How the bottom line led to big success
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 available at the time, the former computer games designer couldn't warm to any of them - so she 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 Ms Fowler's business partner in what has become a $600,000-a-year business, Cushie Tushies.
Ms 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.
It was a steep learning curve for the two: as Ms 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 turned them down, 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.
Then there was the challenge of securing money to fund their expansion. Banks had originally been supportive, but the global financial crisis hit before the paperwork was completed. ''All of a sudden the bankers thought, 'a modern cloth nappy, what is that?' '' Ms Langman recalls.
Trying to convince them their product was hitting 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 the production going.''
The popularity of their modern cloth nappies had been growing by word of mouth. Soon, they had to shift from Ms Fowler's double garage to a small warehouse on the Gold Coast and get help packing orders to keep up with demand.
Today the pair - who have four staff and a dozen commissioned-based sales representatives around Australia - sell some 2000 nappies a month, about half of those online, and the rest through retailers.
While the price of $35.95 apiece may seem steep, she argues parents would save money compared with buying disposable nappies well into toddlerhood.
As their own children are growing older, the two mothers want to expand beyond the pure baby market. They have just launched maternity products including breast-feeding pads, and plan to start a retail clothing brand next year. They're also looking at international opportunities. They plan to enter the New Zealand market next month.
Ms Fowler's nappy-sewing days seem a distant memory. ''It has definitely grown into a much bigger company than we anticipated when we set out,'' Ms Langman says.