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Building a Business

October 24, 2012

Baby Life Magazine have run an article "Building a Business: The Story Behind Breastmates"
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Frances McInnes founded Breastmates in 2004 with $50, a domain name and a single product.Today, her online store stocks a vast array of maternity clothes, lingerie and feeding products, as well as being a valuable resource and support centre for mums across New Zealand. She's won multiple awards and she's done it all while bringing up her family. Below Frances gives us some insight into how she built up her business, including some useful tips on marketing and promotion. Take a read and be inspired.
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Can you tell us a little about the story behind Breastmates; what made you decide to start up the company and how did you initially get your venture off the ground?

I was actually on maternity leave, and was making breast pads and a few handmade baby things so that I'd have a bit of extra spending money. I started off selling these on Trademe, and then just made a really basic website to list the breast pads on. When I went to a baby shop to get advice about breast pumps, I had a typical bad shopping experience with a sales assistant who didn't know anything about breast pumps…. and then I realized there was potential for me to list useful products and get product training (and use them myself at the time too) so that I would know what I was talking about. I made a really basic website using Frontpage on my computer, and bought a domain name. I also found a free shopping cart provider. That was back in 2004. Since then my website has grown to have hundreds of products, as well as articles and shared stories. I've gone through two major website overhaul/upgrades. Over the years my business has grown to encompass breast and bottle feeding, and we have a clear philosophy that we support all mums regardless of how they feed their baby. We have also extended our maternity wear and later baby feeding stages too.

You've grown Breastmates from a tiny start-up to an award-winning business, while raising a family at the same time. What would you say has been instrumental to this success?

Working on it every day! I don't think people realise the amount of hours that go on behind the scenes. And staying focused.

What was one (or some) of the biggest challenges you faced when starting up Breastmates, and how did you overcome them?

I didn't have a huge amount of money available to start my business - we were a young couple with a new baby and didn't have a spare pile of cash sitting around. So having no money was a hurdle, but I found a lot of ways to do things on the cheap, so I could at least start with a few products. Back then we didn't even have a printer; I would hand write address labels and use a manual receipt book. It would have been wonderful to fully launch everything right from the start, but I have had to be patient, do things slowly and reinvest profits as they came in. It was a long time before I drew a wage from the business, and I actually went back part-time at my old job and worked on my business at night for quite a few years. This slow growth has actually been advantageous for me as it has enabled me to grow with the business and develop my own skills. Plus my customers have been able to see my brand growing along the way too!

Finding affordable marketing methods can often be hard for small businesses. What are some of the ways you've marketed Breastmates and what advice could you give to other small businesses for effective marketing?

Just taking out a small advert in a baby magazine is a really good way to advertise. You can do this more economically by doing every second edition rather than every monthly edition, though it is important to have repetitive adverts and not just one-offs. Actually, it took me a year or so before I could seem to justify that money on advertising! Sign-writing on my car, networking with other businesses, being involved in the community such as Parents Centre and Plunket etc. There are lots of ways that you can actually market your business without spending a lot of money. However approaching pregnant ladies in the street is not really recommended - although I think my mum still does!

How do you use social media to connect with your customers and how much time do you spend on social media each day?

I mainly use Facebook and spend about one hour a day, taking a few minutes to write a post and then answering/replying to comments throughout the day. I write posts that would be interesting to people at different ages/stages of their babies and their own lives. I try not to talk so much about me. Occasionally I will talk about a product and link to my website, but that's not the main focus. I think that's why people like my page. I don't always try and sell stuff to them, and so they read and interact with what I write.

What do you love most about running your own business?

That I am responsible for it - even if it is a monster I have created - I know it is due solely to me. I'm also really proud of the way my customers embrace my brand. There is a need for my business in the community, and I am here to provide and help mums.

What are your plans for the future, both professionally and personally?

Keep things ticking along - there are always ideas!

Any resources - on or offline - that you'd recommend to mums or women starting up their own small businesses?

I would highly recommend getting Xero which is a super easy way to do your accounting and reconciliations each day and GST returns at the click of a button. My program integrates with my website. The IRD also have consultants who are really friendly and can help you when setting up.

breastmates2Frances is also an artist and for the past three years has entered designs into the Brancott Estate World of WearableArt awards. On the left is her entry for this year's show, "Umbilic", inspired by the many stories of infertility, pregnancy loss, miscarriage, and stillbirth she has heard from friends and clients. Right: Her 2011 entry, "Self Analysis Version 2.0."

{Top image: Frances and her sons. All images courtesy of Frances McInnes}