Part 1: A business is born
All babies start out small and cute, rapidly growing into their own little people. Ideas sometimes do the same thing, growing into unexpectedly robust businesses. Based in Cape Town, South Africa, Ubuntu Baba started with one woman’s search for the right kind of carrier for her baby.
While Shannon wanted the benefits of baby wearing, she couldn’t find a carrier that suited her needs. That frustration inspired her to make her own carrier. A new business was born; one that is growing quickly and in unexpected ways. I spoke with Shannon recently about the teething troubles, the triumphs, the first proud steps of her baby carrier business, and the milestones it has reached along the way.
Ali: What was the inspiration for developing this baby carrier? Did you struggle to find something that suited you?
Shannon: Yeah. I was given a baby carrier at my baby shower, but it was one of those stretchy wraps and I had no idea what you actually did with it. It just had a pretty picture on the outside of the box of a woman holding a baby and I was like Oh cute. Can’t wait to use it, but I really didn’t have any idea how it worked.
Then my baby arrived and as a new mum, you don’t really know what to do and the only place I could get him to sleep was on my chest, but obviously you want to be able to have a cup of coffee or go to the toilet or have a shower or do something when the baby is asleep. Everyone says, Sleep while the baby sleeps, but that’s not a reality. So I took out this stretchy wrap and tried to use it, it was quite a steep learning curve for me at the time, but eventually I got the hang of it. And then I started venturing into baby wearing because I realised the only way my baby was going to sleep on me was if he was literally tied to my body, and then I could actually get some stuff done.
Also I noticed he slept for much longer when he slept on me. If I put him in the cot to sleep, he’d sleep for maybe an hour. If he was on me, he’d sleep for three hours. Eventually I had tried all the different carriers, and had suffered with back pain, or found it hurt my shoulders, or it irritated my c-section scar. At about the three month point I just decided, well, I need to make something that’s comfortable and that works for me so that I can continue to wear him comfortably into the older months.
Ali: Wow, that’s such a brave step! Did you have experience with the design and manufacture of this sort of product?
Shannon: No, I was a web designer before. I worked in web design for about 12 years, and I was planning on just going back to work and working for myself again. I did that after I figured out the baby wearing thing. I could sit at a bar stool at my kitchen counter, and I could work comfortably on my laptop with him sleeping on me for three hour periods.
Ali: And how did you get into the manufacturing side?
Shannon: I was quite lucky because my dad owns a manufacturing business that makes outdoor hiking gear and backpacks, so they had the buckles and straps and the canvas to play around with. I basically went there and I took all the baby carriers and said I like this feature; I like that feature; this isn’t working. That was the design process.
I just oversaw the whole thing. I knew what I wanted out of the product. I had the right people around me that could support that vision so I was very blessed in that way.
Ali: I noticed that you link to some information from the Hip Dysplasia Institute through your website. Did you do a lot of research into what’s safest for the baby?
Shannon: Yes, after trying all the carriers I started to learn about ergonomics, and realised that a lot of the baby carriers available on the South African market allow the baby to hang from the hips instead of being supported in that ergonomic end position. Being supported from hip to knee is quite important, especially for the first six months because those joints haven’t developed yet in small babies.
Ali: That’s so important. You’re not just offering the product, you’re providing information about the appropriate carrying positions for the baby’s development.
Shannon: People just think, “I want to wear my baby facing outwards. I want to get out there and live my life again”, but there is something called a fourth trimester. This is the first three months when the baby is just entering the world, where they’re so vulnerable and so small and they just want to be on their mom – and that’s where they feel most comfortable.
You don’t think that your baby is going to be screaming for three hours at a time when you’re pregnant and buying the carrier. You think they’re going to be smiling and wanting to see out, but they don’t want to see out when they’re so small. They just want to be cuddled up.
Ali: I’m sure a lot of people can relate! When did you start Ubuntu Baba? Was it the beginning of 2015?
Shannon: Yes, it took me three months from the time I set out to do it and I think we went through seven different prototypes before we had the final one. We did quite a few adjustments and changes until we got the fit right.
Ali: And now you are almost three years into the life of your business, what sort of growth have you seen? Have you noticed any particular trends?
Shannon: Yes, it was our 3 year anniversary in February and we’ve experienced tremendous growth, so much so that we are struggling to keep up! We now employ 6 full time machinists who work solely on sewing up our carriers, as well as 2 ladies who work on quality control. I have a team of 4 amazing women who work with me on the management side of things, from the daily operations of the business to marketing, customer service, babywearing education and photography – it’s kind of unbelievable to me still.
Ali: It’s amazing. Do you sell only in South Africa or do you export as well?
Shannon: Our online shop is mainly for South Africa but probably every two weeks or so, an international person will use the contact form on the website and ask us if we would ship to them. We’ve shipped to Germany. We’ve shipped to Netherlands, Switzerland, the UK, Ireland, London, Dubai, Australia, and New Zealand.
Ali: What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced in setting up your business?
Shannon: The first one was finding a reliable courier service in South Africa. That was actually quite a joke in the beginning, because to start, myself and my family were getting in the car and delivering the parcels; big bow on top. I remember when we had our first WooCommerce sale from Jo-burg. I suddenly realised – I need a courier company. I used two local courier companies and they were just a nightmare. Massive call centres. You want to try to get through to someone and there are so many options and they don’t know you personally.
Now eventually, thank goodness, a lady actually found me. She saw my carriers online and she wrote to me and said, “I work with this courier broker company”, which is an intermediary between the client and the courier companies. They charge a little bit more but you have such a personal service.
