Rachel Jones had a simple idea. She’d run off a few fabric baby seats on her sewing machine for her 18-month-old daughter and, encouraged by the mums from her baby group, she bought a cheap train ticket to London.
Then she talked her way into an appointment with some John Lewis Partnership’ buyers. Business success doesn’t usually happen this way. But, in January 2005, the buyers heard Jones’ pitch and loved the idea.
She was told: “If you can make them, we’ll sell them.” Still spinning, she stepped back out into London’s bustling Victoria Street after the head office meeting.
“I wasn’t expecting it at all, and I had no idea what to do next,” she recalls. Over the following seven-and-a-half years, Jones has been on a switchback journey, held on course by her determination, imagination and resourcefulness. She looks remarkably unwrinkled too by her many sleepless nights, nursing both her daughter Freya and the Totseat travel highchair, a clever way of holding a small child safely and hygienically in any type of adult chair.
At times, it looked as if the Totseat business might totter off the rails, but the business is now making good profits after five years. Turnover hit £500,000 last year and in the firstsix months of this year profits have doubled.
“Today we have the most respected travel highchair in the world – and we know that,” she says, leaning forward at the table in the Edinburgh basement office.
“There are copies but Totseat is ‘the’ one that is charging ahead and recognised as the premier version.” Totseat is a Scottish-designed product now exporting to 45 countries.
It won Gift of the Year in 2009, awarded by the Giftware Association, which propelled Totseat out of the babyware ghetto into the giftware market, which has not been so bashed by the recession.
Totseat recently won ‘The Tots To Travel’ award for Best Feeding product and won a gold medal in the Practical Parenting awards, beating major brand competitors along the way.
Totseat has also picked up the Scottish Design Award’s Grand Prix for product design, and has landed plaudits from many international baby magazines.
But, back in early 2005, sitting on the train home from her John Lewis meeting with a comfortable job working in marketing and public relations in her own company Great Circle, she pondered her future.
“I really went to see the John Lewis Partnership for a reality check because everyone had told me I could turn Totseat into a business,” she says.
“I was going to say, I’ll stick to my day-job, park the baby seat idea and say, it’s been really useful experience.” Life doesn’t work that way: Totseat would become an all-consuming, compulsive product with Jones, a global-trotting business woman in her late thirties, embarking on her greatest adventure to date.
She says: “When someone such as John Lewis Partnership says they can sell your product, you think ‘fantastic’ but you can’t properly think about what is to come.
I then had the most incredible learning curve, because I’ve never manufactured anything.” For Rachel Jones, it has turned up some wider home truths about the underlying state of manufacturing in the UK; the lack of support and knowledge in Scotland for ideas in the baby sector; and some out-of-date advice from business angels advising her to look at UK markets before exporting.
But she had to find out even the basics of the business.
Months before her date with John Lewis, Jones, husband Mike and daughter Freya were living in the Marchmont area of Edinburgh.
“I had three week’s maternity leave, as you do when you’re self-employed,” she says. “I was desperate to get out and about. When Freya was a bit older, we discovered that every time we went out and there wasn’t a clean high chair, I would take my jumper off and strap her into the chair using the arms of the jumper.” It wasn’t until January 2004 that she tackled the problem. It was cold and wet and Jones wanted to take out Freya – now one-and-ahalf.
She ripped up the only bit of fabric she had, the lining of her wedding dress. “I took it to a friend the next day and she helped me sew it,” she says. “It was cotton, not terribly robust, but I just used it and it was brilliant when I was out and about.” This was to become the first Totseat. Here a group of NCT – National Childbirth Trust – friends become a major part of this story. For many mums and dads, an NCT group can become the basis of life-long friendship with similar-aged toddlers.
“Can we have one?” they asked. So Rachel got busy, refining the design as she went along. She bought fabric from Remnant Kings in Newington and enrolled her friends to help. In all, 29 families were involved.
“I had a whole bunch of prototypes, all slightly different shapes and sizes that work in different ways,” she says. “At this stage I still had no idea that I wanted to turn it into a business.
It was just something that made our lives easier.” There had been a product in the 1950s that was anchored on a chair but it only worked on one in ten modern chairs. “I wanted Totseat to fit any type of chair that we came across,” says Jones. After the date with destiny at John Lewis, the business idea took on a life of its own. One of the first steps was finding appropriate, washable fabric. Jones didn’t want the normal trucks, teddy bears and ducks that epitomised baby goods. She felt that a modern contemporary design on a strong, washable, comfortable poly-cotton material was crucial for parents who were taking their children out.
“I decided I would find a fabric I liked and licence the design,” she says. “I found the fabulous Natasha Marshall in Glasgow who was an interior designer running her own firm, Squigee.” Natasha Marshall graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 1996 and set her business up with the help of the Prince’s Scottish Youth Business Trust. Since then she has emerged as one of Scotland’s stars of interior design and an entrepreneur in her own right.
“I licensed a fabric design from Natasha, which we still use today; we just keep re-colouring it,” says Jones.Then she asked another Scottish designer, Sarah Cheyne – originally from Johnston but based in London – to become involved.
“I had two people involved with the design who I could trust to give me good advice on colours,” says Jones. “If I wanted things to sit with High Street trends in terms of colours they helped me with forecasting.” The prototypes were printed on “graige” or plain polycotton, but Jones needed to find a manufacturer.
“Natasha was extremely helpful,” she says. “We chose her design and got print screens made in the Midlands. We printed fabricfor 200 seats, made them, sold them, then printed more fabric all over again.
“I didn’t know how to find a factory. I thought the Scottish Borders are full of defunct factories because of the woollen industry has collapsed and they are used to sewing products. I couldn’t find anyone in Scotland to help. Eventually, she found a CMT or “cut, make and trim” factory in Rochdale, with Jones having to source everything.
