Ergobaby Going Global

January, 2009

It all started with a baby. And a sewing machine.

Maui resident and first-time mom Karin Frost was having trouble finding a baby carrier that was comfortable and ergonomic for both herself and her infant son. When she couldn’t find a product that met her needs, Frost decided to design her own. She began producing designs in 2002 and sewed her first baby carrier for her infant son, Keala Kaj.

In her first year, Frost produced a mere 50 hand-sewn baby carriers. Today, Frost is the proud president and designer of ERGObaby Carrier Inc., a Maui-based, family-run company that sells more than 100,000 ERGObaby carriers a year worldwide.

How did that happen? It took a little bit of luck, backed by a good idea, a lifestyle shared by many, and some old-fashioned, person-to-person marketing.

The idea actually came from someone else. While pregnant, Karin and her husband read Jean Liedloff’s “The Continuum Concept,” which stressed the importance of the parent being in constant physical contact with the baby until the baby could crawl. “I was convinced,” says Frost, “that carrying my baby was the best way to usher him into our world.” So Frost set out to create a carrier that would allow her to keep her baby close to her body while still having complete range of motion. “I was delighted that I could easily carry my son as I did housework, nursed, gardened or shopped.”

While many people might have a good idea, not everyone has the discipline that Frost had to follow it through. Her good idea has turned into a profitable, international business, with factory contracts in India and China and a worldwide network of distributors that, ultimately, allows Frost the luxury of spending quality time with her son.  
Google “baby carriers” and you’ll get more than a million entries. Visit any baby blog — like nappypooh.com — and you’ll discover an onslaught of baby carriers on the market:  Hip Bubby Baby Slings, Jolly Light Child Carriers, WrapNWear, Sleepy Wraps, Gentle Nest Baby Slings — just to name a few. What sets the ERGObaby carrier apart from the competition? Simple: Frost’s design is just plain better.

ERGObaby is most known for its standard, soft-structured carrier, which differs from other carriers on the market because of its supported waistband, well-padded shoulder strap (one-inch, high-density foam) and versatile design. A parent can carry the baby in three different positions: on the back, on the hip or in the front.

While Frost’s business sense may be the result of intuition and excellent timing, she learned her design acumen professionally. She received a MA in design from the University of Minnesota’s Department of Design and Apparel in 1988. After graduation, she created several limited-edition lines of clothing and also worked as the main designer for a woman’s clothing manufacturer.

Frost’s career in design, however, was not a straight line. A certified sea kayak instructor, she opened a Sea Kayak Center in Door County, Wis., before moving to Maui in 1997. Nonetheless, Frost credits her design experience as instrumental to her success. “With my design background, it was natural for me to create a carrier that incorporated the elements necessary to carry my son for prolonged periods as his weight increased,” Frost explains. Local parents would see her carrying her son and would ask her to make them a carrier. Their feedback was invaluable as she continued to refine her prototype.

“In the past few years, we’ve improved on the chest straps, added a backpack and a front pouch,” says marketing consultant Sydney Seaver.

When Seaver started working for the company in July 2004, ERGObaby had five European accounts, mostly Web shopping sites. Now they have accounts in Japan, Korea, China, Australia, Israel, Canada, Iceland and most of Europe. When asked what she thought was the key to the company’s marketing plan, Seaver said, “Marketing plan? There was no real marketing plan, until last year.”

For the most part, the ERGObaby carrier sold itself. Not until about a year ago did the company start advertising. Initially, sales came by word of mouth and from online sales.  “The only advertising we really did was to include five of our business cards in the pocket of every carrier,” says Seaver. “Parents would tell us that when they had the carrier on, inevitably someone would come up and ask where they got it, and they would hand them our business card. We still include five cards with every carrier.”

The ERGObaby Timeline
By the fall of 2002, Frost had hand sewn her first 50 carriers, and people were asking for more. As it became impossible for Frost to keep up with the demand, she began to look for other solutions. Through a family friend, Jeff Henderson, of Hot Sails Maui, Frost found a manufacturer in China to mass-produce her design.

