Securing funds to produce and promote new products are essential to the survival of new businesses, says Helen Wooldridge, founder of Cuddledry Limited, who believes having her own business makes it easier to juggle work and family life.
Helen Wooldridge is founder of Cuddledry.
She was speaking to Gary Finnegan.
What is your background and how did you come to start your own business?
I’ve had a varied background, but mainly working for the British Commonwealth and aid agencies – before moving out of London and heading to Bristol where I worked for Grayling PR consultancy.
I became a director there but left after the birth of my first child – Rosie – to start my own PR consultancy. Polly and I have been friends since we were 18, where we met over a Bloody Mary at 8am in the morning during Freshers Week at Manchester University in 1989. I went to her daughter’s first birthday party along with many other old friends, not with children. A handful of them were all in the bath together as we mums watched on with great amusement while the fathers struggled to pick up wet slippery babies whilst holding towels up in their teeth, or under their chin, or armpits, etc.
Polly and I started talking about how easy it would be if the towel simply attached to them like an apron, allowing them both hands free to eliminate the stress, struggle and the soaking they were all subjected to. Obviously we thought there would be something already available on the market, but after some market research we realised there was nothing currently out there – so we designed one.
How did you turn the concept from a brainwave into a product?
We had a pattern and some prototypes made, got our intellectual property registered at the patent office, and took them to a baby show to launch – and see what people’s reaction would be. That was where the buyers from Mothercare saw Cuddledry for the first time – and immediately liked the concept and design – and placed their first order. We really knew we had something that was going to be a winner!
Since then, we have expanded the range to over 15 different bath, swim and beachwear products for babies and toddlers, as well as a natural toiletries range. We’ve expanded the age range from newborn up to three years – and we are selling Cuddledry products in more than 30 countries worldwide. We firmly believe in listening to parents’ needs and offering them exactly what they want to buy – something practical, top quality and natural – and that genuinely makes their lives easier. It seems parents and carers everywhere need an easy, safe, stress-free, happy bath or swim time with their babies and children – and that’s what Cuddledry gives them.
What was the biggest obstacle to getting the company off the ground?
I think the biggest obstacle for any new business is funding, unless you have lots of money of course! It would have been great to have £500,000 to spend on huge brand awareness campaign – but what start-up can afford that?
Brand awareness was very important to us – and we needed it fast. We have done well in the two-and-a-half years we’ve been in business, but with a lot more money of course, things can happen faster.
That’s why we went on the Dragon’s Den TV programme – to secure funding and faster growth potential. But in the end we were not prepared to give away 40% of our company. We knew we’d get to where we were headed, even without an investor, just that it would take a little more time.
Did you find it easy to access funds and find a partner in the manufacturing sector?
Nothing is easy but hard work and determination does get you there in the end. We are very lucky to have hugely supportive families, and have also taken advantage of all the funding we found on offer from the government. In terms of finding a partner in the manufacturing business, we spent several months researching the textile industry to find out where in the world were the best places to manufacture textiles – we also wanted ethical audits and quality control, etc. – and for our specific type of organic towelling in particular.
For anything we don’t know, it was and still is a case of asking, asking and asking as many people as we could with the experience we lacked, but who were happy to share their knowledge and advice. This allowed us to narrow our choices down and eventually select a partner. We now have two partners.
What could governments do to make it easier for niche start-ups?
The UK government already does a lot – Business Link, the Chambers of Commerce, UKTI and many other government grants and initiatives – all offer advice, support and funding. We advise all new start-ups to go initially to their local Business Link where an experienced business advisor will be assigned to you. Through them, small starts-ups can find out about all the support available to them that will give them everything from tax advice to export advice, and any number of options to learn about how to run a successful business.
At the moment, the obvious thing the government can do to support new start-up companies is make it easier to access funding from the banks. It is very difficult right now for anyone to get credit, which makes it doubly hard for a start-up company in this climate.
How has the downturn affected your business? Have you had any cash-flow problems?
The downturn has affected our business because some of our customers, mainly independent retailers but also one or two of the larger chains, have suffered enormously from the lack of spending on the high street. Some have had to close. Having said that, the nursery industry remains buoyant, particularly for newborns, and there is even a baby boom during recessions which is reflected in the current birth rate of over 700,000 for last year.
We manage our cash flow as best as we can by making realistic predictions on turnover and stock control, and securing the best terms of payment we can for our outgoing monies. We insist on proforma for all new customers with limits on the figures of credit we offer, and having good credit control with someone constantly chasing payments as soon as they are due. So far, we have not had any major cashflow problems, but this is not an area any company can afford to be relaxed about in this current economic climate.
