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From kitchen table to small business

"I thought 'How hard could it be?'" - Helene Murphy - Mucky Bubba

Just two years ago, Melbourne mum Helene Murphy was making baby bibs at her kitchen table and thinking of turning her hobby into a small business.

She had the product, she had a plan, but she had a few hurdles to jump before she could take her bibs to market.

"I thought 'How hard could it be?'"

Two years later, we chat to Helene about the pleasures and pitfalls of how she turned her dream of Mucky Bubba bibs into a small business.

When we first spoke in late 2015, you were looking to take your Mucky Bubba bibs from a kitchen table hobby to a commercial business. You originally looked at patenting and licensing the bibs to a third party but ended up going out on your own. What led to that decision?

I made the decision to do it myself mainly because this was my baby and it would have felt like I was giving it away. I thought, "How hard could it be?" I was also concerned that although licensing to a third party would be lucrative in the beginning, I could lose control of the product in the long term.

You estimated $50,000 was required as start-up capital. Did that projection end up being accurate?
In the beginning, I thought $50k max to start up would be more than enough if I was able to source a local manufacturer.

After a six month search for a manufacturer in Australia, I had to go overseas to China. I employed a sourcing company to assist. They found a manufacturer, organised the contracts and sorted the shipping.

In the end it cost $70k but that was $10k for the sourcing company and $25k in stock.

How did you go about raising funds and did you consider more than one funding option?
I used my savings and I cashed in some shares. I also organised a business loan through ANZ as an employee. They were offering business loans at the time to encourage startups.

I did think of crowdfunding, but I wasn’t very confident with doing it. I think that was a mistake as it would have lifted my profile as a new product. I would consider this in the future, although there are a lot of businesses doing it now.

What kind of assistance did you seek in bringing your product from the DIY stage to a manufactured product? Were there any design or material changes necessary to get it to that stage?

I ended up seeking assistance from a sourcing company to manufacturer in China. They were a ‘one stop shop’ and took the stress out of me dealing with multiple manufacturers. They organised the contracts, got the best deal and took control of shipping.

You originally investigated manufacturing options in New Zealand with a view to having your first bibs available for sale in six months. Were you able to stick with that plan?
I went to New Zealand and met with manufacturers. There were a couple of problems: they could only do part of the bib (not the entire job) – and also, the cost per bib was too much. I searched for six months for a manufacturer in Australia and no one wanted to take me on. This is why I ended up paying for a sourcing company to find me a manufacturer.

As a small business owner you wear a lot of hats, from manager to marketer to product designer and supply chain manager. Where have your biggest learning curves been and where have you been able to lean on others for help?

Gosh I didn’t think about it that way. I am useless at marketing and I am lucky I have a friend who helps me with that and I have met people along the way who help.

What would you say have been the biggest differences between what you thought having your own business would be like when you started out, and the reality?
I thought it would be “build it and they will come”. Everyone needs this product and they would be silly not to have it because it’s awesome!

However, the reality is that I am a drop in a very large baby product ocean.

Your original hope for the business was to be running it full time within two years, possibly with one employee, and to expand your product line. Now, two years on, where do you find yourself?
HAHA!! That was wishful thinking, to be running the business full time with other product lines. But I can run it alongside my job. It is a juggle with work and the kids, but having the security of a job makes it less stressful as I don’t depend on it for income.

Would you do anything differently?
Yes! Many things, but that’s the joy of hindsight.

The two main ones that have affected me the most are:

*    I would have started my marketing strategy sooner
*    I would have placed smaller quantity orders with my manufacturer so I would have more cash flow and allow more flexibility for changes.

Where would you like the business to be in two years?
I would still like to see it allow me to leave my job and we are currently working on this, and I still have another product on the back burner, but I need the funds to bring it to market. Maybe crowd funding will be the go..?

What would be your top tips to other small business owners looking to bring a new product to market?
*    Someone wise once said to me, “You can have the best product in the world, but if you don’t have a great marketing strategy it won’t sell.”
*    Don’t feel pressured by manufacturing to do too large orders on a new product because there may be some teething issues you didn’t think of previously.
*    Research your market thoroughly.
*    Embrace bad feedback. It’s just as important as good feedback, particularly in the development stage.
*    A new product is always a work in progress. I still see ways of improving it – and it’s a simple bib.

Finally, your messy kids inspired the original Mucky Bubba bib. Now that they’re older, are they sparking any new product designs? 

I am so upset they no longer use it because they are “big boys”.  I am consistently thinking of ideas to keep them clean at mealtimes. Maybe I should have trained them better.

Read Helene's original case study The Bib Co: Mucky babies give Helene a bright idea

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