Business

Mum forced to use a shot glass to wean her daughter starts £500,000 business

When her first daughter reached weaning age Sara Keel found herself frustrated by the range of cups on offer.

They generally forced children to drink through teats or spouts, a requirement that has raised concerns from doctors and dentists about the possible damage such cups can do to developing teeth and jaws.

But the world of baby products just didn't seem set up to offer something that helped.

"What was actually ‘best for baby’ was being drowned out by the noise of ‘Hey parent! You’re far too busy! You just need easy stuff!’," Sara told Mirror Money.

By the time she was onto daughter number three, she was determined to do something about it, admitting she had even resorted to using a shot glass so that her children had more appropriately sized drinks vessels to use.

So she decided to make her own cup, one designed for smaller mouths, and set out to offer it to parents herself.

“As the clock struck midnight and New Year’s Eve 2011 became 1st January 2012, I registered the babycup.co.uk domain name," Sara said.

“I started with a few thousand pounds, a website I made myself, low-cost tooling and a huge learning curve as I developed from the ground up.”

Getting off the ground

After working with manufacturers to turn her sketches into an actual product, Babycups was finally launched in 2013 at the Harrogate Nursery Fair trade show, where she immediately landed an order from boutique kids brand JoJo Maman Bébé .

The idea quickly won more fans, and not just among parents ‒ the NHS was among the first customers to see the potential in Babycup.

But that doesn't mean there weren't problems – especially from retailers seemingly more concerned with convenience for parents than wellbeing for the child.

"Getting a new idea across can feel like you’re banging your head against a brick wall," Sara said.

"I certainly felt that many times with big stores responding to me along the lines of 'Health??? That’s a bit niche!'

"I didn’t think health was niche though and I’ve believed from the start that parents care very much about their children’s health."

While admitting to being daunted, she wasn't deterred and it was the comments from happy mums that kept her going.

Eventually, the tide turned and shops started buying into her message too.

"Happy customers contact me every day with accounts of how my product has been the answer to their prayers for teaching their little one to sip when weaning, or to feed their infant through difficulties such as tongue tie," Sara said.

"And retailers have thankfully also realised that parents really do care about childhood health!"

From those humble beginnings, Babycup has grown into an international business, with more than half a million First Cups now being used by little sippers.

Moving overseas

It quickly dawned on Keel that interest in Babycup would not be limited to the UK, so she looked into selling the products overseas.

Again, customers haven’t been limited to individual parents, with the Canadian government snapping up more than 30,000 cups to distribute through a national health programme.

Another 60,000 cups are heading to China after the firm landed a deal with a Chinese distributor earlier this year, with exporting now making up a massive 80% of the business’s sales.

Babycup’s products are now being sold in more than 30 countries worldwide, with backing from the Department for International Trade helping the business reach more markets overseas.

Keel says that exporting was an “obvious extension” for the business, with parents across the globe wanting what is best for their children, but noted that selling in so many different markets does bring a host of additional challenges.

For example, a second website has been created just for US customers as it’s common to directly compare your products with those of competitors there, something which doesn’t really happen in the UK.

Similarly, getting to grip with cultural differences has been important in working out who to market the cups to.

For example, nurseries are popular in Japan so it made sense to target those, but in China youngsters are generally looked after during the day by extended family.

Sara’s tips for would-be entrepreneurs


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