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Prince George and Barack Obama made My 1st Years’ founders realise it was time to scale up

Written by Zen Terrelonge on Wednesday, 24 July 2019. Posted in Scaling up, Interviews

An ability to rub shoulders with A-listers has been key for My 1st Years’ success, as the personalised baby gift brand can count royalty, politicians and the Kardashian clan among its customers

Prince George and Barack Obama made My 1st Years’ founders realise it was time to scale up

You might assume anyone mentioning personalised babywear is a parent with one, maybe two, children. However, My 1st Years was actually conceived by two childless students doing a randomly assigned routine school assignment. “We had a project to do in the baby and children’s industry and the stats we saw were just huge – 800,000 babies born a year in the UK and 12 to 15 gifts bought for every baby,” says My 1st Years co-founder Daniel Price. Reflecting on his time studying business at Leeds Beckett University with long-time mate turned co-founder Jonny Sitton, he reveals the juicy numbers they discovered in 2008 played a huge role in the launch of their enterprise. “We just put the two together and thought ‘Hold on, that’s a huge stat’ and personalisation is [massive too],” Price continues. With a gift to buy for a friend’s newborn child and nothing fitting the bill, they realised how lucrative personalisation could be.

He’d always been determined to push into entrepreneurship, taking after his enterprising father. “I would look at my dad – at the time, this was when I was nine, ten, 11, 12 – running his own business,” says Price. “There was a lot of entrepreneurial flair about him and it was just a couple of ideas that almost came off and were almost something big.” His father passed away when Price was 13 but by then the entrepreneurial itch had already gotten hold of him. “Whether it was at school, selling food and drinks to the kids in the playground, whatever it was, I knew I had that entrepreneurial bug inside of me and that drives me to make the family proud,” Price adds. 

Speaking of family, Price and Sitton could well be brothers since they’ve been in each other’s lives since childhood. “We’d been at school together since we were four,” reveals Price. “We went [together] from primary school, secondary school, university – all the way through.” Despite spending so much time with one another, their traits haven’t rubbed off and they remain individuals, which has been useful in getting the business established. “What we both realised is that we were polar opposites, brought different things [to the table] and I guess we really helped each other in the areas the other wasn’t so strong at,” says Price.

After their studies and the groundbreaking numbers they’d crunched, Price and Sitton decided to monetise their findings. “We found a supplier online that we really liked in the Far East, started speaking and just [asked them] to believe in our growth story,” says Price. 

It wasn’t a seamless process though. “We potentially became a bit of a nightmare to start with in terms of volume that we could order because we couldn’t afford it,” he admits. The supplier proved to be invaluable though and massively supportive. Eventually, the My 1st Years founders purchased their own equipment. “We bought a machine and we reengineered the machinery, actually from day one, to be able to get a ready-made baby shoe,” says Price. “A tiny, tiny thing onto this machine – before it couldn’t do that.”

Possessing very little savings between them to kick off with, seed funding was secured from family and friends before outside investment was sealed 18 months into running the company. Still, money was the main issue for the young pair. “I think [the hardest thing] was cash, cash that we didn’t have, and just defining what success actually meant,” says Price. “Success at stage one was getting the website ready and then [getting] funding.” 

The next stage of success was achieving some decent revenue and retail clients. The other minor issue was the fact that two young men were entering such a marketplace they had no obvious ties to. “I think people just laughed and made a joke out of it – two guys going in with no kids or experience,” he recalls, adding they respected the idea at the same time. “We would turn up to the baby shows where it was 98% women and we would get a lot of looks when we first started – and questions. Because we were focusing on the gifting element anyway, it was less strange and I think people just went with it because it was our passion.”

Missing the personal experience to draw upon in terms of product options, Price and Sitton went down what he calls the “mummy and me” route. “[We went with] the mum and baby type of concept, where the mum would put baby in what she was wearing fashion-wise,” Price explains. “I think we just looked in the market at what those trendy items were and based it on that really – that was how we first started, especially in the shoes category.”

As the business began growing, there were some serious sales spikes starting to kick off. While the likes of Mother’s Day and Father’s Day can bring about upticks in sales, the festive season is when all hands on deck are really required. “The second week of November through to the third week of December – I mean, that’s just a different business in terms of scale and volume because they’ve got double the reason to buy,” says Price.

