(l-r) Sarah Simons and Susan Purse of British Baby Box
Sarah Simons and Susan Purse are helping babies across the globe get off to the best possible start in life with their Nordic inspired British Baby Box. Bryce Wilcock reports.
Businesses are born from all kinds of scenarios. Whether it’s a desire to turn a hobby into a living or to bring a new product to market, there are all kinds of reasons we hear when interviewing entrepreneurs here at BQ.
For mothers Sarah Simons and Susan Purse however, their British Baby Box business was born from a combination of two things. Firstly, they wanted to strike a better work life balance but secondly and most importantly, it was aimed at helping mothers and children across the globe give their child the safest and best possible start to life.
Their British Baby Boxes are inspired by a long-held Nordic tradition, passed down by generations of Scandinavians. For almost 80 years, expectant mothers in Finland have been given a box by the state which you could say, is like a starter kit for parenting.
This belief is so instrumental to their culture in fact, that the Finnish Social Security division which arranges the stork-style maternity package to be delivered to expectant parents, sent Prince William and Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge one when they had Prince George.
In the boxes, parents receive clothing, sheets and toys and most importantly, the cardboard box is specifically designed to be used as a bed. And whilst many may be put off by the idea of laying their child to sleep in a cardboard box, many say the tradition is one of the reasons why Finland has one of the world's lowest infant mortality rates.
“Both of us were keen to champion an idea that put children’s safety first but I suppose you could say my drive for this stemmed from a different place to Sarah’s,” Purse said. “I had a very personal reason for wanting this to succeed because I lost my fourth child who was stillborn.
“It’s difficult to talk about but it has shaped decisions I have made in a number of areas of my life. It led to me and my husband to foster a number of children and choose to adopt and it has become a driving force behind British Baby Box itself.
“The company is designed to support all new mothers and offers a range of packages to make the concept affordable to all. But we are sensitive enough to know that protecting babies is a process that begins at conception – which is why we support the charity Kicks Count as well as the Lullaby Trust.”
The pair first met at the gates of their children’s preschool and it was from there they came up with the idea to launch the business. “We were both keen to strike a better work life balance,” Simons added. “It’s difficult to have a career when you have young children but so many women find themselves in this situation and they say ‘necessity is the mother of all invention.’ Perhaps this is why so many ‘mumpreneurs’ thrive these days.”
Purse spent the first 20 years of her working life in the City, working for various law firms, but left London after the birth of her children to move to the countryside. Simons however started her career at Essex Radio where she was known by her DJ name ‘Total S!’
She then went on to work for an investment company which is part of the Prudential Group for 20 years where she worked in multiple roles including customer services and the company’s charities division. She said: “By the time I left I knew everyone from the cleaner to the CEO. This is something I replicate in my own business – being on first name terms with everyone in your company is a great way to bring a team together.”
Having both experienced life in the City, they had built up strong knowledge of the legal and financial services sectors which stood them on good ground when launching the business. However, starting a business is never plain-sailing and they still had a lot to learn.
“We asked the advice of our nearest and dearest – friends, family – and were receptive to ideas,” Simons recalls. “But we started this business by putting our own money into it – we believed in it so much.”
“We really believed that telling new mums to put their precious bundle to bed in what is essentially a cardboard box was going to be a hard sell,” Purse adds. “But clearly we needed to have more faith in ourselves.
“Challenges have been more to do with logistics than lack of demand. If anything, we have had to step things up swiftly to meet customer orders. This was achievable but it did mean that the work life balance swung quite considerably in the work direction.
“A new business needs to be loved and cared for like a new-born baby. You have to nurture it, give it your time and look after it in order to see it grow and flourish.”
The pair started off selling their Baby Boxes online, through the britishbabybox.com website and through a handful of retailers. But although demand was growing month-on-month and the pair were working frantically to cater for the demand, it wasn’t until January that Purse and Simons saw the business really start to gain momentum.
Following a successful three-month pilot scheme in Orkney and Clackmannanshire, which would see the Scottish Government distribute baby boxes to all new-born children in Scotland, it was announced in January that the programme was set to be made permanent. As of Summer 2017, all new-born babies in Scotland will receive a baby box similar to those produced by the British Baby Box. On the back of this, demand started to really outstrip supply.
