Name of Business: Little Helper
Your Name and Age: Kim Johnson, aged 42
Tell us about your family: I am married to Sean, 41, and have a beautiful and spirited (sometimes willful!) six-year-old daughter, Aimee. We also have a Tibetan terrier called JJ. We live in a village on the outskirts of Sheffield, Yorkshire. We have a love of food, which involves growing our own veg, cooking and entertaining friends and family. Our life is very much centred around the home; our home is our castle! We love entertaining, spending time with friends and eating good food – either at home or we are quite well known in a restaurant or two locally.
What did you do before coming up with your business idea and how was it making the transition?
Before having Aimee, I was a Director of a successful advertising agency in Yorkshire – I launched well-known brands and co-ordinated everything from logo and packaging to trade marketing materials, adverts, radio and T.V commercials. I was always on a train to London, as most of my accounts were London based, and included high profile commercial companies.
When Aimee was seven weeks old, the Chairman decided to close the business, leaving me to make everyone redundant – including myself. In a very short space of time, my life changed dramatically, going from a very sociable job to no job at all. When Aimee was 10 months old, I had a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with chronic post natal depression. I was treated and had counselling and made a full recovery but it was definitely a hard time in my life.
When Aimee started to walk, she constantly pestered me to be up at the kitchen worktops with me and without standing her on a chair or sitting her on the worktops, there was nothing on the market that would keep her safe. So one night whilst sharing a glass of wine with my husband, I drew what is now known as the FunPod. A unique kitchen gadget that allows children to safely reach the kitchen worktop and interact, learn and play with their parents.
When did you launch?
The FunPod went to market in 2006 and we now sell a range of high quality baby goods with more on the way.
Since then, the FunPod has won numerous awards and has been heralded by safety organisations and health professionals as highly socially responsible and is an important tool in fighting childhood obesity. I also regularly attend obesity forums at Westminster and have worked with one of the leading Professors of Childhood Obesity, Professor Paul Gately of Leeds Metropolitan University.
It’s been a busy few years, but we are thrilled with the response to the FunPod.
How did you get started?
First off, I spent £300 with a designer friend, drafting the FunPod concept. Then, I went to Business Link with an outline business plan before appointing a patent company to conduct a prior art search to make sure that my idea wasn’t already covered with IP protection. When this came back clear, we knew we were onto something and started putting the business plan together and approaching banks and applied for grants, which the business won.
The next few years were an emotional rollercoaster as I went into business launching not only a new product but a product that was pretty niche. I had a complete baptism of fire whilst I had to wade through the minefields of patent applications, registered designs, safety testing, product design, not to mention manufacturing which in itself is another story. The manufacturing industry is a male-dominated one and I spent months trying to find someone who could not just help me, but take me seriously. I had a number of meetings where many people didn’t even bother to call me back. It was only when I took the FunPod to my local toddler group for some feedback that a grandmother in the village played a huge hand of fate. Her husband worked for a company that produced furniture for children’s nurseries and day centres. He helped me get it to market – I have a lot to thank him for.
What research did you do before launching?
Mainly on the internet but a prior art search via a patent lawyer was instrumental in making sure we didn’t spend tens of thousands of pounds taking something to market only to find that we had infringed somebody else’s patent.
- Kim & Aimee
How have you funded the business?
We have funded the business through personal savings, small firm loan guarantees and grants via Business Link. One thing I would say to anyone starting out is never underestimate just how much it costs!
How do you promote your business? What has worked best?
We have found that PR has worked best for us. Our product is new so it is important for us to get people to write about it rather than advertise it. Word of mouth is also a big medium for us – we pride ourselves on producing good quality products and we work hard to make sure our customer service is second to none.
What has worked well about your business?
Keeping our team motivated and involved in all aspects of the business. We also have a full time member of staff who works for us in China – this has been invaluable for us. He is on the ground, speaks the language and QCs everything that comes out of our factories. Many companies use a remote agent but we find that having our own man on the ground makes a big difference.
What has been your biggest challenge so far? How have you dealt with it?
First off, it was dealing with a male dominated industry in manufacturing when I was first taking the product to market. Secondly, it is the emotional rollercoaster we have been on. I would say that this has been the hardest to deal with. You can’t switch off and you cannot underestimate how much it will cost and how long it takes to get a product established. There are many set backs on the road to success but the saying “If it was easy, everyone would do it” has never been truer in our case. However, when you see that you get more than 15,000 searches every month for your product on-line, it’s a great feeling.
How do you fit in work with the family?
Work fits round the family – which is why we wanted to set up our own business. We wanted to be there for Aimee at the school gates and at school plays. We work shifts to make sure that one takes her to school and one picks her up and sometimes, she comes to work – she has her own desk! That said, many a time we are working on the laptop at night after Aimee has gone to bed.
What advice would you give to someone else wanting to work in this area?
If you had one product that you had designed, I would seriously think about licensing it on or giving it to a distributor to sell and market. Many retailers are not interested in you if you have only one product. Fortunately we had a small handful of products with plans to launch more over a five year period however, this is something that we never considered in the early days. For a large retailer to open an account with you, you need to make it worth their while and they are not going to make the profits they need with one account on one product.
Your website link: www.littlehelper.co.uk
Special promotion for Family Friendly Working readers: A free FunPack with every FunPod bought, worth £14.99. Simply type in FFW310 when you are at the checkout to redeem your FunPack.