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Jane Wilkinson of Babyprice.co.uk talks to Workingmums.co.uk about how she grew her business.
Growing numbers of women have set up their own businesses after having babies in the past decade, but Jane Wilkinson did it way back in 1995. Now she is helping others who are starting up.
Her own venture into entrepreneurship came about by chance. Jane was on maternity leave with from her job as a training manager at a mushroom company. Her son was three months old and she had been intending to take six months off. However, she was under a lot of pressure to go back early as her company was small. Indeed she had already done the odd day in the office or bits and pieces of work from home when she found out she was pregnant again.
Her training job meant a lot of travel and she could foresee that she would have to put her second son into childcare from a very early age. She couldn’t afford the latest pram for her son and just around the corner from her home in Goring by Sea in West Sussex was a second hand baby shop which was a bit run down and only opened sporadically. Someone had thrown a brick through the shop window and the owner had disappeared. Jane found out that the shop was up for rent. She decided to take a gamble, figuring the worst she could do would be to lose a couple of thousand pounds. She opened the shop when her first son was six months old and with no experience at all in the retail industry.
Fortunately, the music shop next to her shop – named Immaculate Contraptions – helped out with a lot of advice. Jane had a lot of early problems with suppliers. “They wouldn’t supply until they could see who else was supplying. One supplier even wanted us to agree to clean the windows once a week,” she said. Finally she found a wholesaler who would supply £500 worth of top quality second hand prams.
Jane had done a lot of homework, working out her profits and losses and had given herself six months to turn a profit. In fact she was turning a profit from day one. However, she admits it was tough going at times. Gradually, though, she built up a reputation based in part on great customer service and the shop got busier and busier, expanding into the shop next door.
Jane managed it all, balancing work and family. She brought her oldest son into the shop until he was one. He had his own playpen and high chair there. Once he could walk, though, she was terrified he would get out into the road so sent him to nursery part time.
With her second son, she had a caesarean and was back in the shop after around a week with the baby in tow. She had one member of staff who covered for her, but as the business owner she felt she had to be back in charge. “It was quite quiet as the business had just started and I’m not really a coffee morning type of girl,” she says. “Ben was such a laid back baby that he used to fall asleep in his carrier while I was re-doing the window displays! It meant I could spend time with my children and run a business, which was the perfect balance for me.”
Her husband had the children at the weekends and Ben followed his brother to nursery when he was one.
Nearly 17 years later he is now working for Jane doing marketing and has been advising on the company’s new range of baby products, Pipsy Koala. “He knows what younger mums want and has a flair for marketing. He knows far more than most 17 year olds about baby products since he has grown up with them and he’s really good on social media,” she says.
Jane noticed around 10 years into the business that people were coming into the shop to look at products and then leaving. She realised they were just using the shop as a showroom and then buying items on the internet for less. A friend of hers wanted to have a go at building a website and asked if they could practise on Jane’s shop. Very quickly the internet business built and hers was one of the first buy online baby shops in the country.
She had to change the name to www.icbaby.com though as people had trouble spelling Immaculate Contraptions. The website is still going strong and is the retail arm of our business. A few years later, the business took another turn. Jane missed the sense of customer loyalty that she had had with the shop. “I was becoming more and more discontented and it felt like we were just box shifting. I liked that element of customer service ,” she says. Once again serendipity played a part. A friend of a friend had a warehouse unit going very cheaply. Jane talked to her suppliers and several were looking for a wholesaler.
She started with them and got more and more on board. She then contacted lots of baby shops. She loves helping new businesses get started, giving them the advice on issues – such as the importance of product liability insurance – that she didn’t get from the industry. One piece of advice is to ensure profit margins are built into the business plan. She says many people start selling baby products on e-Bay at such a low price that they end up not making any money and damaging everyone else in the industry. She has managed to build up a regular customer base and says her first customer is still with her. The trade only wholsale business is called www.babyprice.co.uk and last year it was nominated as Best Wholesaler by the Nursery Industry Awards.
Pipsy Koala is the newest addition to Jane’s stable of businesses, but she is says it is also the oldest. Her husband Simon had been given a toy koala by his Grandmother when she returned from a trip to Australia. Simon adored this toy and named him (no one can remember why) Pipsy Koala. So when Jane began thinking of producing her own range of inexpensive, quality basic baby items which would be in neutral colours so good for boys or girls there was only one name they could choose.
It launched just over a year ago and exhibited for the first time at The Olympia Baby Show in London last year where Jane completely sold out of some of the products and sold a pack of foam bath animals to Apprentice Winner Tom Pellereau [pictured with Jane]. Jane says the idea behind Pipsy Koala is that it is a practical, no nonsense affordable range. The neutral colours mean parents don’t have to buy different products if they have a boy and a girl. “We understand that it is the worst financial time for a family when they have a baby. They might be on one income and they have another mouth to feed. They should only spend money on what they need to and spend any spare money on having adventures with their children,” says Jane.
Their products include a feeding pillow, a splash mat, a kangaroo backpack harness and a booster seat with a little koala dangling off it. “We want to make it fun so the children want to use it,” says Jane. Coming soon is a unisex changing bag which Jane’s son Ben helped design. The company work on their own designs, which Jane says is exciting, and they link up with various manufacturers and suppliers whose products they have stocked to get the design turned into a product they can sell.
Looking back, Jane thinks her decision not to return to her training manager post was “the best thing I ever did”. “I’ve been incredibly lucky,” she says.