Your product line was born from your experience as mothers. How have you balanced family life with the demands of life as an entrepreneur?
This is a question we get asked a lot – and not surprisingly. Anyone who has attempted it knows how difficult it is. Polly and I realised this at the very outset – hence one of the reasons we wanted to go into this partnership together. We knew there would be times one or other of us would be unavailable, and so we make ourselves interchangeable and there is always one or other, or both, of us looking after the company and making sure everything is running as it should be. Obviously, we both have our individual strengths and weaknesses, which of course we utilise to our advantage – and we make a good team.
Keeping the balance between family life and running a business is only possible if you are realistic about your own abilities, and you have to be very organised and able to prioritise efficiently and effectively. But now that we do all this, we are able to put our children first and always believed that a lifestyle business (i.e. – one that works around children, rather than in spite of them) can be every bit as successful as any other – and we have proved it by exceeding all projections and turnover, and winning awards for it.
The Swedish Presidency of the EU is turning the spotlight on female entrepreneurs. When you were growing up did you view entrepreneurship as a likely career option? If not, was this because of a generally weak enterprise culture or do you believe there to be a gender bias in what society expects of women?
When I was growing up, I was a serial entrepreneur. Among many other ventures, I made and sold scrunchy hair bands, and friendship bracelets at my school. I smuggled fireworks in from school trips from France and sold them for vast profits on the school playground!
Our ‘Company Programme’ team also won the Young Enterprise award for our year, having built up the most profitable business. I think deep down, I always knew I would run my own company, and I don’t think the amount of enterprise culture in our society would have changed that for me.
Most successful entrepreneurs I have met or spoken to also say they would have ended up doing their own thing eventually. Those budding entrepreneurs who are unsure or not confident enough to go it alone, may benefit from more encouragement at school or from society, so they can really consider all their choices.
I am completely opposed to the idea that women are less entrepreneurial than men – but perhaps they are more encouraged to act in different circumstances. We know there is a huge number of highly qualified professional women who gave up high flying careers, in order to have children. Those women do not want to work full-time for the same reasons Polly and I don’t – our children are too important. But that doesn’t mean they have to be happy with the job options available to them. Most part-time roles are not aimed at senior management level – but that is where these women’s skills lie. And so many women get frustrated – and decide to go it alone. And many of them are very successful, because they have the skills, knowledge and ability to make a business work.
Is there anything that can be done to encourage entrepreneurship in young people and among women in particular?
Having the opportunity to meet and speak to entrepreneurs who have been successful is very inspirational to young people of both genders. I believe it is part of our duty to make sure all young people are aware of all the opportunities available to them in their future careers – including going it alone.
I am proud to have spoken at several schools about being an entrepreneur and answering the questions of the young talented people in front of me. If all schools included such talks as part of their curriculum, then I am sure many more children would include this career choice as an option for them in the future. There are too many young people who don’t achieve their full potential, simply because they were never told about all avenues open to their particular set of talents.
Confidence is something that is needed for any entrepreneur, and the only reason I can see why women need more encouragement than men is because generally there is less confidence in females than males at school leaving age. This of course is overcome with time in other careers as they realise they are just as capable as their male counterparts – and usually better at multi-tasking (another necessity for a start-up company).
So, as long as the seed of inspiration is planted at school as suggested, then it’s just a matter of time for women to acquire the confidence needed in their own abilities to start-up on their own.
In general, are there too few innovative product lines designed by women for women?
There are plenty of innovative product lines designed by women for women – one only has to look at entrepreneurial programmes such as Dragon’s Den – to see that there is a real mix of good ideas and great inventions from females. Not all of them will be successful though because although many women are able to come up with the designs and the ideas, especially for products for women or the babies/children they care for (there are a huge number of baby products invented by women) as women tend to be more creative than men – some of the companies they start up may fall down through lack of business knowledge, or knowledge on how to take their products to market – or even initial research into whether their product lines are actually going to be in demand, or make money in the cut-throat world of business.
So there is definitely strength in women to be creative and innovative – but to be successful, it must be balanced with an understanding of what is required to run a successful profitable business. They must assess their own abilities and be realistic about their weaknesses, as well as their strengths – we advise people to keep the jobs they are good at and outsource the rest – or take on a partner with the attributes they need to complete the skill set required to run a successful, profitable business!