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'We thought we could set up an online shop, work from home and make a fortune'

One of the sisters behind Clevamama tells us about building an award-winning export business.

Suzanne Brown, left, and Martina Craine of Clevamama

If someone had said to me 12 years ago you will be selling baby products I would probably have laughed and said you’re off your head.”

LIKE MANY SUCCESSFUL businesses, Clevamama’s genesis was in a problem.

Co-founder Suzanne Brown was unable to find many of the “baby bits and pieces” she needed for her first-born daughter in Irish stores and had turned online to order what she wanted.

The new mother, whose background was in IT, decided to team up with her sister Martina Craine, who also had two young children, and launch their own baby-products website in 2003.

“We thought we could set up an online shop, work from home and, you know, make a fortune,” she joked during an interview with TheJournal.ie this week.

Initially relying on a dial-up connection to sell other suppliers’ products from a spare bedroom, the pair soon realised they would need to develop their own lines if they wanted to make a go of the fledgling business.

Just under 12 years later, Clevamama’s first in-house design – a baby bath towel – remains one of its best-selling in an award-winning export business that ships up to 100 different products to 33 countries across the globe.

What we learned along the way was that the difficulties I have as a parent, that Martina has as a parent, are the exact same difficulties that a parent down in Cork has, or a parent in Russia, South Africa, Brazil, wherever it is,” Brown said. “Babies are universal and most parents face the same challenges.”

Brown Brown on RTÉ's The Afternoon Show in 2007 Source: YouTube

Russian revolution

Recently Clevamama added Mothercare’s network of about 100 Russian stores to its dealer base, which also includes US mega-retailer Walmart. The company has expanded to 11 people working from its multi-lingual office in Swords, Dublin.

Brown admitted it had been difficult standing out in the huge baby products market – predicted to be worth $66.8 billion worldwide by 2017 – but that hadn’t stopped it maintaining growth of about 20% each year.

Babies Source: Statista

“Twice a year we bring out a batch of items, but for me to get them listed in Smyths it means that we need to knock somebody else off the shelf – so it is a constant battle,” she said.

It’s not the case that you bring something out and everybody wants it, when you bring something out you always need to prove yourself.”

Clevamama Brown, right, takes the top business award from the Small Firms Association earlier this year

Along the way, Clevamama has taken on investment from Enterprise Ireland and several high-profile individuals, including Grafton Group chairman Michael Chadwick and Betfair CEO Breon Corcoran.

Brown said the company would remain focussed on Russia for now, with its next goal to drive growth in the Middle East.

If someone had said to me 12 years ago you will be selling baby products I would probably have laughed and said you’re off your head,” she said.

IMG_2508 HR

These are some key tips Brown had for any entrepreneurs hoping to break into exports:

1. Research everything

“Google has to be your best friend. There are very few products or concepts that haven’t been thought of so even if you think you’re completely unique and your patent is airtight, there is always going to be competition. Research everything that you do.”

2. Accept cultural differences

“Each country has different ways to business so you need to educate yourself. When you send an email and someone doesn’t reply within three or four days is absolutely fine in some cultures… if they reply in three or four weeks that’s fine. Here I would be having palpitations if I emailed someone in Smyths and I didn’t hear from them in three or four weeks.”

3. Ask for help

“Everybody knows somebody who works for themselves – there’s always somebody you can ask for help. And if you can’t ask somebody who you know personally, there’s always your local enterprise board. What they can give you, which is invaluable, is mentoring – they’ve always got somebody who has been there, done that.”

4. Sell yourself

“Nobody’s going to knock on your door and say ‘I believe you have a great idea for a company, tell me about it’. You do need to go out and sell yourself with a bit of a difference – explain why you’re better than the fellow next door.”

5. Be patient

“In the beginning, I would have easily thought I would be lying on a lilo on some exotic island in the Mediterranean by now – although the likelihood of that happening is virtually nil, at the moment. It does take a lot of time.”

This month, as part of TheJournal.ie’s ongoing startup and small and medium enterprise (SME) focus, we are looking at the parenting industry.

To view other stories from our collection, click here.

READ: Run your own business? There’s some lovely news for you today >

READ: These will be the boom industries for European startups this year >

About the author:

Peter Bodkin  / Editor, Fora

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