But doing business overseas with a contracted textile factory is not always seamless, nor without intrigue. It was eventually brought to Frost’s attention that one of their European distributors had contacted the Chinese factory and hired them to produce a similar product. Because of this business breach, Frost’s parents, the vice presidents of ERGObaby, went to China, where they found a second factory in the province of Kiangsu, which they use to this day.

As buying organic has become more socially responsible and popular, ERGObaby launched Origins in 2007, a line of baby carriers made of organic material. Earlier in the year, the company established ties in India, finding a manufacturer to handle the organic production. ERGObaby only partners with organic textile mills and manufacturing facilities in India that uphold organic textile standards regarding fabric production and dye-house practices (Oeko-Tek Standard 100). The company is likewise committed to using factories in India and China that adhere strictly to fair labor practices.

By May 2007, ERGObaby knew it was on the right track when it received one of the biggest assurances one can get in the baby industry. Parenting Magazine selected the ERGObaby carrier as one of its top 20 products developed in the past 20 years. It was right up there with portable DVD players, washable crayons and sippy cups. When the 20th anniversary issue of Parenting Magazine hit the stands, the company was selling close to 10,000 carriers a month. Having ERGObaby carrier being named as a “must- have” for new parents on “The View,” at Elizabeth Hasselbeck’s on-air baby shower, didn’t hurt, either.

While most of ERGObaby’s marketing has been serendipitous, all along the company had been marketing through donations. During the first few weeks after Hurricane Katrina, ERGObaby tried to reach the Red Cross and United Way to find out how to donate carriers to displaced parents and children. On Sept. 15, 2005, the company received an e-mail from a volunteer intake coordinator for an outreach center in Lafayette, La., saying she had gotten calls from shelters asking for baby carriers. With the help of Agape Warehousing out of Kentucky, a branch of the nonprofit Agape Service Foundation, 254 ERGObaby carriers were shipped directly from Hawaii to disaster victims.

More recently, ERGObaby was a Platinum Elite Sponsor for the 2008 World Breastfeeding Week Celebration for La Leche League in the United States. The company also donated 25 gently used carriers to Josephine Nalugo, the executive director of Children in Africa Breastfeed, a mother support group in Uganda.

From its inception, the company’s Web site has been key to its visibility. Web sales are a main source of revenue. The Web site also has been translated into three different languages to capitalize on the baby carrier’s international popularity. Within the past year, blogs, too, have become an important marketing tool. Online or hard copy magazines request samples, which are then followed up with a product review—usually a rave. These reviews then get circulated on baby-related blogs and newsletters.

What’s next for ERGObaby?  Stephaine Fernandez, who handles the international accounts for the company, targets Asia as the new market to tap, partly because, as she says, “baby wearing is already an important cultural component in Japan and China.”

Even with the Asian market on the rise, and a new, more affordable Sport Carrier on the horizon, one thing hasn’t changed at ERGObaby. Each carrier still arrives with five business cards in the front pouch.

If you had any advice to give other small home entrepreneurs about taking an idea and growing it into a success, what would you tell them?
Creating your own successful business takes a willingness to take big leaps — even when it feels uncomfortable or scary — because you know it’s the right thing to do. If your intentions are clear, unencumbered by greed, and as little ego as possible, you will be rewarded.

What worked for you?  What didn’t work?
What worked for me and has kept me going through the past six years was foremost the unwavering support of my parents, good friends and all the absolutely, genuinely loving testimonials from parents whose lives with their babies have been deeply enhanced by the ERGObaby carrier. What didn’t work for me was the tremendous pressure of a fast-growth company without building in venues for rejuvenation and enough balance of personal time.

In your wildest dreams, did you ever think this was going to happen? 
Seven years ago I would never have dreamed that I would create a product that would have such a positive impact on families around the world. For this, I am utterly grateful.

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