Alina Masood won ‘Entrepreneur of the Year’ in Birmingham after she and her sister launched a children’s lifestyle brand based on a comfort blanket first made by her mum. Ros Dodd reports.
When Alina and Ammara Masood’s mother brought home a ‘quillow’ – a pillow that opens out into a quilt-like blanket – she’d made at her textile class, little did she think it would one day form the centrepiece of a business her daughters plan to turn into a global brand.
“We hadn’t seen one on the high street before Mum made hers and we haven’t seen one since,” explains 26-year-old Alina, co-founder of Cofi Coo, a children’s soft furnishings and lifestyle company. “When she came home with it – more than ten years ago now – we loved it. We would sit on the sofa watching TV and if we were cold we’d open the cushion out into a blanket and sit with it round our shoulders. We thought it was a brilliant idea and always wanted to do something with it.”
However, the two sisters from Moseley in Birmingham, initially seemed destined for more traditional careers: Ammara, now 33, went to work in the university sector and Alina wanted to become a banker like her father, grandfather and great-grandfather before her.
Yet the idea of bringing the ‘quillow’ to market didn’t go away and in 2012 the sisters decided to take the plunge and set up their own company. This was despite the fact Ammara was working full-time and Alina had just been offered two banking jobs.
Four years on, their company – Cofi Coo – is about to start trading. The sisters are in the process of placing their first bulk order with an overseas manufacturer and are in talks with large retailers. Alina has already won ‘Young Entrepreneur of the Year’ in Birmingham City Council’s Enterprise Catalyst Awards 2015, and the company was runner-up in the ‘Innovation Award for Business’ category.
The duo’s ambitions are about as lofty as they get: they want to create a global lifestyle and entertainment brand, extending their current homeware range, which includes cushions and duvet sets, to encompass merchandise ranging from rucksacks to clothing. They also want to get into brand licensing and even aim to produce a children’s television programme.
“When we made the decision to set up Cofi Coo, I’d just graduated from university and I had two banking roles linked up,” Alina recounts. “But I rejected them both and instead applied to join a venture programme with Interiors & Lifestyle Futures (ILF), which supports start-up and existing companies in the West Midlands.”
At that point, the sisters had only a prototype – their mother’s original soft furnishing – to show for their business idea. But it was enough to set them on the road. “The ILF panel liked it and it was they who suggested developing it for children, rather than for adults, which was our original idea,” says Alina. “They took us on and within a few months we were exhibiting as part of the ILF collective alongside the likes of JLR at Birmingham Made Me, an annual celebration of the Midlands’ design-led manufacturing achievements.
“As a result, we were encouraged to register the business in order to motivate us to carry on with the idea. It was one of the best things we did, because from that, other doors opened.” One of them was the opportunity to help run the Birmingham Made Me collective in the Mailbox.
“We pitched for it and we got it. We knew by then that we wanted to get into the children’s market, and we came up with some children’s designs, but we also had to decide on a brand name. We wanted it to be catchy and quirky, so we bounced words such as ‘cosy’, ‘comfy’ and ‘cool’ off each other – and came up with Cofi Coo, which also gave us the idea for two own-brand characters, Cofi and Coo.”
The designs, based on eight colourful characters that are aimed at three to six-year-olds, are intended to be educational as well as fun. The company website features online activities such as storyboards linked to each of the characters.
“The idea is to develop children’s cognitive skills from an early age; to get them story-telling with the Cofi Coo characters and taking charge of their own thoughts and minds,” explains Alina. “All the characters have particular moral traits, such as loyalty or determination, and portray certain messages. Space Fairy, for example, shows girls they can be an astronaut and be feminine at the same time.
“We’ve also avoided stereotypical colours – so it’s not strictly blue for boys and pink for girls. Instead, we’ve gone for bright colours that will appeal to everyone. Our aim has been to create a fun, bright and quirky brand that also encourages children to use their imagination.”
At the Birmingham Made Me outlet, Cofi Coo tasted early trading success, selling cushions, and the sisters gained valuable retail and business experience. In 2013, Alina was accepted on to an enterprise course run by the Prince’s Trust, which also gave the company a £1,500 grant. “One of the cool things about the Prince’s Trust is that they recently asked me to go along and give an inspirational talk to people who are now on the programme I was on.”
A £250 grant from The Digbeth Trust’s Enterprise Catalyst scheme paid for digital fabric printing in Manchester, with the products being stitched in Digbeth. In 2015, the sisters’ joined RBS NatWest’s Entrepreneurial Spark free business growth accelerator programme and moved into the RBS offices in central Birmingham.
“Entrepreneurial Spark is one of the best programmes there is,” enthuses Alina. “Not only have they helped us grow the business, but they’ve taught me to look at myself as a leader.”
Alina has also become an effective networker. Among the valuable contacts she’s made is John Lewis’s managing director, Andy Street. “I met Andy at the Entrepreneurial Spark hatchery, where he saw our prototype and he gave me his card. That resulted in a meeting with a buyer, who suggested we came up with some new designs for a bedding range.”
The sisters were given just four weeks to do so, but together with their graphic designers they produced three new designs. “Another big reason for starting a business was that quite a lot of our friends, who at the time were third-year university students, were moaning and worrying about the lack of opportunities and jobs in the design and textile sector. After speaking to them, we decided we wanted to start a business in which we took care of the business side of things while working with our friends and collaborating on the designs. And that’s what we’ve done. We use two freelance designers – both of whom are friends.”
So far, the sisters have funded the fledgling business with start-up grants and their own savings, totalling about £6,000, but are now about to take out a loan. “It’s been quite a journey, but everything is finally in place and we feel this is our year,” says Alina. “We aim to start trading properly in April and we’re confident we have got the brand right. We’re in talks with some retailers, so we’re very hopeful the business will take off.
“Rejecting a secure job in banking and going into something that carried so much uncertainty was scary, and it has been difficult at times. But we’ve not given up and now we’re on the cusp of what I believe will be a big success. And taking risks is what has got me here.”