Cushie Tushies founder Michelle Fowler with business partner Catherine Langman and Catherine's daughter Isobel. Photo: Ben Rushton
When Michelle Fowler's first son was born seven years ago, the new mother had made up her mind she wanted to use modern cloth nappies rather than adding to landfill by throwing away soiled disposable nappies well into toddlerhood.
But looking at the basic folded-cloth nappies snapped together by stretchy plastic available at the time, the former computer games designer couldn't warm to any of them, and decided to make her own.
Drafting them in the shape of disposables with funky colours and patterns, and using Velcro and fabrics such as hemp, bamboo and microfleece, she got going on her sewing machine.
Word spread, and she was soon making them for family and friends, including a fellow new mother she had met through an online pregnancy forum, Catherine Langman. Today she is Fowler's business partner in what has become a growing $600,000-a-year business, Cushie Tushies. Langman, a former advertising account manager, joined Ms Fowler in 2007, working out a business plan, taking on the marketing and investing some of her own money to help turn the start-up into a viable enterprise with a professional website and branding.
It was a steep learning curve for the two: as Fowler kept sewing some 60 nappies a week in her home, they struggled to find a factory that would mass-produce their nappies. Every Australian textile factory they contacted knocked them back, saying the product was too fiddly and costly to make. With the help of an agent, the two women eventually found a small factory near Shanghai that took on their first 1000-piece order.
''The first trip over there was a little bit of an emotional thing, seeing these lovely ladies sitting there with piles of our fabric and churning out nappies with our brand name on them,'' says Langman. But there was also ''a bit of a culture shock'' doing business in China, taking samples there to explain how the nappies should be made and negotiating over drinks and dinner.
Then just as the pair was about to secure money to fund expansion, the global financial crisis hit and banks that had previously been supportive went cold. ''All of a sudden the bankers thought, 'a modern cloth nappy, what is that?' '' Langman recalls.
Persuading them their product had caught the zeitgeist just as mothers were increasingly aware of environmental and health concerns took a ''stressful'' six months, she says. ''We had all this demand from customers but needed to sort out the finance to get production going.''
Word of their modern cloth nappies had been spreading through mummy boards and pregnancy forums on the internet. In 2009, the pair also started marketing their business at baby expos and through parenting publications. Soon, they had to shift from Fowler's double-garage to a small warehouse on the Gold Coast and get help packing orders to keep up with demand.
Today, Fowler and Langman - who have four staff - sell 2000 nappies a month, about half of those online and the rest through retailers such as nursery shops and pharmacies.
While the price of $35.95 apiece may seem steep upfront, Langman argues that parents will spend less than they would on disposable nappies.
Passion with a plan
Catherine Langman has this advice for other mothers wanting to start a business: ''You really need to have thought out what your business is going to be. And you need to be passionate about it.
''A lot of mums think it would be easy to do an online shop. But every business needs to be extremely well planned. You can't just go by the seat of your pants. You have to have your business plan done properly, and make sure you have professional advice from an accountant. If you're talking to banks, you need to provide [detailed] information to them.''