It’s unbelievable and now we literally never have problems. That’s been so valuable because of the kind of client we have. She’s a mum, she’s emotional, she’s made an order online, she wants it now and we can now guarantee delivery.
Ali: That’s really cool. Do you use social media advertising? Is that a big part of your reach to potential customers?
Shannon: Yeah, for sure. We use Facebook and Instagram and I’ve actually found Instagram to be way more lucrative than I thought. We very seldom do promoted posts on Instagram, it’s mainly just organic, but I think it also comes down to who your customer is and where they’re hanging out.
Every new mom starts an Instagram account to document the life of her new baby. You can get in front of a new mom quite quickly by using hashtags and all the search options that you have on Instagram. Because we were so small to start, it was easy to track the Instagram followers to an eventual sale. We actually had quite a few people who’d asked questions on Instagram or they’d interacted a little bit, and then we’d notice that mom coming to the website and subscribing to the newsletter, maybe she’d fill out a contact form, she’d like our Facebook page… and then we’d see the sale come through.
I do a lot of promoted posts on Facebook to my actual audience that already like my page. If you just put a photo on Facebook and you don’t boost it, then you maybe get like four or five likes depending on the photo. As soon as I boost it, even if it’s for a minute amount of money, we get a lot of interaction and we can see that coming to the site.
So Facebook has been awesome and we’ve also got a private Facebook group, which has been really cool. Whenever a mom purchases a carrier from us, she gets invited to our private Facebook group where we interact quite a lot. We post there if there’s a baby wearing walk happening, or any interesting mum events, or a cool blog article, or if we have a private special offer.
Ali: A private Facebook group like that is a wonderful value-added community, especially for new mums.
Shannon: Yeah and it’s completely private so you can ask whatever you want and it’s quite nice because there’s about 2200 people in there. It’s got to the point where the moms are now helping each other, like a mom will get a carrier and she’ll post a picture and say, Is this okay? Am I doing this right? I feel like he’s a bit loose or something.
She’ll post a picture and then some of the other moms who know the carrier and who are a bit further along their journey, will say, actually, I think you should do this. You should tighten it over here or whatever. Before I’ve even got in there to give support, someone’s already solved the problem. It’s quite cool. We also now have a dedicated certified baby wearing educator. She went to do her course in the UK in November, and she helps the Moms in that group too.
Ali: What’s your vision for the future of Ubuntu Baba?
Shannon: That’s a good question. I think right now we’re in this growth phase so we’re learning a lot. Each month, we kind of do a review and pivot slightly where we need to. We’re just kind of taking information and learning from our clients what they want. I think we’ll definitely keep it as an online business. But we are opening a retail space under our own brand name on the 7th of May – the space will also be used for weekly meetups for new Moms to come and learn about baby wearing!
Ali: Do you sell your products in any other locations?
Shannon: We have a few wholesalers who are listed on our website, but I’m very select about who I allow to stock our products, they must know about baby wearing and be able to help the customers with trying on – so they really need to be passionate about the product too.
The best advice I’ve learnt, from my Dad, is to grow as fast as you can cope with, not as fast as your customers demand. It can get super stressful when people are pressuring you, they phone and ask “why aren’t you in Baby City? Why aren’t you in this boutique? Why is this product out of stock again, I really want that colour.” The reality is, we’re a small business, and we’re growing at the pace that we can cope with, to make sure we can continue to provide the best customer service and best quality product that we possibly can.
I’d rather take it slowly and make sure the process is working and that it’s a smooth journey for our customers, that it’s a smooth journey for us, and all those glitches are ironed out.
You need [everything] to play nicely together. So, just concentrating on all of that and obviously making sure we have the turnover we need to continue to grow.
Ali: Definitely. I really like that you have such a focus on it going smoothly for the customer as well because you have a deep understanding of the situation that the moms are in. That’s so important.
Shannon: It’s been great because you also get very difficult clients when they are sleep deprived and going out of their minds and it’s nice to know what it’s like to be in that place, because as soon as you just give a little bit of compassion, you can totally change them. They’re like, Sorry, I’m just so stressed out. We’re like, No, it’s fine. I understand. We can sort this out for you. They’re so grateful afterwards and it’s very rewarding to have that feedback from them.
Ali: Fantastic. And finally, could you explain what the name Ubuntu Baba means?
Shannon: The African women in South Africa always carry their babies on their backs. They just take a bath towel and from the time the baby is born, the baby goes on the back and they just tie it in a knot on the front and it’s so natural for them.
When I discovered baby wearing, it changed my world and I couldn’t believe that I’ve lived in this country and seen this happening all my life and I’ve never thought to do it. When I created the carrier, I decided I wanted to have an African name so I just did a little bit of research into that and Ubuntu is an African philosophy that roughly translates into human kindness or humanity. That’s how the name came about.
Shannon: To a happy now. That’s our slogan. To a happy now.
There is nothing like scratching your own itch to get inside the mind of your customer. Like many successful entrepreneur stories, Ubuntu Baba was born from Shannon just figuring out how to solve her own problem.
There are so many takeaways from this interview, including how important it is to know your customers: that means knowing where they hang out (IRL or online), speaking their language, knowing their struggles, and empathising with those struggles.
Shannon has worked hard to give her customers as much support as possible in their journey to using her baby carriers. Through information about ergonomic issues to education about the benefits of baby wearing, her new moms are never alone as they navigate their new reality. Fostering a loyal and committed community is helping other new customers get the best out of their baby carriers, and that not only embodies human kindness (Ubuntu) but also creates “a happy now”.
In part 2 of this interview we will hear from Shannon about how she grew her business with WooCommerce and what sort of guidance she would offer for aspiring entrepreneurs. It’s pretty great advice!