5 growth lessons from Ubuntu Baba’s Shannon McLaughlin

If you want to grow a great business, don’t focus on scale - treat every customer as if they were your only customer.

Shannon McLaughlin’s entrepreneurial journey has been gutsy and organic. From being a freelance web designer with her newborn son strapped to her body so she could keep working, to an entrepreneur willing to publicly take on one of the biggest brands in South Africa to protect her business, Shannon doesn’t shy away from a challenge.

Today, the story of Ubuntu Baba isn’t only a home-grown entrepreneurial story of grit and determination - it’s used as a case study for matric pupils and studied in Intellectual Property courses in universities across the country.

This is Shannon’s story - and the incredible lessons she’s learnt along the way. 

1. If you have a problem that needs solving, there’s probably a market for it

It was 2014, I was a freelance web designer with great clients, and I was pregnant. The realities of freelancing are that you can never really stop working and having a baby was a bit of a shock to the system. I hadn’t realised how much he would need me, day and night, and I wasn’t coping. And then I discovered babywearing. I was given a stretchy wrap and the instant I tied him to my body, he just settled and fell asleep. It was a revelation. I had to work standing up or sitting on a bar stool, but he was sleeping, and I was working, and my life changed.

The problem was that he very quickly outgrew the wrap, and I couldn’t find anything that didn’t look like I was going on a hike. I even ended up importing a carrier. I couldn’t find anything available locally that was comfy, good quality and looked good - so, I decided to make my own. My father’s business manufactures backpacks and hiking gear and so he had all the materials I needed, and I started designing what I thought a baby carrier should be - especially for babies that were getting bigger. 

I initially went to my dad with the idea to design a carrier for myself, with the intention that I would use this carrier for the months to come and continue my journey as a web designer, but as we got designing, I saw the potential to do more, and my entrepreneurial brain got on board.

The lesson: Every great business is problem-led. Fall in love with a problem, develop a solution and figure out how you will reach your target market, and you have the ingredients for a start-up. Just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that ‘if you build it, they will come’ without ensuring you have a problem worth solving.

2. A product in the market is worth two (or 200) on the shelf

Once I was happy with my design, I made 12 and gave them to friends and maternity groups. They could have them for free, and in exchange I was asking for a testimonial and constructive feedback. The key was that I was designing for two bodies - mom and baby - and the more feedback I received, the better the product became. But it also became an incredible marketing exercise.

Moms were going to Pick n Pay or their local grocers wearing the carrier and they were being asked where they’d bought my carrier. This was before babywearing became more mainstream and you could find great carriers in stores like Kids Emporium, so the timing worked well for me.

By getting the carrier out into the market, I had confirmed that I had a product moms needed, and more importantly, wanted. 

Being a web designer, it took me one day to get a basic website up with credit card payment options. To market the Ubuntu Baba carrier, I created a Facebook post every day, and every few days I’d spend R50 boosting a post. It was 2015, so you could invest a small amount of money and the algorithms would show it to a ton of people, which meant digital marketing worked well, even though at the time I didn’t know a huge amount about it. I’ve always had a keen interest in all types of marketing, and I spent time learning about Facebook’s algorithms. I’ve always upskilled myself and am on a continuous learning journey.

The lesson: Lean Start-up Methodology has evangelised the Minimum Viable Product (MVP), which is basically the quickest product you can take to market. The idea isn’t to perfect your product during its initial design phase, but rather to get it into real customer hands as soon as possible so that they can offer you feedback, and you can tweak and perfect your offering.

3. Be obsessive about customer service

From the beginning, we were extremely customer-centric. I visited breastfeeding clinics and maternity groups - anywhere that I could meet moms with newborns - and would offer a ‘try before you buy’ service. If someone liked the carrier, they would order one and then we would make it. Growth was organic and I didn’t need upfront capital because we manufactured as carriers were ordered.

We’ve also always paid attention to how our customers engage with our brand. For example, we noticed that a group of friends would often club together to buy an Ubuntu Baba carrier for a pregnant friend as a baby shower gift, so we added ‘Gifting’ as a menu item on our website that offered gift wrapping and vouchers. We also offer free online Zoom consultations from our certified babywearing educator who teaches our clients how to use their Ubuntu Baba carriers. Pre-Covid we had a physical store where we offered free babywearing consultations, but we’ve needed to adapt to the virtual world.

