Hello! What's your background, and what are you working on?
Hello, I'm Shannon McLaughlin and I’m the Founder of Ubuntu Baba baby carriers. My business was born in February 2015, just six months after my son was born, out of a personal need to help my baby sleep for longer periods of time and to have more freedom as a struggling and overwhelmed first-time mom.
Before I launched this business I was a freelance web designer working mainly with female startup businesses. I’m very passionate about the user experience journey especially when shopping online, so it’s been an interesting journey launching my own product-based business and being able to put my knowledge to the test! When I launched the business I started with one machinist who worked part-time making our baby carriers. Today we have a full-time team of six manufacturing our carriers as well as another team of six that help me run the business.
What motivated you to get started with Ubuntu Baba?
I never expected motherhood to be such a slap in the face. No one told me my baby would need me 24/7 — literally. I felt completely overwhelmed by the fact that I basically never had my hands free, especially after having such an independent entrepreneurial lifestyle up until that point. I really struggled with the reality of it all.
One day a good friend came to visit and she gave me a stretchy wrap which is basically a long piece of stretchy material that you use to tie your baby to your body. I had little hope that it would help me, but I gave it a go and within minutes of "wearing" my baby, he calmed down and fell asleep.
I was absolutely floored by the magic that occurred when I simply put my baby to my chest and let him sleep there. Discovering the art of babywearing opened up a whole new world for me. Because it was so life changing for me I wanted to share it with others, and I became a huge advocate for babywearing.
However as my baby grew, I realized that he was quickly outgrowing the stretchy wrap and I'd need a more structured carrier. And that is where the pain point was — I could not find anything that came anywhere near to the comfort of the stretchy wrap. So I set out to design one myself.
I had no idea how to design a product, but luckily I knew someone who did — my father. He has been in the manufacturing game all his life and so we worked together to develop the idea I had in my head for the perfect baby carrier.
At the time, I was still a web designer but struggling (big time) with trying to meet all the deadlines that service-based jobs come with. I was very excited about the idea of entering the world of products!
What went into building the initial product?
By the time I began the product design process in the factory with my Dad, I had done a lot of research and tested out a lot of different baby carrier brands. I owned six different types and had bought samples of loads of different "breathable" fabrics to try out and sketched out the ideas I had in my head. My son was three months old at the time so he was our little guinea pig, which of course helped a lot.
Thinking back I have no idea how we managed to complete our prototyping within three months from start to finish. I had a three-month-old baby, and any mom of a three-month-old experiences some form of sleep deprivation. But I think it must've been my passion that fueled my energy levels and just kept me going. Even now when we try out new ideas for products it takes us weeks to even get to a first prototype. I guess it's because we have a lot more going on as a business now.
It was a fun process but also super frustrating at times. You have this idea in your head that you know is going to be brilliant, but executing it is a whole different ball game. I felt like I needed to do a fashion design course to understand pattern making as I was completely inexperienced in that world; eventually I let go of the fact that I couldn't do it all and I let my dad take the lead in the design process. I gave him my feedback and then we'd tweak the pattern and try again.
Once the first prototype was finished and I put my baby in the carrier — gosh I couldn't stop smiling. I had a permanent smile on me for hours. The crazy kind!
How have you attracted users and grown Ubuntu Baba?
Once I was happy with the design of the product, I wanted to get some feedback from other moms out there to make sure it would work on different shapes and sizes of wearers and babies. So I made 10 carriers and gave them to my mom friends and asked them for feedback. This process was really to help me to perfect the product. Upon receiving their feedback, I also realized how helpful it was in spreading the news that there was a new baby carrier in town and collecting some awesome testimonials.
These moms would wear their baby carriers out and other moms would ask where they bought it from. Very quickly I started to receive phone calls and text messages from potential clients with all sorts of questions.
I set up a website and Facebook page within a day and got cracking. I created an FAQs page, made some very basic videos with my MacBook Air, and then started sending links to those resources when people contacted me. I'd find mommy meetup groups in and around Cape Town and go give demos on how the carrier worked. Before I knew it I was at the shopping mall every day, baby on me in the carrier and my pram carting all the boxes ready to send off with the couriers.
