Posted: Thu 17th May 2018
Jim Shaikh came up with the idea for his innovative self-warming baby bottle after his experience of the complication while feeding his premature son. The invention, Yoomi, is now stocked in major retailers including John Lewis, but with around 17m babies born every year, one of the most exciting markets for the business is China.
Shaikh explains the inspiring story behind his brand and valuable insights about how he is cracking the Chinese market.
How did you come with the idea for Yoomi and turn that idea into a business?
To be frank the original idea came from Farah, my wife. My eldest son Danial (now 14) was born six weeks early and Farah would spend all day trying to express enough milk for him as he was tiny and we were focused on building him up.
My job was to stumble down the stairs at various points through the night (we were feeding every three hours) and warm the refrigerated expressed milk. We would use hot water so this would take an age and I'd often sleep standing up and overheat the milk and then have to cool it down again.
Getting the right temperature was difficult, all the while both baby and mother screaming at me from upstairs. At the time I was running a product design company and so she asked why if I could design drones, I could not design something that would warm milk to the right temperature.
I mentioned the idea to the guys in the office and we used to kick around solution when work was a little slow in the business or last thing on a Friday.
One Friday afternoon we came up with a concept that I thought has potential and we got a little more serious and worked this into an engineering concept. I did some research and found that there was nothing like this on the market and the concept has the potential to be patentable. It took me four months of Sundays to work up a business plan
What start-up challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?
Getting funding was the first. Product development and manufacture takes capital and so I had to develop a business plan that was investable. It took a year of pitches to unlock my first investment of Â£140,000 that was match funded by government grants. This enabled us to develop our initial working prototype that lead to more funding. We bootstrapped our way with multiple funding rounds each based on progress from the last round.
The next challenge was getting distribution with a new product. I worked hard to get in front of the buyer at John Lewis who liked the idea and then helped us to develop it further. Once again I'd go back at milestones and show progress so when the product was ready John Lewis was a natural initial starting point.
Moving from prototype to volume manufacture was also a challenge. I wanted to manufacture in the UK but I could not get a UK manufacturer to take us seriously. So in the end I jumped on a plane and travelled to China to visit factories.
The outlook was much more welcoming and I found factories that were willing to take us on and develop a product at initially low volumes. We have moved factories a number of times as we have grown and maintaining good quality supply is a constant focus for the business.
Developing the technology from a bench design to a product was a major challenge both in terms of design and volume manufacture.
But the hardest challenge has been maintaining a presence in the market with truly innovative product as the larger multinational brands in our sector guard their shelf-space jealously and have the marketing budgets to drive us off the shelves. This a challenge today and we are still challenged in promoting awareness of the our product and brand. Although we receive really positive feedback once parents use the product.
Why did you decide to export to China?
We would receive a significant level of interest from Chinese companies, but at the beginning we were still working on refining our product and manufacturing process. But the size of the market drew us in.
There are approximately 800,00 babies born in the UK annually and over 17m in China. Not all parents in China can afford or need our product but even a small market share would lead to significant sales. Also British products are trusted in China especially in the nursery sector so there is a demand for innovative British design.
![Yoomi 2](https://enterprisenation.blob.core.windows.net/enterprisenation/system/images/W1siZiIsIjIwMTYvMTAvMTcvMjMvMzYvNTkvNjQ0L1lvb21pXzIucG5nIl0sWyJwIiwidGh1bWIiLCIyMjV4MjU1XHUwMDNFIl0sWyJwIiwic3RyaXAiXV0/Yoomi 2.png "Yoomi 2")What research did you go before exporting to China and how did you find a distributor?
We visited China a number of times in order to form a better understanding of the market and also to meet with potential distributors. China is a market in which relationships are important and so it is key to meet the people and the companies with whom you may work.
We attended a number of UKTI seminars on China and also met with potential Chinese partners at international trade shows.
Finally we attended trade shows in China. Given the innovation in our product, we were often approached by Chinese companies. We developed a strategy for China and then filtered the interest based on this strategy to find companies who were a match.
This process is still ongoing as we have had to adjust our strategy once we had some experience of the Chinese market. So this is still a work in progress
How do you manage relationships in China?
As the CEO of our business I manage the relationships personally which shows the importance that we place on the market. This takes a significant amount of time and focus.
I spend at least two hours every morning working with our Chinese partner via email, Skype, text and Wechat; sometimes all at the same time.
The pace of business is much faster in China. It is expected that messages are replied to virtually instantly, leaving replies one or two days means that you will miss business.
What tips would you offer to other entrepreneurs thinking about exporting to China?
Do your market research first. The market is large but crowded and also moves very quickly. You will need a local Chinese partner or partners, most business is still conducted in Chinese so you need to have a partner in-country.
Start small and test the market with your product, possibly through cross-border e-commerce or online domestically. It is a virtual 100% certainty that you will have to localise your product to get the best success so view your initial sales as market research to refine your product offering for the local market. Give the market a significant level of attention and resources as this is required for success.
Finally, you learn in China by doing and making mistakes, just as long as you learn from them (and they are not critical!)