelflife.
“If they hadn’t sold we would have been either having a fire sale or going round every market stall we could find,” said Jamie. “But we had already talked about whether we would go down the supermarket route for volume or try to build a brand and go more premium. And we decided to go premium and build an asset.
“But at that stage, after John Lewis, there was no Plan B. We just wanted them to sell out of the bags. Then two weeks after we gave them the 125 bags, Nick got home one day and there was a letter from John Lewis with a repeat order.
“They saw in it what we saw – a bag that looks as good on him as on her. We weren’t trying to be something we’re not, making designer handbags, we were being very functional. So after that we rolled the profit into more stock and then started looking at other nursery product categories like hardware.”
Nick went back to the 1920s for another project they have been working on, a baby bouncer that worked with long automobile-like leaf springs rather than the wire which supports the chair in many rival products.
“I needed to see if it was practical, so I worked with Airedale Springs, who are based locally, and sent them engineering drawings I had done and asked them to prototype it and test it out for safety standards,” Nick explains. “It has taken about 12 months, but we have sent it to China to be made and have sent it to John Lewis again and they like the design because it is unusual.
“What we are doing with each of our products is designing the whole thing ourselves, with full engineering drawings. A lot of manufacturers will buy their items off the shelves in China and dress them up, but we wanted to be responsible for the whole product and have the IP, as we do with our bouncers and high chairs.
“That means we can also provide everything in one box. You don’t have to buy all the add-ons like feeding trays, cushions, harnesses. It’s just one box you walk away with, take home and everything is in there.”
The brothers know they need to be different, to have a USP against the big suppliers. The days are gone when it was almost enough just to be ‘an independent trader’. There are a lot of outlets that are more than happy to settle for the safer option rather than risk anything on yours.
“At best, there are a couple of dozen options for us to sell to. After that, you are twiddling your thumbs.” explains Jamie. “We have our key national retailers, and then what I like to call our key regional national retailers and some really strong independents that we want to support and help.”
Jamie, Nick and Ashley want to retain control over as many aspects of their business as possible. “As soon as you start hiving off money to someone else to spend on your behalf, they are never going to spend it as well as you would spend it,” says Nick.
“Our eyes have been opened, certainly over the last 12 months, that we should do more of this ourselves, perhaps through social media, to let people know what we are doing.
Designer Ashley says the approach has worked for Bababing:“With our initial bag we created demand on a product that people wanted. If you can create that interest every time, you have a built-in market.”
The firm now has 14 lines, and has just sealed a landmark deal with Boots, which will be stocking the DayTripper bags, which have since won a Mother & Baby Magazine gold award, Flipout changing mats and the HotPOC rechargeable bottle warmer.
John Lewis and Boots are the sort of clients an entrepreneur dreams of, yet the boys are level-headed enough to be very pleased, but immediately very aware that they have to secure a long-term relationship and look as hard as ever for the next client.
The idea of building a career with your family might not appeal to everyone. Relationships that work during weekly Sunday roast get-togethers are not the same as sharing 12-hour working days and relying on the other’s success to help pay your wages. But there is a bond here that is made of blood and ideas. Ashley knows the creative work, Nick does the engineering and Jamie handles sales. Those lines have to cross a lot, but each one is the lead in their own sector.
The fourth member, silent partner and Bababing! director Toby Dalton, is a branding expert who has helped build that strategy, which is now being used at trade shows to open up an exports market building in North America, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Poland.
There is already interest, but the brothers know there is much more to be had, with Japan a key target. Jamie tells me: “You still need the break – the rub of the green, to be successful.”
True enough – but you always need the right product and business plan to put yourself in the position where that stroke of luck is of use. The Bababing! brothers deserve their exclamation mark.
Find out more about Bababing! on their website: www.bababing.com