I created a commission-based system where I sent my product to stay-at-home moms all around the country and then listed their details on the website since I couldn't afford to do consignment stock in baby shops. We had queries coming in from all over the country after people saw a friend on Instagram post a photograph or something similar. This system worked well and it still does today — visit a mom, have a cup of tea, and try out the product. When a customer wants to purchase they do so through our website, while that stay-at-home mom earns herself a BIG commission on the sale. Worth it for me to give away that commission but actually get paid, unlike the consignment stock model which almost always becomes an issue for both parties involved.
Hiring people was the next step because I could see I needed people in order to grow; it was already becoming unsustainable to deal with the customer support for both potential and existing customers and my commission-based agents, as well as trying to keep up with creating blog posts, newsletters, Facebook posts, and attending local meet-ups.
I've always loved writing and I think that became really useful when I began sharing my real life experiences of motherhood in blog posts. These were sent out into the world via our mailing list and Facebook — quite a few of those posts picked up a lot of traction and brought a lot more customers to the website. I saw definite spikes on those days.
It's difficult to talk about growth because the journey is quite different for every business and specific to the product's features as well as the target audience. But I also think that worked in my favor. I was my own customer as a struggling new mom. Because I built my brand utilizing my personal story, my target customer was able to relate. I was willing to talk about the hardships of motherhood and so others wanted to talk to me and share their story too.
Collaborating with similar brands that weren't competitors was also a good strategy — we did many collaborations during the first two years of business and still do today. We keep it relevant and interesting and always gain a lot of new followers and see spikes in our sales during these periods.
Growing a brand is hard work; there is no shortcut and I think that's why people get disappointed. They look at a successful brand that is a few years old and think "I can do that" and they launch, but they don't realize that unless you believe that your product is going to really make a difference and you're willing to work for that, you won't have the energy or stamina to keep up with the demand.
There is no end goal that will be reached. It's a constant journey of learning, pivoting, backtracking, making mistakes, losing money, and pushing through to the breakthroughs and making it work. I'm currently in year five of this business and am only now starting to see the bird's-eye view of what it's taken to get here. It's a crazy journey but I love it.
What's your business model, and how have you grown your revenue?
My business model is to point as many people as possible to our website to make their purchase. That's because it's the least profit-sucking route there is. And it's also the most viable route for collecting customer data and turning that one time buyer into a lifetime buyer; we can then create a relationship and make them feel like a part of our brand.
Some people ask, "But since it's a baby carrier, don't you only need to buy it once?" Sure, but we actually have two stages of the baby carrier: one for baby months and one for toddler months. And the moms who purchase also have friends who need baby carriers. We've had a customer purchase eight carriers from us, and many people buy the product as a gift for a friend or for a baby shower present.
We also have our commission-based model which I mentioned above. This only accounts for about five percent of our sales but the level of service those customers receive is where the satisfaction comes in. There aren't many businesses offering this level of customer interaction on such a personal basis, so these customers walk away feeling valued and appreciated and they relay that experience to other people and share their feedback about our brand on social media.
For processing payments online, we offer a few options:
- Credit card
- Bank transfer
- SnapScan (QR code)
- Payflex (six weeks interest-free)
I remember when I first started out I couldn't believe the number of people that would choose bank transfer over credit card; but because we were not a well-known brand yet, customers were wary of putting in their credit card details. That has since changed and the credit card option takes preference, but it's something interesting to note before a launch — try not to have credit card payments as the default option.
The biggest challenge we've faced as a South African manufacturer is keeping up with demand and trying to estimate how much stock to keep on hand as well as raw materials. This has actually had an effect on our sales before. Our product is made from organic hemp material which needs to be imported from China — that can take up to 12 weeks to get here. You can see quite a few noticeable dips in the graph below, which is the history of our sales since we launched. Those dips represent a time when we messed up with our stock on hand and couldn't supply because we did not have enough fabric.
Today we understand the business a lot more and can forecast and plan for potential upcoming spikes, as well as influence our customers purchasing choices in terms of color. This helps steer them one way instead of another if we're low on fabric — fun stuff!
