Dannielle Michaels and Monique Filer Founders of b.box for kids are best friends who started their business in 2007 with their first product, a diaper wallet. Neither of the duo had previous baby industry experience, both with corporate backgrounds of respectively Marketing and Finance. They saw a problem, which arose when Dannielle was struggling to change her 3 week old baby in the confines of an airplane bathroom, and set about solving it.
Ten years on, and they have built a successful, multi million dollar business that sells a range of well loved products, into 22 countries. Their aspiration is to continue to grow their business, based on their ethos of design, functionality and aesthetic, with most of their revenue now generating from overseas customers. In Australia, you can find their range online or at over 750 retail stores. They won the 2016 Telstra Victorian Small Business of the Year and were 2016 Ausmumpreneurs of the Year. They were also awarded Australian Government’s 2015 Australian Small Business Exporter of the Year, and the Governor of Victoria 2015 Award for Women in International Business.
How has launching a business in the age of digital disruption shaped your company and its culture?
From the outset, our company has been focused on building positive and sustainable relationships with our retailers, international distributors and of course the end consumer. We are all about redefining everyday baby essentials and having that personal connection with our customers, so we have focus groups with parents to understand their needs and product expectations. We have agents on the ground to strengthen our retailer relationships and ensure our wholesale channels understand our product USPs and that the brand is front of mind.
For us, technology is used as an enabler to strengthening these relationships. We work closely with our collective partners to increase our following and brand connection on social media, especially Facebook and Instagram. These platforms enable small business to reach their target audience in a targeted and dynamic way and to actively engage with parents around the world. We also use digital tools, such as Skype, LinkedIn and We Chat in China to enhance business communications in real-time. And of course our web site as with all brands, reflects our brand personality and culture and provides consumers with an easy shopping experience.
From a HQ perspective, having the right systems and processes in place ensures greater efficiencies and ROI. Operating a business in the age of digital disruption is challenging and exciting. It provides opportunities for greater connectivity, reach and market penetration that when harnessed and planned for can help you capitalise on business opportunities and achieve sustainable growth faster and smarter. Cloud based solutions, are critical. But at the end of the day, it’s our people, products and partnerships that make our business unique.
You export to around 20 countries. Have you evolved your products to meet cultural needs?
We always listen to feedback, especially from our distributors in key markets. They know their market, the consumers likes and dislikes and are an invaluable source of cultural and consumer behaviour market intelligence. We harness this knowledge to shape our product mix and to also manage expectations from a sales perspective. We recognise that not all products, designs or colours will resonate with all markets.
We’ve also developed products exclusively for our key markets, that our partners have asked for. By working with them and delivering the product mix and unique offering, they can continue to grow the brand and achieve strong market growth. In China, we are developing an exclusive design and colour for Chinese New Year, providing our distributor with something tailored to their market. Customers seek out international brands, but they also like when those favourite international brands embrace and reflect their culture.
How did you decide which countries to export to and what strategies did you implement to manage those export relationships?
Often the opportunities have come to us and present a region that may not have been on our radar. For instance our South Korean distributor was introduced to us through Austrade. This was not a market we were focused on at the time, but has become one of our strongest export markets. South Africa originally came about through a Twitter enquiry. So being open and flexible is key. Having said that, we have learnt the importance of maintaining focus. When we do our annual international sales planning and strategy, we identify the key markets for the coming year that we want to convert. We research the market to understand the opportunity, sales channels, population and socio economic trends. Then we leverage our trade fair contacts and government trade network connections to help us identify and engage with potential distributors. There are a number of government departments whose mission is to help SMEs to export.
To determine if the distributor is going to be a good fit for the brand, we initially ask them to complete an expression of interest questionnaire that helps us better understand their business, reach and current brands they work with. We then have a number of Skype calls and discussions. We also have a contract we undertake that helps define the relationship and our expectations. But for the most part, it comes down to instinct. Does this person or company feel right for b.box? Do we think they understand our brand personality and will embrace and communicate this to their region? Are they excited and passionate? Do they have the financial resources to launch the brand and invest in its growth? Some of our most successful partnerships haven’t necessarily made sense on paper, but we had a gut feel that they’d make it a success.
We hold regular Skype calls with our key distributors and encourage them to leverage and then tailor our marketing collateral to ensure global brand consistency and recognition. We also attend key trade fairs around the world, to showcase our range and promote the brand to potential distributors and to support our existing distributors in their local markets.
How has customer feedback and engagement helped grow the business?
Our customer feedback is essential to our business, both retail and consumer. Their feedback helps shape our product development and new product pipeline.
Our b.box customer base is so loyal. We often find at consumer shows mums come up with friends and say “this is the sippy cup or bib I was telling you about”. Mums are a powerful network in and of themselves. When deciding on what product to buy, most mums will ask other mums for their advice. Social media, particularly Facebook and Instagram are strong channels for mums; for sharing ideas, parenting tips, support and product suggestions. By engaging with our target audience on these platforms and nurturing our influencers and customer base, we continue to grow our brand presence and following, which in turn leads to increased revenue.
What has been your greatest challenge?
Time and people. There are never enough hours in the day. In the early days we did everything: from product development to marketing, sales, social media, accounts payable and receivable, quality checking, order pick and packing, freight and logistics, managing China supply chain, media and finance. You name it, we did it. Work life balance was often an enigma. Especially as we had small kids. Now we have an incredible team of people that have taken over many of those roles. And I should say by being focused, are doing a much better job than we were doing. But we still never seem to have enough time in the day.
Managing people is always challenging – different personalities, working styles, expectations and opinions. And for us, we had a massive learning curve from transitioning from being entrepreneurs to business leaders. While we still have our “doing” roles in the business, most of our time in the office is now spent in meetings. So we often find ourselves doing our specific roles after hours. But by supporting and trusting each other, we are making smarter choices in terms of who does what. We can’t both do everything and be everywhere. The challenge however is to ensure we are both across everything and up to date on the different facets of the business. Communication is the key. And spending time together away from the office. We actually make our best decisions when we’re travelling together.
What are you most proud of?
We’re so proud of the company we have created and the team we have built. We all share a common passion and commitment and we have fun. We love what we do and it shows in our products, people and overall brand experience. We’ve stayed true to who we are. We still get the same buzz today as we did in the early days, when we see kids using our products. Our kids get excited too. They play spot the b.box when we’re in a shopping centre or a restaurant or airport. Their excitement and pride is infectious.
What’s one piece of advice for future female leaders?
Trust your instincts and be yourself. You are your greatest asset!