“I naively thought I would go to a factory and say: ‘Will you make this product?’ But a CMT factory means you need to buy all the components, apart from the thread. I had to find fabric I liked, buy binding, buy washable labels, get them printed, find toggles and Velcro.” She wanted to fulfil the order for 200 for John Lewis, but buying in small quantities made the individual cost of each item hefty.
“It was becoming incredibly difficult to source all the parts and expensive to make 200 Totseats,” she says.
“I should never had started by buying all the elements in small quantities, but I didn’t know we would be able to sell 200,000 Totseats. It seemed like a sensible starting point.” The first batch was picked up on the way to a trade show in Birmingham, which was nerve-wracking. Yet the reaction at the show was “terrific”, so Jones decided it was time to rethink her production.
The next stage was taking the product to Kind + Jugend in Cologne, one of the world’s biggest trade fairs for the children’s sector. Rachel needed a quick rethink, so it was renamed Mobiseat for the German market, where it has become a major seller. Within months, the company was on the export trail.
Jones regularly turned to the collection of friends – many with toddlers – seeking advice and suggestions for improvements.
“It was all quite exciting for us, because none of us had done anything like this,” she recalls.
“I had a solid background in old-fashioned marketing and public relations, and we thought it was a good idea to apply this real-time knowledge to ourselves – taking a product to market. Not many people in marketing department ever take a product to market.
“It was a really interesting exercise and was useful for some of our Great Circle clients too.” But manufacturing soon became a headache. Totseat was being produced in the UK but the basic costs were too high and the company was operating at losses that were unsustainable.
“We moved factories after about a year to one in Newcastle, which was in a converted hangar. I was adamant that we should keep the manufacturing in the UK for as long as we could. But this was a mistake from my point of view.
Mike kept saying we needed to go offshore.” Her dogged commitment to manufacturing in the UK nearly drove the business into the ground. She says: “My misplaced belief in UK manufacturing was a lesson for me. I was bloody-minded and I was totally wrong.
We should never have manufactured in the UK for as long as we did.” Gordon Wilson, a Bank of Scotland manager at the Morningside branch, was helpful and encouraging.
“Our margins were impossible to survive on,” she says. “He was the manager for Great Circle and one day at a meeting I told him about Totseat. He suggested we apply for a Small Firms Loans Guarantee Scheme, the forerunner to the Enterprise Finance Guarantee, which we did.” When Gordon Wilson retired, Rachel Jones found it harder dealing with the bank’s call centre until a restructuring led to the introduction of relationship manager Gillian Windever.
“We needed someone who actually understands what the product is and our currency needs – because over 70% of our products are exported and we deal in multiple currencies,” she says.
“We now have Gillian, who is very helpful to us.” Jones’ reasoning on manufacturing was altruistic – she wanted to put the money back into the UK economy, but found that British people did not want to work in the Newcastle factory and it was staffed with people from Eastern Europe.
“I’ve nothing against this but the people in the factory were poorly managed because the people running them didn’t speak Lithuanian or Slovakian,” she says.
“And all the money was remitted back to their home countries, so it wasn’t going into the UK economy.” There was another wake-up call that changed the dynamics of the business.
Jones recruited Fiona Marsden who had been working for Castle Blair, and together they found a factory in Shanghai which was better suited for production. Marsden ran the manufacturing and the product testing and stayed for three years as the company continued to grow. There was a frightening blip when Rachel wasreturning from her early meetings in China; the Newcastle factory went bust with thousands of pounds worth of Totseat stock. Fiona Marsden borrowed £3,000 from Rachel’s mother Jean and drove a Transit van through the deepening snow to the factory to plead with the liquidators to release what belonged to Totseat.
“It was a horrific time,” she says. “Everything in the factory was ours – we had 200 metres of fabric, cleats, and miles of Velcro.
It was incredibly important to get everything out, but the liquidators understood that they were our assets and not the factory’s.” Production shifted full-time to China, with the business beginning to make some real money.
“I’ve now been to the factory in Shanghai many times and I’m able to say the conditions are fantastic,” says Jones.
“I would happily work in these conditions. It’s light and clean.” Jones’ fundamental ethical approach means she is committed to ensuring that her product is manufactured in humane and decent human conditions –“this matters to me enormously”.
Totseat started exporting in 2005 and has continued ever since. Now she has a group of international distributors who are supplied directly from China which saves transport and storage costs in the UK.
In 2008, Totseat started looking for external funding and spent six months pitching to investors with the help of Howard Flint at LINC Scotland, the angel capital association. Exporting was the only way ahead and they gained some support from Scottish Enterprise in researching strategic markets.
On December 31 2008, they settled with Jock Millican, formerly of S&N and former interim chief executive of Scottish Rugby, and Malcolm McDonald, who is financial analyst and property developer, as investors.
It was then that Jones finally resigned from Great Circle and became a full-time Totseat employee.
Now Totseat exports to 45 countries with the biggest markets in Japan, the US and Germany, shipping product to major retailers and baby, gift and travel specialists.
But with a single product, Rachel Jones knows she is vulnerable and wanted to find something to extend the brand.
She now has a cute selection of washable dolls called Oobicoo that fits snugly into the Totseat, and can become a toy when the toddler grows out of the seat. Oobicoo – made from recycled materials – even has a jingle and a song and has already been taken to the Nuremburg Trade Fair. The feedback is encouraging with Oobicoo set to become a children’s phenomenon. Remember Cabbage Patch Dolls? This might be bigger. Totseat is a lesson for many who attempt to take a product to multiple export markets. And for Rachel Jones, it will remain her “taught” seat of business.