Amy Livingstone and Julie Wilson of Cheeky Chompers
Amy Livingstone and Julie Wilson explain how starting their families also led to them launching their Cheeky Chompers business, writes Peter Ranscombe.
Entrepreneurs can meet their business partners in the most unusual of places. For Julie Wilson and Amy Livingstone, the founders of baby products brand Cheeky Chompers, that unusual place was an antenatal class when they were each eight-months pregnant with their first children.
When their babies were teething, they were frustrated at constantly picking up or losing teethers. Livingstone and Wilson hit on the idea for the “Neckerchew”, their debut product, a dribble bib that both attaches to the baby and has a built-in teether.
“We thought that someone else must have come up with an idea like that before because it was so simple but, as we did our research, we got more and more excited because we realised that no-one else had,” explains Livingstone. “The more we looked, the more we realised that we’d hit on a gap in the market.”
“Both of us have always been entrepreneurial,” Wilson says. “I’ve had a number of small businesses over the years and Amy has always had plans to run her own business.
“When you have a baby and you’re taken a long way out of your normality there’s something in you that changes and makes you reflect. There’s always been a fire in our bellies, independently, to go and do our own thing and so when we saw this gap in the market we decided to fill it.”
“So many mothers say ‘I wish I had this’ or ‘I wish I had that’, but we said, rather than just talk about it, let’s go out there and do it,” adds Livingstone. “We decided to take it a month at a time to begin with, because neither of us had been involved in manufacturing or retail or textile design, but nothing held us back.”
Wilson was on maternity leave from Scottish Enterprise, where she’d spent 20 years as first an account manager and then tourism innovation manager, but had also explored her creative side as an artist, exhibiting in her native Edinburgh and even collaborating with Michelin-starred chef Martin Wishart for the “Art on a Plate” exhibition. Livingstone was working in sales and marketing at Hotel du Vin when her first child was born.
The pair raised money from their families to start the business in 2012 and launched the Neckerchew in February 2013. Both had returned to work in the second half of 2012 and were initially running the business part-time, but then Livingstone was made redundant from her job, which allowed her to spend more time on the start-up, while also having her second baby. Wilson carried on working at Scottish Enterprise until 2014, but then left to focus on Cheeky Chompers full-time.
“Both of us felt it was much more exciting to run our own business than to be doing our normal day jobs,” explains Wilson. “The business became our baby and why would we want to give our baby away to someone else to run?”
The company won a £50,000 Scottish Edge Award in 2013 and Livingstone and Wilson quickly set about extending their product range of blankets, comforters and teething products, with the “Comfortchew’ – which combines a comforter and a teether – following in 2014.
A whole family of brand extensions has since been added to the range, from the “Neckerbib” – a dribble bib without the teether, “for the days your little one dribbles but doesn’t chew” – through to the most recent additions: the “Cheeky Blanket”, which includes straps for attaching it to a buggy or car seat; and “Chewy”, a “sensory” hippopotamus-shaped teether with a strap.
“All the products have features in common,” Livingstone explains. “They are all attachable, helpful, stylish and high-quality.
“Being mums ourselves, we really understand it’s the little things that can make the biggest difference in design and practicality for busy parents. Our products are all designed with an intuitive twist to help make parents lives that little bit easier.
“Babies throw their teethers and comforters around, so we want our Neckerchew and Comfortchew to be attachable to buggies or car seats. We sell the two of them together in a ‘chew-pack’,” she adds with a groan at the play-on-words. “We wanted to make the most out of what was innovative about our product,” says Wilson. “We protected the intellectual property (IP) very early on and we knew we had to be the first to market in each country because other people would try to copy us.
“There were lots of dribble bibs on the market, so we made ours reversible, we gave it an absorbent middle layer, we made it out of softer cotton and we created a teether that was made from silicon instead of plastic and had a design that allowed it to get to the back teeth, not just the front teeth, and massage the gums. The innovative part wasn’t just adding a teether to a dribble bib but making it the best in the market. To start with, we thought we’d just do the UK for the first year and then start to export, but it caught on overseas really quickly.”
By the end of its first year in business, Cheeky Chompers was selling the Neckerchew in eight overseas markets. The company now has distributors in 35 countries, including the United States, and also sells its products to other countries via its website.
Exports now account for nearly 70% of the firm’s £1.5m sales, with the company launching a big push into China this spring after signing up two distributors.
“We didn’t just want to trickle into China, we wanted to go in all guns blazing,” says Wilson. “These two distributors give us great coverage. We’ve had perhaps 15 distributors approach us in China, but they’ve not been at the premium level or had the right coverage.”
Taiwan is the firm’s second largest overseas market after the US and its distributor on the island got in touch after reading about the business in an article on a UK newspaper’s website. “She became one of our first distributors and she managed to get a big Taiwanese pop star and television presenter – who’s married to an equally big Japanese pop star – to use our products,” Wilson says. “Whatever design their children wear or use sells out straight away.”
Success in overseas markets led to Cheeky Chompers being crowned “Emerging Start-Up Exporter of the Year” at the 2016 HSBC Scottish Export Award, run by BQ in association with Scottish Enterprise. The award was the latest in a series of prizes to be added to the company’s trophy cabinet: Livingstone and Wilson had been crowned “Emerging Entrepreneur of the Year” at membership body Entrepreneurial Scotland’s 2015 awards and were winners in the Scottish finals of the 2016 EY Entrepreneur of the Year competition.
“The product awards are great, especially when parents and buyers both get a say in who wins,” says Wilson. “They give the product credibility and give parents reassurance when they’re looking to buy them.
“The business awards are really good too because they open up lots of opportunities for networking. You get to meet a lot of people and I’m always amazed by how generous they are with their time and advice.”
An early appearance on BBC2 programme Dragons’ Den, which was first aired in March 2014, also gave the entrepreneurs a boost. Although none of the dragons invested in their company – with their targets branded as “delusional” – the publicity led to a spike in sales and the pair smashed through the targets presented on the show.
“An innovative way to expand our brand was through partnership and one of the brands we’d identified was Joules,” says Wilson. “After we were on Dragons’ Den, Tom Joules called us.”
The company has gone on to form a partnership with the Tiny Tatty Teddy brand and has grown by building relationships with retailers including Boots, John Lewis, JoJo Maman Bébé, Marks & Spencer, Ocado and Toys R Us.
Protecting the firm’s IP has been an important part of the process, especially in overseas markets. “We’ve had a lot of success in having copycat products taken down off the internet in China, Europe and the US,” Wilson notes. “If we had our time again then we’d reflect on the amount we’ve spent protecting and defending our IP and probably pick our fights a little more carefully. But being the first to market and protecting your IP is definitely a winning combination.”
The company works with SnapDragon, a fellow Edinburgh-based firm founded by Rachel Jones, the entrepreneur behind the Totseat chair harness. Jones spent so much time defending her IP that she created SnapDragon as a spin-out company to monitor e-commerce sites on behalf of clients for copycat products and then have them removed.
Cheeky Chompers has grown to employ ten staff, with all its fabric products made in Glasgow by reusable nappy manufacturer TotsBots. “TotsBots has been brilliant – it’s grown with us at each step of the journey,” says Livingstone. “It’s gone from having about 26 staff to about 46 now.”
As well as breaking into China, the company is preparing to launch a new range of products. Given the strength of their partnership – they’re like an old married couple, even finishing each other’s sentences – Livingstone and Wilson look set to bring Cheeky Chompers to an even wider audience.