The Newcastle nappy business gone global
Accidents happen, which is how the itti bitti nappy co started and how it became a global business. When founder Sue McLachlan had her daughter in 2005, she had a twofold problem: the expense of buying disposable nappies and the heft of existing cloth versions. Putting into practice the skills she acquired as an aspiring fashion designer, she designed and sewed a slim-fit cloth nappy to fit her tiny baby daughter, taking design cues from underwear and swimwear over bulky disposable nappies.
That’s where it might have ended, had McLachlan kept it to herself. “I started it as a hobby, making a few things for a few people so I could fund my own buying of fabric. I never intended it to be a business,” she says.
McLachlan received so many requests she found it simpler to put up a website to inform people when she had made some, and to make it easier for them to buy from her. Within three months, everything she made sold out immediately. “Within 10 seconds of listing it on the website,” she recalls. “Every time I’d make more they’d sell out straight away. That went on for maybe six months.”
McLachlan started outsourcing parts of the work, such as fabric cutting, and enlisted a friend’s mother to help her sew. “From there I thought of what would happen if I made it fully outsourced. I got a small loan off a family member to buy fabric and then recruited a couple of sewers and went from selling 10-to-20 nappies a week to selling 100 in a week—and even those would still sell out.”
At that point McLachlan was confident the small nappies could sell in a big way, so she sold her house to invest in the business, starting with finding a manufacturer. “Unfortunately the production in Australia wasn’t cost viable. There was no one place that could provide a finished product, it was all piecework.” Instead, she headed to China with a shortlist of factories. “I was really conscious of not going to a sweatshop so I visited China to make a decision, be confident.”
McLachlan still does all the design work, and even has an Australian artist do the prints for some of her limited edition ranges. She visits China five times a year to ensure her quality standards are met. “They’ve learnt to love my quality standards,” she laughs. “With a lot of things that come out of China they don’t understand why it needs to be good quality, but I spent time explaining it. It’s a little factory so we have a good relationship because we’re their biggest customer.”
After a bit of back-and-forth to satisfy McLachlan’s standards, the first commercially produced itti bitti nappy became available for sale in January 2008. “I relaunched and rebranded the new ones that came in so they were different to the ones I’d already been making,” she says. “I took a punt on what I was doing and it paid off.”
At the same time McLachlan received her first commercial shipment of itti bitti nappies in Australia, her UK-based sister received a similar shipment. McLachlan managed all the stockists and orders from the NSW regional city of Newcastle, and her sister shipped them from her garage in the UK to reduce postage costs. “We had a few stockists by then, people who’d imported them from Australia, which meant that they were really expensive in the UK. The shipping alone was huge,” says McLachlan.
Being able to ship direct from the factory in China to the UK opened up the business in Europe, where demand grew quickly. With no business experience, however, McLachlan found herself in the deep end trying to design new nappies, manage the business and make sure supply met demand worldwide.
McLachlan’s first trade exhibition, a baby show in Germany, exposed how unprepared she was. “I had a stockist in the UK who said ‘you should do such-and-such a show, it would be really good’. So I made a snap decision to go to Germany and do a trade show having never done anything like that in my life. When I first arrived and saw our tiny little stand—we were among these massive companies—I thought, ‘what was I thinking?’ I almost got a bit teary. But then I thought ‘I’m here, I have to do it’ and from that very first trade show we got some amazing contacts and it took the business to places we never could’ve gone.”
The lessons learnt from that experience have since benefited the business, as well as made her role as managing director easier. After the expo she took on a dedicated sales manager to handle the wholesale international business market. “I’d been dealing with individual baby stores, but in those shows you get a lot of business buyers and potential distributors,” she notes. “My expertise is in the product side and the creative side of things, not necessarily sales and I recognised that. So I had a sales manager handle those negotiations and deal with those customers.”