You’ve just appointed the ex-MD of Moonpig (Iain Martin) as chairman of the business. How does it feel to attract someone of his calibre?
Starting a business straight out of university, Jonny and I always knew we would need to surround ourselves with great people that could bring amazing experience to the table. We’ve been lucky enough to work with real industry heavyweights like Lord David Alliance and our first Chairman Jim Martin – former chief executive of N Brown Group.
After we got our funding in January this year, we knew we needed to bring someone in that could help us grow quickly. We actually hand picked Iain because of the work he had done with Moonpig – making the business a household name and growing it from £1.8 million to £60 million in less than 10 years.
We managed to get an introduction through a mutual contact, but when we met the chemistry was amazing. That is what actually makes this relationship exciting, as well as the kudos that comes with impressing someone like Iain enough to sign on the dotted line.
My 1st Years attracted worldwide attention because of the Royal family link. Does this add pressure to your job?
There is definitely pressure in the immediate aftermath of some of those stories. When Prince George wore our bathrobe when he met President Obama, not only did we have to work tirelessly to make sure everyone paid attention the robe rather than the other clothes he was wearing, we then had to deal with a surge in orders.
We went from selling around 25-30 units of the robe each week, to about 350-400 per week.
It terms of pressure on the job, I’d say it only creates positive pressure. It keeps us on our creative toes, looking for that next great product or moment.
With the Duchess of Cambridge recently confirming her third pregnancy, how do you think this will impact sales for My 1st Years?
The Duke and Duchess and their children have a huge amount of pulling power. Since Prince George was photographed in our robe, we have sold 30,000 units – in two years.
We do have a few tricks up our sleeve to help the Royal couple of the nation celebrate when the newest Cambridge arrives – but we are also focusing on expanding our marketing efforts beyond the celebrity endorsements we have focused on previously. That’s part of the reason we brought Iain on board, to help guide us as we venture into the unknown world of Above The Line marketing.
Tell us a bit about your role as co-founder of My 1st Years.
I started the business with my mate Jonny who I’ve known since I was four. We have a really good yin and yang relationship. I enjoy the people side of the business, and getting the product out into the market, Jonny is great with the numbers and the operations.
For me, that means I focus a lot of the celebrity endorsement and marketing, as well as as brokering retail relationships like the ones we have with Notonthehighstreet, Harrods, Selfridges, John Lewis and Next. Now that we’re growing, Jonny and I need to focus on hiring for some key roles so we can leave the day-to-day decisions in their respective areas to those new people, and focus more on growing the business.
Being an online retailer, do you think your competitors and other online-only retail names are immune to challenges on the high street?
I don’t think any retail is ever immune to challenge and macroeconomic factors. The advantage you have when you’re online is that you don’t have the overheads of premium real estate and store staff, and it’s a bit easier to quickly react to changes in the market.
Take merchandising as an example, it’s a lot easier to rearrange your home page based on best performing items, or even to personalise it for specific customers. For us specifically, we’re lucky in the sense that children are a priority for spending, and we have purposefully made our products affordable and high quality.
There is no element of exclusivity, we want all people to be able to buy something special for that special little one in their lives.
How is My 1st Years addressing some of the challenges facing the UK retail industry as a whole?
Customer experience is becoming increasingly important, and it is a big focus for us in the immediate future. We have always taken an immense amount of pride in the presentation and packaging of our products, as well as the service we provide to our customers.
Going forward, we’re keen to offer more delivery options to customers, and make next day delivery available. This can be quite difficult when you’re dealing with personalised items, but that is an area where Iain has a lot of experience. Differentiating the service between parents purchasing items for their children and customers buying gifts for friends is also something we’re considering.
What would you say is the biggest risk for the retail sector, given the current climate?
We’re an ecommerce company so we are international by nature. Our ambitions are global and I think that’s the same for the vast majority of entrepreneurs, particularly in technology business.
There will inevitably be challenges following Brexit – access to talent for example – but our focus is not just on Europe, and we don’t want to let this decision hold us back. Nobody else should either.
Tell us a bit about yourself and your background before My 1st Years
There’s not much to tell really. I started the business with Jonny straight out of university. We had worked on a couple of projects together while studying for our degrees, and it opened up our eyes to the size of the gifting market, and baby products. We didn’t actually do anything about it until later though – when we were looking for a present for a friend’s baby.
We were real Nike ID geeks, so wanted to get a pair of personalised booties – but there were none to be found. We saw a gap and went about filling it. It wasn’t easy though – we were told that it would be almost impossible to adapt the personalisation technologies and equipment for super small shoes and clothes. We never were very good at taking no for an answer.
What got you into the retail sector in the first place?
Really it was just about spotting an opportunity and going for it. We didn’t set out to get into retail – although neither of us would swap our job for anything else now.
You started My 1st Years straight out of university. How have you managed to learn the skills of running a business?
Surrounding ourselves with great people. We’ve always been pretty aware of what the skills or experience we lack, and we’ve worked hard to find the right people to help us at the right stage.
Lord David Alliance actually fell into our paths when his niece interned for us, but he was exactly what we needed. He invested money to help us scale, but he also helped us make connections in the industry. He introduced us to our first chairman that taught us all the basics of running a retail business, including things like customer acquisition, repeat purchases, building loyalty etc.
Our investor Beringea has worked with a number of ecommerce companies so has lots of expertise to offer, and now Iain. We have learned from the people around us.
When you look back on how far My 1st Years has come, what are your key highlights?
The time I managed to get onto the friends and family list to deliver a gift for David Cameron’s baby at Number 10 was pretty special, particularly since I forgot to put Jonny on the list and had to leave him at the gates of Downing Street.
Seeing that photo of Prince George with President Obama was a real moment of pride, too.
Right now, I’m looking forward to all the highlights that I know are round the corner for us.
What is the most challenging aspect of your job?
Time management is the most challenging aspect by a long way. I’m constantly spinning so many plates and it only gets more intense as we grow.
What’s really exciting about My 1st Years right now is that we’re getting to a stage where we can bring in senior people to manage specific areas so Jonny and I can step back and focus more on the growth of the business. That means there won’t be quite so many spinning plates, but I can’t imagine it being any less intense.
And the most rewarding?
Seeing and speaking to happy customers. It is the best feeling in the world knowing how many children we’re reaching and how many happy customers we have.
Can you talk about any projects that you’re working on?
We’ve recently launched a exclusive line with new mum Binky Felstead from Made in Chelsea. The collection is called With Love From Binky and is an ode to her love for cosy nights in – a sleepwear range with pyjamas, sleepsuits, comforters and bibs.
There are different prints for boys and girls, and all items can be personalised. The collection was launched earlier this month and we’ve already had a fantastic response. It’s been great to work with Binky and see her put her excitement for this new chapter in her life into a new collection for us – we’re really grateful for all the hard work she has put in.
What advice would you give someone who is considering embarking on a career in retail?
We went into retail with a really great idea and a passion for what we were doing. We used that passion to drive us right from the beginning – not only in our determination to adapt existing technologies to be suitable for children’s products, but also in helping us to get other people involved that had the knowledge, connections and experience in retail industry that we just hadn’t had the chance to develop.
All of these things are essential, but you don’t have to have them all yourself – I would just say channel your passion and be bold.