What are your goals for the future?
I've always secretly dreamed that Ubuntu Baba would be a global brand and that we'd be as famous as some of the international babywearing brands that I love and that bring me inspiration. It's exciting and scary at the same time but I do believe that I can achieve it.
However my real goal for this business is to help new moms deal with the anxiety and difficulties that motherhood brings with it and to keep sharing the benefits of babywearing and how I truly believe it can change the way we raise our children. It just amplifies the love factor in parenting, allowing parents to do so much more with their children by their sides which sets the tone for how you parent in the long term. I just love that.
Business-wise I do have more product ideas on the horizon and hope to launch at least one of them in 2019. I'd been working on a new idea over the past year and hit a huge amount of product development issues. It was tough since I'd put so much energy into the project. Creating the launch campaign for that product was so exciting but I got tired of the development side of it feeling so forced. I couldn't make it work (that doesn't mean I will never launch it) and I could feel it starting to affect my personal life, so I decided to put it to rest. Maybe I'll revisit it in 2020.
What are the biggest challenges you've faced and obstacles you've overcome? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
The biggest obstacle was the Woolworths saga. Long story short (it's a very long blog post) is that one of the biggest retailers in South Africa blatantly copied my baby carrier design and concept and started selling it in their stores for three times less because it was made in China. We definitely felt a hit.
Our customers were confused, especially when the news hit social media that we were "supplying that retailer for a much cheaper price than we were selling it for." Of course that wasn't true and we weren't their manufacturer. It was the most stressful time on this journey, and our factory staff thought they would lose their jobs.
Even though it was a very emotionally draining experience it was also incredibly empowering. Personally, I grew so much during that time because of the immense pressure I was under and how I was literally thrown into the public eye. My anxiety levels were intense but I'm so glad it happened now. So much good has come from that whole experience; that retailer then donated all their remaining stock to under-resourced mothers.
I don’t like wishing to change the past because I find all the "mistakes" so useful. However if I could go back, I would have liked to know a little more about how to manage a team of people. Once a business gets to a certain stage it starts to require more people, and being "the boss" didn’t come naturally to me. It’s a strange place to be and one I had to become familiar with quite quickly.
There's so much information out there for startups and launching a business, but not too much about actually moving from the point of being a solopreneur to a business owner. If there is I haven't come across very much of it yet.
So if you have any tips for me, I'd love to know....using this interview to source more learning material, like a true entrepreneur! ;)
Have you found anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Having mentors to bounce ideas off of or even just to connect with in general has been huge for me. I've mostly been mentored by businessmen over 50 years of age and it's amazing how some of their old school business ways still make absolute sense in our millennial online culture. And anyone can be a mentor — I had a short chat a few months back with an incredible woman whom I'd just met and I got such wisdom from her in that small amount of time. It's like she intuitively knew what I needed to hear. Always be willing to start a conversation, even with a stranger. You never know what could come from it!
I'm also a big risk taker (it's gotten me into big trouble in the past) and that has taught me many things I wouldn't have learned if it wasn't in my nature. Analysis paralysis is way worse than taking a risk and failing, which is actually learning.
What's your advice for indie hackers who are just starting out?
Something I'm only beginning to realize is that being an entrepreneur means taking care of all the other aspects of your life with more integrity than you used to. Every minute counts and life shouldn't be worked away (although often it is!). Strive to spend quality time with friends and family and do things you love. Otherwise, what's the point? I've only recently started to work on mastering my time and it's been immensely helpful in getting me to a place where I'm feeling like I want to be feeling, instead of being stressed out, anxious, and exhausted all the time.
Where can we go to learn more?
My favorite place is our Instagram page because it's just so beautiful. You can visit our website at ubuntubaba.com. We publish honest blog posts about motherhood, the fourth trimester, and everything in between at ubmamatribe.com. To get in touch with me personally you can drop me an email or follow my personal blog at shannonmarymac.co.za.
Super happy to answer any questions anyone has for me and thank you so much Indie Hackers, I feel blessed to have been featured. This was fun. Big love. xx
—, Founder of Ubuntu Baba
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