by Nicole Morell of Honeybunch
An interview with Catherine Choi, owner of So Young Mother, a lovely collection of diaper, travel, lunch and cooler bags. Catherine is based in Toronto.
What was your first product in the SYM range? What was the process of bringing it to market?
My first product was the Emily diaper bag. It took almost three years to bring it to market (working on it part-time). As with many mom-entrepreneurs, I had the idea for a diaper bag without having any sort of business background in manufacturing. The strength of my business lies in networking and talking to as many people as possible. Everyone knows someone who knows someone. I was first led to a sample bag maker in Montreal, then to manufacturing contacts in Canada, and, eventually overseas.
Originally you planned to manufacture your bags in Canada, but ultimately ended up having them made for you overseas. What can you tell us about that experience? We’ve all read cautionary tales about the risks of working with foreign factories – it must have been a huge leap of faith.
My original concept was a Made In Canada product but that quickly became a pipe dream as I learned about the prohibitive costs of manufacturing here. I took my sample to different manufacturers here and was told over and over that it would cost too much and that the tools required to make my product (which was very complicated) were not readily available. So I sampled in China for a year and a half with five different manufacturers before I found the right one – or so I thought. After I finally got a sample that was acceptable, I put in my production order and two months later received an entire production run of downgraded product based on an unapproved sample. I was beside myself and thought it was the end. But, lucky for me, my intermediary took responsibility for the production run and had it rerun at his cost- unheard of! One of the many miracles that have happened in the process of starting my business. Lesson learned: always hire an external agent to conduct a thorough inspection before anything is sent to you. Or, better yet, go yourself, which is what I eventually did.
How did you finance your business?
Most of the capital investment in my business has been financed personally but I also completed the SEB (self-employment benefits program), which allowed me to earn an extra year of EI in order to work on my business. Most of that money went towards childcare so I could work on my business.
Did you sell direct to consumers or dive right into wholesale?
I sell both direct to consumers as well as wholesale.
How did you market your diaper bag? Did you have an Etsy site?
I market my diaper bags and lunch boxes mainly through PR and some social media. Luckily, my new product line of lunch boxes and cooler bags seems to be a big hit so right now we’re riding the media wave. I also do some contests and giveaways, and some targeted ads directed towards retailers.
What market feedback did you glean from your experience promoting the bags?
Well, the market feedback I received from my Emily bag was discouraging. While people liked the bag, it appealed to a very narrow market for the style and price point. I couldn’t find a sales rep to carry it, and it was moving slowly in retail stores. It just didn’t have enough appeal to stand out from all the other diaper bags in the market at that price. As hard as it was, I talked to sales reps and retailers about what kind of bag they thought had the most appeal, what kind of features it should have, what was the ideal price point etc. I also realized that I needed more than one product in my line and varying price points. So I designed the unisex Charlie bag (which is an AMAZING bag) and then had the idea to do the lunch boxes when I realized that I couldn’t find a decent one for my kids. So I would have to say that when the market told me that my first product was not so fabulous after all, it forced me to rethink and reassess my whole business.
I remember chatting with you in my store last year and you mentioned having to make a decision to either pack it in or go for it. What was the “decision tree” (in MBA-speak) for you?
It was the opposite of a MBA process decision. In my heart of hearts, I knew I couldn’t give up just yet. I knew I had to give it another go. But if the second round of products weren’t a hit, cash flow issues would have forced me to give up. But who really knows? I do believe where there’s a will, there’s a way.
You’ve had major success with your next product, the lunch bags. Tell us about them and tell us about the development process – what did you do differently from the first time?
Well, I was much more experienced in dealing with China at this point, so the process was a lot quicker. The major difference was having technical specifications made to send to China – this sped up the process a great deal. And I also understood that “tweaking” my samples and making just one more change to them was endless and very dangerous in terms of meeting timelines. A small change to a product could mean the difference between having products for your season or not.
What has made the biggest difference to your business?
Networking has been critical to my business. I love to meet other entrepreneurs and hear their stories and share experiences. And we all help each other. This has been one of the greatest rewards of becoming an entrepreneur.
How do you market your company now?
I now have sales representation across Canada and will be participating in my first trade show in the US at the end of this month – very exciting!
We will be available in US retail stores in August and have had interest from Europe, the UK and Australia! One at a time. The plan is to continually strengthen the brand and increase distribution but not too quickly.
I often remind myself that the whole purpose in starting the business was to be able to have a flexible schedule for my family and to be able to be with my kids as much as possible. But it was also to have a job that I loved, and I must say, on most days, I absolutely love what I do and feel so lucky that I get to do this.