With at least five times more sales around the latter part of the year as the Christmas craze takes hold of consumers, things can get much more labour-intensive for anyone in personalisation. But where My 1st Years is concerned, it was important to ensure they were able to fulfil the demands of their customers, which meant rethinking the production strategy. “About three or four years ago we developed our own IT, which is basically fully automating our personalisation,” says Price. “When someone puts a name, say ‘Daniel’, on a blanket, there’s no human input in that now. We’ve automated every single personalisation, so that allows us to scale massively – we can do between 15,000 and 20,000 items in a day. So that’s a massive, massive help and it’s a big edge over other companies in personalisation.” Prior to the introduction of automation, the business was pretty much maxed out at 1,000 to 1,500 orders a day, which demonstrates just how powerful adding tech has been for the company.

Interestingly it was actually an unlikely royal presidential collaboration that gave My 1st Years a real moment in the spotlight, pushing Price and Sitton to recognise the need to evolve the platform. “We had Prince George wearing our dressing gown when he met [president Barack] Obama and then we had massive press coverage come in from that,” recalls Price. The future king and then-leader of America were pictured side-by-side in a moment that went viral as 1,800 articles were written on the meeting within 48 hours. “That was the point where we realised [we had] to really scale this, especially internationally – that then got us in the right frame of mind to develop this system,” he adds.

Prince George wasn’t the only one in the public eye to receive goodies from My 1st Years – it actually became something of a strategy for Price. “I would be gifting every celebrity or trying to get in there with them,” he says. One such example saw him gifting Dannii Minogue a blanket that said “Mummy’s got the X Factor” during an interval when he was in the audience. Recalling another occasion, Price says: “My mum phoned me, telling me Heart Radio was looking for a gift for Sir Elton John’s baby, so I held on the line at Heart Radio. At Downing Street, [I got access] saying I was a family friend of the Camerons and would drop off a gift when they had a baby.” The present for the former prime minister’s sprog consisted of a gift hamper.

Price always found himself looking for a different angle and each celebrity he connected the brand with resulted in press coverage and the business levelling up. “The other really good one was in Los Angeles when I bumped into Kris Jenner at a restaurant and went straight over to her, introduced myself and kind of interrupted her lunch,” reveals Price. He showed the mother of the Kardashians his phone and what the business did and explained he wanted to send Kim and Kanye West some shoes for their little one. “I just asked her if she could help me out and she did,” he shrugs. “She became a good contact from then, so that was amazing.”

With big name personalities familiar with My 1st Years, another job for the company is ensuring it also forges corporate partnerships that allow it to secure a tangible presence beyond online. “We’re in Selfridges and Harrods stores and we’re looking at how we can grow those out,” says Price. “They’re brilliant because we actually have a machine in the stores so you see the website experience coming to life – the theatrical experience. And it means people in London, Manchester and Birmingham can all access the brand and the products and see it first-hand.” Elsewhere the baby business also has a deal with British Airways, which it’s linked up with to rebrand the airline’s children’s areas in business and first class lounges to create My 1st Years Kids Zones. Within these spaces, youngsters will have access to toys and products to entertain themselves with before taking off.

So much has been accomplished by the business already, so looking ahead at the future, what does My 1st Years have planned as it continues to mature? “We started eight and a half years ago now,” says Price. “The business [has] gone from early startup days to growing to now it’s at the growth mindset stage.” Although he still considers the business small, Price notes that the personalisation market has gotten bigger and that’s allowed the business to “kind of own that personalisation space.” Concluding, he adds: “[We want to be] a household name within that baby and children’s market and I think being the number one for customer experience, number one for personalisation but to a global scale – to do what we’ve done in the UK but worldwide.” 

About the Author

Zen Terrelonge

Zen Terrelonge

As editor, Terrelonge can be found on the hunt for all things startup and scaleup – that's when he's not busy talking babies via DADult Life. Whether it's health or hospitality, food or philanthropy, tech or travel, he'll be seeking out the most interesting entrepreneurial developments to run in the magazine and online.

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