“We have been very lucky,” Simons says. “We launched a product with excellent timing to meet a growing market and baby boxes have just surged in popularity following the successful pilot scheme in Scotland.
“We have only been trading for a year but I think it was the hugely successful pilot scheme in Clackmannanshire and Orkney which was the point that escalated our business. The project means that all newborn children in Scotland are set to receive one and it caused a wave of PR around the concept. This led to a surge in orders and we were perfectly placed to handle that as the only 100% British company selling Baby Boxes.
“And Scotland are not the only country exploring its advantages. Last year baby boxes were rolled out to some of the least developed countries such as India and some parts of Africa to help save lives there too. In Jagadiya in India, mothers have been given boxes with mosquito blankets and a clean-birth kit to help prevent infection during or soon after delivery.”
And with the pair determined to help not only mothers in the UK but parents across the world, they have also drawn on Purse’s personal experiences and Simons’ experience working for the charitable arm of Prudential to launch their own charitable arm for British Baby Box too.
Simons added: “We’ve been involved in sending boxes to Syrian refugees in Greece through its charitable partnerships and also delivered them to a women’s charity in Iraq. Baby boxes are not just a hot parenting trend. The whole idea is to help families from all different backgrounds to start the parenting journey.”
“Recently we have also teamed up with Save The Children to provide British Baby Boxes to more Syrian refugees,” Purse says. “We were informed last month that a new-born baby called Jamilla has been helped by the programme.
“To be involved in such an important scheme, targeting some of the most vulnerable women and children in the world right now, is quite something. Our baby boxes provide babies with a comfortable, practical, portable and safe place to sleep and this project allows Save The Children to respond quickly to the needs of the youngest children of Syria displaced or affected by the conflict.”
The British Baby Box is also proud of its roots and isn’t forgetting where it came from. Like the name on the box says, it’s a ‘British’ baby box and the pair are committed to manufacturing their products at home and using only British suppliers to fill their boxes.
Purse said: “The British Baby Box has given the Scandinavian concept a homegrown twist which has helped it stand out in the UK market. Not only are our baby boxes created by British designers, but everything in them - from blankets, beanies and bibs to sleepsuits, sheets and scratch mittens - are sourced in the UK too.
“We believe that a product’s provenance is of the utmost importance and that by buying authentic British goods, manufactured by skilled craftsman using the finest materials, you are helping to keep these skills alive in the UK.
“Not only that, but our carbon footprint is also low. Buying from us, rather than our competitors in the US, means you are also keeping your carbon footprint low in terms of importing. Additionally, you are supporting businesses in the UK.”
It has now been just over a year since the pair launched the business and already they have expanded their offering to include a wide range of baby boxes, ranging from £50 to £450, and have started to work with a number of British suppliers from Molly and Monty to Superlove Merino, GH Hurt & Son, NEOM and Cheeky Chompers.
And having sold thousands of Baby Boxes in their first year alone, the pair are even more ambitious about the future. Purse said: “We are the driving force behind our company and currently run all aspects of our business from our offices in Essex.
“After securing a large contract our turnover for 2017/18 will be in excess of £400,000 and we are currently in talks with three major stockists and hope to be able to make an announcement about this later this year. Our sales have continued to grow in strength and by the end of 2017 we estimate we will have provided over 30,000 British Baby Box Products around the world.”
Simons concluded: “British Baby Box is proof that if you believe in your product and yourself, you can be successful. In our first year of trading we were in profit! We now have our sights set on the future. It would be amazing to be at the forefront of delivering the baby box concept to the rest of the UK.
“I would like all expectant parents to be given a British Baby Box. I also hope that as a company we can work with many more charities to ensure every baby is given the best start in life.”
Susan and Sarah’s top advice for aspiring entrepreneurs:
Susan: “Believe that anything is possible – that no dream is impossible to achieve. Having self-belief is half the battle.”
Sarah: “There are people out there who wear many hats and juggle many balls. Motherhood shouldn’t stop you from believing in yourself. You can have it all.”
Susan: “Try to take stock of your triumphs and celebrate successes – even the little ones. It is very easy just to keep on keeping on, without ever sitting back to admire what you have achieved so far.”