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Ubuntu Baba's biggest challenge could be its golden opportunity

Jan 12 2019 16:01
Lameez Omarjee, Fin24

Ubuntu Baba, the small business which manufactures baby carriers, is facing its biggest challenge yet as owner Shannon McLaughlin took on corporate retailer Woolworths this past week. However, McLaughlin is hopeful to "swing" the situation towards a positive outcome.

Earlier this week, McLaughlin blogged about how Woolworths had copied her baby carrier product. It caused a stir on social media, with the public demanding Woolworths own up. Some even highlighted previous examples of the retailer copying a soft drink manufacturer Frankies back in 2012.

Woolworths conducted an investigation and met with McLaughlin on Wednesday before releasing a statement indicating that it found "striking similarities" between the two products.

It is now withdrawing its baby carrier from stores, and has said that it will donate the remaining carriers to under-resourced communities once the Woolworths branding has been removed.

Woolworths SA CEO Zyda Rylands on Friday discussed with McLaughlin the retailer's design process - and issued a statement indicating that the retailer indeed bought Ubuntu Baba baby carriers, among other brands, to draw inspiration for its product.

Woolworths said it is considering requests made by McLaughlin, the details of which are confidential.

But before all this happened, McLaughlin started her journey as an entrepreneur in 2002 after she graduated, when she freelanced as a web designer. Her work branched out to helping people develop the content which would eventually end up on the websites she designed for them.

When she fell pregnant with her son in 2014, she decided to take a three-month break from web design.

"Then I found out about baby wearing," she told Fin24. After learning the benefits of baby wearing, which freed her up to do her work, she started searching for a baby carrier which would suit her needs.

"As he grew and got a bit heavier - that's how I found a gap in the market. I felt the previous baby carrier I had which was a stretchy wrap, designed for the first few months, did not have longevity.

"There was nothing meeting my needs perfectly and I thought I could develop something here," she said.

McLaughlin's father is in the manufacturing industry and has a factory. "That was a lucky thing," she said. One of the machinists from her dad's factory helped make the baby carrier she had in mind.

She explained that her friends had seen and taken an interest in the baby carrier she used, and through word of mouth, her customer base grew. McLaughlin officially launched the business in February 2015.

"In three months we were making 10 to 15 baby carriers every month." She spoke of how when her son was eight months old, she would spend entire days packing boxes, and talking to couriers to organise deliveries.

Realising she needed assistance, she approached her dad once again, for a loan to employ someone to help manage the business. Ubuntu Baba now has a management team of five, with six machinists.

One of the machinists at Ubuntu Baba, Natasha Good

                        One of the machinists at Ubuntu Baba, Natasha Goodman. (Supplied)

The business which started online, now delivers nationwide and across the world, McLaughlin said. Ubuntu Baba now has a store in Cape Town, which opened in May 2018.

Every Friday, Ubuntu Baba arranges for a speaker to talk to mothers about various topics at the store. Among the speakers include mid-wives, chiropractors and lactation and breastfeeding specialists.

There are, of course, talks on baby wearing too, as new mothers need to know how helpful baby wearing can be, she explained. "Your life changes once the baby is outside, and baby wearing is a nice skill to have."

McLaughlin recalls how her own son would sleep on her for three hours at a time, and wake up fully rested, as opposed to her having to tend to him in a cot every 20 minutes.

A talk on modern cloth nappies, being given at the

 A talk on modern cloth nappies being given at the Ubuntu Baba store in Cape Town. (Supplied)

When asked if the latest developments this past week had helped boost sales of her product, Mclaughlin said only slightly. "It's the kind of product you do a lot of research on before you buy it," she said. McLaughlin said that she had to close her store for the past two days because people were just "rocking up".

"It did something good for business, inboxes are full at moment," she said.

"This was definitely the biggest challenge so far, but I'm hoping to swing it to something positive," she said.

One other challenge in the early days of her business was finding the right courier for the kind of customers Ubuntu Baba has. "Generally our customer is a new mother, who keeps her phone on silent and unplugs the doorbell because she doesn't want to wake the baby," she explained. Ubuntu Baba has been making use of the same courier services for three years.

Getting a trademark

McLaughlin, who does not have a patent or trademark - said she has learnt a lesson and may do things differently going forward. But she still wants to do research on the process of registering her design.

Entrepreneurs should focus on developing a "minimum viable product" concept – or getting a product to real life users as quickly and cheaply as possible instead of rushing to get a trademark or patent.  

They should instead work on getting it out in the market, and then refine it as much as they can to make sure it's actually something customers want. "It's no use having a trademark for something no one will buy," she said. "A lot of people might disagree with me about that."

The route she took was to make customers happy, which has grown a loyal customer base which resulted in resounding support this past week.

When asked if she regretted not having a trademark, given what has happened, she said, "I do not regret anything. I think it’s an opportunity for Woolworths to stop doing what they were doing for all these years. It's obviously given me PR I would never have paid for. I could never be sad about that."

From this experience, she intends to write another blog post of the lessons she learnt, and will send specific advice to individual businesses who reached out to her.

McLaughlin hopes to grow Ubuntu baba and set up another store in Johannesburg next.

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