We’ve also used real people - real moms and dads with their children in their carriers - for our marketing material, which we believe adds an extra level of trust and transparency to our product.

What I’ve found over the past six and a half years is that when you truly put customer service first, it’s reciprocal. When we published a blog post detailing how Woolworths had shamelessly copied the complete design and concept of our baby carrier and was selling it for a third of the price, we had the most incredible support from loyal customers rallying to our aid. 

After consulting with our attorneys, we decided to go the PR route because we had customers who thought Woolworths was carrying our product at a reduced price and they were upset that we were charging more through our website. Ubuntu Baba is a quality, locally made, organic, hemp product with a life-time guarantee. It’s more expensive because of all of those things, and we knew we needed to educate the market and get our message out there.

Within hours we had encouraging posts and incredible referrals on all our social media channels. We had customers buying the carrier to save as a gift for someone, just to show their support.

When you treat every customer as if they are your only customer, you really do create loyal fans.

Transparency is key though. Following the pandemic, our fabric price increased by a third. We did the numbers from every angle and knew that unless we put our prices up, we couldn’t make our margins, which would eventually put us out of business, and so, we did raise our prices, but we also explained why. Again, the support and comments were amazing, with customers sharing how they’d brought three kids up in the same carrier and that it was worth every cent and more.

The lesson: People do business with people, and customers are loyal to brands that see them as people. When you put service and customers first, you are giving your customers a reason to support your brand over and above your product. As new products and businesses enter the market, it’s this loyalty that keeps people coming back to you.

4. Invest in the right people

This is as true for start-ups as it is for growing businesses. In my case, it was 18 months before I hired my first employee. At the time I was still running my freelancing business full time and working on Ubuntu Baba and I was burning the candle at both ends.

The business wasn’t making enough to pay a full salary though, and so I took out a loan for R100 000 which I used to hire an admin assistant and to pay for a professional photo shoot (still using real parents though).

The hire changed my life but it also changed the business. Until that point I was doing everything, from emails and social media to packing boxes and shipping product - and I was stretched thin. 

Bringing someone on board (a friend who was a mother with a six-month old baby and very happy working half day, which suited us both) meant that I could focus on the things I really enjoyed, which included marketing and social media, while the admin side of the business, including orders, customer service, shipping and logistics, were taken care of. Systems and processes were put in place and suddenly we could reach more people and get orders out faster, which naturally led to growth. I needed to take a risk to do it, but it paid off. I couldn’t grow the business any further on my own.

Since then, we have brought incredible, passionate people on board who really understand our product and what we stand for. 

The lesson: You can’t deliver obsessive customer service if you don’t have the right people on board who believe in the company’s purpose and want to deliver exceptional service. Make sure your values are aligned and hire carefully. The right people can make or break a business. 

5. Don’t be obsessed with scaling. Build a business you love instead

I’ve always found it fascinating how much business owners and the media are obsessed with scaling a business. I believe that if you build too fast you’ll break, but also that you can’t focus on your customer if you’re only looking at your bottom line and profits. Businesses need to make money, of course, or they can’t survive (and yes, grow), but I prefer to grow at a pace that allows us to lay deep roots, because that’s what makes small, niche businesses sustainable and able to compete against big brands. 

We know who our customer is and what they care about really, really well. We speak to them every day. Over the years, we’ve directly engaged with over 10 000 customers. There are personalised touch-points at every step of our customer journey. Big brands very rarely manage to do that. They struggle to personalise things in the same way we can. That gives small businesses a lot of power, but not if you’re only focused on how quickly you can grow. Yes, growth is part of building a business. We’ve expanded into working with retail brands that stock our product - that’s a new revenue stream.

I also don’t judge success on our profit margins. This is a cyclical business. When sales are slower, we invest time into our systems, processes, customer service and innovations. Our profits might be done in those cycles, but we put things in place that we can leverage when sales are up. That’s how you grow a business - through thoughtful investments into long-term goals.

The lesson: Differentiators come down to doing something that the next brand can’t (or won’t) do. That means you need to be willing to do the hard stuff - the stuff that doesn’t scale. If you’re only focused on growth, you’ll be looking for the fastest way to get there, and you’ll miss all the opportunities to add real value to your customers. Think of growth as long term, and you’ll naturally find the traction to grow a strong, sustainable business.
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