Saturday 18 November 2017

Two friends' enthusiasm ensures baby business is in full bloom

The former Dragon will be attending Huggy Bloom's upcoming baby show, not to give advice but to seek it – as a first-time parent

Claire Finnan, Sean Gallagher and Jennifer Shaw of Huggy Bloom Enterprises.
Claire Finnan, Sean Gallagher and Jennifer Shaw of Huggy Bloom Enterprises.
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Claire Finnan and Jennifer Shaw from Huggy Bloom Enterprises are a dynamic duo, who have thoroughly impressed customers and clients from day one.

I first met the pair back in 2010, on Dragons' Den, when they came on the show to pitch their idea for a new business. Their idea was to set up a Pregnancy and Baby Fair, where mums-to-be and their partners could get professional advice on all aspects of pregnancy and baby care as well as see, test and buy the latest products on the market.

They were so impressive on the day that they even created a little piece of Dragons' Den history by becoming the first ever venture to secure investment from all five Dragons. Three years on, their business has grown from strength to strength.

In the coming weeks they will be holding their annual exhibitions, in both Dublin and Cork. They will also be launching their newest enterprise – their own specially designed range of Huggy Bloom children's nursery furniture. This week, I met them to find out how life has been since Dragons' Den.

"The programme was a real turning point for us," explains Claire. "When we went on the show, we had no money and only six exhibitors lined up for our first exhibition. A few months later, we had over 100 exhibitors," she adds.

Their first show was a huge success, surpassing even their own expectations. Since then, they have generated a turnover of more than €1.5m.

"We really seem to have hit on something special," Jennifer says. "When people are having babies, they can often be overwhelmed by how much there is to do, to get and to learn. What we actually do is bring everything people need, together, under one roof, and over one weekend," she says.

Visitors get to see and try out an array of products including bottles and sterilisers, baby clothing and accessories and nursery furniture such as cots, buggies and changing stations.

"Another critical aspect we cover," explains Claire, "is to give people access to expert advice on the day – making it a sort of one-stop shop, with talks from experts on breastfeeding, nutrition and how to manage your own and your baby's sleep. People love that because they can get answers to all their questions on the one day."

Jennifer tells me: "We also make it an enjoyable and fun day for all the family, with entertainment, competitions and even celebrity guest appearances."

"The critical issue for us is that those who attend the show continue to recommend it to their friends and so word of mouth has become our most important marketing tool," Claire tells me.

One important lesson that the two young entrepreneurs did learn early on was the need to offer value for money for visitors to the show.

"The feedback from visitors confirmed that people were not happy to pay an admission fee and then have to pay full price for everything at the show," explains Jennifer. With that in mind, the pair worked hard to make sure that exhibitors at the show offer discounts on products that are bought at the show – in some cases up to 50 per cent off.

"We want people to get the important products they need at a reduced price," Jennifer adds.

"We also give out goody bags, full of useful baby and household products, which are worth more than the entry price," explains Claire.

Their value for money proposition seems to be working for them. Last year, more than 21,000 visitors attended the Pregnancy and Baby Fair in Dublin and more than 7,500 turned up in Cork.

While neither woman had any business experience before starting the company, they are fast learners. From the outset, they made a decision to maintain a very lean business model. They are the only employees in the company. The building up of the exhibitor stands for the show is carried out, on a contract basis, by a professional show-building company, their book-keeping is outsourced and so too is the management of their website and their marketing and public relations functions.

They explain how they witnessed other companies over-burden their businesses with expensive fixed overheads and are keen not to fall into the same trap.

Both women are from Dublin – Claire is from Swords and has a degree in nursing and a master's degree in public relations, while Jennifer comes from Artane and has a degree in human resource management. They became friends while working together in a Dublin hospital.

Jennifer had just gotten married and both had bought new homes and were in negative equity. They car-pooled, sharing the journey to work every morning and evening in order to reduce expenses. They talked excitedly, every day, about what they were going to do to earn more money.

Claire remembers well the evening that Jennifer called her to say that she had had a eureka moment that would change their lives. "And it did," laughs Claire.

"People go into business for different reasons," explains Jennifer. "We went into business because we wanted to develop a positive lifestyle for both of us. We both wanted to have children and to create a meaningful business that we enjoyed working in. While money is secondary for us, it's obviously important in order to sustain a successful business."

Three years on, the two young entrepreneurs have indeed become successful. Last year, they won the award for the Best Exhibition and the Best Exhibition Organisers from the Irish Event Industry Awards. "Not bad," says Claire, "considering that, between us, we only had one laptop, which we shared, and two ready-to-go mobile phones.

"In addition, we had one small, used Polo car and we ran the business from our kitchen tables," she laughs.

The two are quick to acknowledge the support they received from Dublin City Enterprise Board where both of them undertook a Start Your Own Business Course. It's something they would definitely recommend for other would-be entrepreneurs.

"It really helped us develop a business plan and road map for the business," explains Jennifer. They are grateful, too, for the support they received from their family and friends.

Excitedly, Claire and Jennifer show me their newest venture, a range of high quality nursery furniture. Designed and manufactured in Ireland, the first two pieces, a bespoke cot-bed and a changing table, are being launched at this year's Pregnancy and Baby Fair in the RDS, Dublin, on April 13 and 14, and then on April 20 and 21 in City Hall, Cork.

International research suggests that new parents are spending up to €5,000 in the first two years of their baby's life, with the majority of that spending going on prams, nursery furniture and soft furnishings. While they will target the Irish market initially, they are definitely focused on breaking into the UK and US markets.

There are few events is life more predictable than births, deaths and marriages. Focusing on one of these market segments isn't a bad strategy if you have the right product offering. "There are in and around 86,000 babies born in Ireland each year – and the market is continually replenishing itself," Claire tells me. "And there are approximately 700,000 babies born in the UK each year and as many as four million births each year in the US."

"It's a massive and global market," Jennifer says excitedly. "Our ultimate dream is to create an Irish brand that will compete with the big names in the market," she adds.

As we wrap up our meeting, I tell the pair that I have a new-found interest in attending their upcoming show. This time I will be visiting, not as an investor but as an excited first-time parent. The tables will be turned, and this time around, it will be me that will be asking Claire and Jennifer for advice. However, instead of talking projected turnover, sales and profit, I will be talking nappies, creams and cots.

Claire and Jennifer have more energy than most people could ever imagine having. Their enthusiasm is infectious. Their commitment unwavering.

They came up with a new business idea when they spotted a gap in the market. They used their interpersonal skills to build strong relationships with exhibitors and sponsors and drew on their PR skills to drive visitors to their shows. They kept their fixed overheads low and managed their budgets tightly. When they spotted a further opportunity to get into the nursery furniture market, they did so with the same meticulous planning they applied to their first business venture. Above all, they have remained as focused on growing their business as the first day they walked on the set of Dragons' Den. In just three short years, Claire and Jennifer have become seasoned entrepreneurs.

I predict that these two young women are going to be among Ireland's most successful entrepreneurs in the years ahead. If you ever meet them, you too will understand why.

Irish Independent

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