I started a business with a baby: Emma Downie of milkandmummy.com

Tell us a little about your business

Milk&Mummy is an online boutique selling beautiful breastfeeding clothes and accessories, with an emphasis on style and quality and making you feel fabulous. Many of our garments are suitable for maternity wear too.

What was your job before starting your business?

Initially after leaving university I worked as a Buyer for Tesco, in various departments ending up in Clothing. I left that job for one closer to my home in Cambridge to work as a Buyer for a Gift Experience company near Royston. After two years of Buying there I moved to Account Management where I managed the retail accounts of Marks & Spencer, Next and Clintons Cards. This company had a strong online presence which stood me in good stead for forming my own online business.

How did you go from your old career to your new business?

I knew if I did go back to work I didn’t want to work full-time, but my company weren’t able to offer me my old job on a part-time basis. After carefully considering the part-time option offered by them and realising it wasn’t what I wanted, I handed my notice in when my maternity leave ended. I had already started forming the idea for my own business and I think I already knew in my heart a few months before the end of my maternity leave that I just wouldn’t be able to leave my daughter and return to my old job. However I thought I owed it to my husband and myself to consider all the options carefully.

What were your reasons for starting a business?

If I had gone back to my old job, my net income after paying for childcare wasn’t really worth the emotional price of leaving my daughter. I didn’t love my old job that much and I was willing to make sacrifices in order to remain a full-time mum. However I felt that solely looking after my daughter wouldn’t be quite enough for me in the long run, both mentally and financially, and I became really passionate about my new business idea.

I was really lucky that my husband was able to support us both while we set up the business, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have gone ahead. In fact his support wasn’t only financial, he built my website for me, he was our photographer and he did our print media, alongside doing his day job, and boosted me up on the days when I had confidence wobbles.

Did you use any childcare?

I haven’t used any childcare so far, although I have looked into it on a few occasions. Both sets of grandparents live over 300 miles away but luckily they can’t keep away from their grand-daughter so they have been able to come and stay often and look after her, which has suited me perfectly when I have had a big deadline. Otherwise I work when she sleeps. This can be quite difficult to manage as I only really get stuck into the work during evenings and far too often I fall into the bad habit of working into the small hours. I have started to limit this as it doesn’t benefit me in the long run because the next day I am less productive, and everything seems harder. On the days when I don’t achieve what I set out to I am still having to learn to accept this and remind myself that tomorrow is another day! It isn’t easy and every day is a real juggling act where I constantly have to re-prioritise as I know I can’t do everything.

How did you get your business idea?

I really struggled myself to find fashionable, good quality nursing wear. There is virtually none on the high street and the small selection that I found online was either frumpy or out of stock or sold on websites that didn’t look particularly professional or trustworthy. It all came to a head when I was invited to a friend’s wedding and I had absolutely nothing to wear that I could breastfeed in and still look glamorous. So I had to make-do with a stretchy high street dress, which was nothing special and only chosen for its easy breast access. I felt so cross that I had had to compromise just because I was doing something so natural and normal as breastfeeding. During my rigorous searching I did find something on-line but it came from Singapore and the hassle of getting it shipped over and through customs put me off. However this started the idea that I could import a carefully selected range of breastfeeding tops and dresses, chosen for both their practicality and style. I sent a survey out to all the mums I knew and I asked them to forward it to other mums and, after confirming there was indeed a big gap in the market, I slowly built up a picture of what mums wanted and where to position my business. We also decided to sell our own range of beautiful breastfeeding covers and cute baby dribble bibs, which are hand-made in England, under the Milk & Mummy label as these are both items which I found indispensable in my own change bag, but which are not very widely available.

What were your challenges and how did you overcome them?

1) There are a number of breastfeeding clothes suppliers internationally but I did struggle to find clothes that were both good quality, easy to feed from and fashionable. They tended to be either really sensible clothes that were rather frumpy or fashionable clothes where nursing access was tricky. However, needless to say, I kept looking and I’m really pleased with the suppliers and clothes I did select which I feel strike the right balance between fashion and function (without the function being obvious!).

I have to pay for all our stock upfront, with deposits needed up to 6 months in advance. For a new business this is really tough for our cash flow.

2) Many of the challenges still exist. For example I have to pay for all our stock upfront, with deposits needed up to 6 months in advance. For a new business this is really tough for our cash flow. Luckily I have savings to finance the business, and I hope that by the time they run out the business should start paying for itself. So I am lucky that even though money is tight, we don’t have the stress of a loan hanging over our heads.

3) The other challenge is knowing which styles, colours and sizes to order for our first couple of ranges with zero sales history to base it on (we had to place our second season’s order before we had even launched!). I guess this is the same in any new business, and this is where my old buying hat serves me well. I make my decisions from looking at a variety of factors: what other mums at groups tend to wear, checking there is something to suit all body shapes and understanding what occasions mums need these clothes for. It’s not really rocket science. Mums don’t want anything fussy or too quirky. Our pieces are not high fashion as I’ve found most mums prefer good quality flattering and elegant pieces with perhaps a little twist and that following the very latest trends is really not a priority when you have just had a baby. I really believe that if you look good, you often feel good too and most new mums could do with a boost during the rather crazy early days of motherhood. As for the sizes, we have spread our orders across sizes 8 to 16 and we will just see how it goes and adjust accordingly for future buys.

What training, information or advice did you need to get started?

I asked for advice wherever it was available. For example an online marketing company offered to meet me for a chat about Search Engine Optimisation in return for a coffee. It was good networking for him and he knows that when I have the funds I may well employ him to do my SEO for me. A friend put me in touch with her friend who had recently set up a clothing website and she gave me loads of hints and tips.

Don’t be too hard on yourself and give yourself a break occasionally

Another friend is a marketing consultant so we keep bouncing ideas off each other. I also met with some other new businesses in the Cambridge area to share information on local marketing and contacts, which has been really useful. I find networking really helpful. As I’m working on my own so often I relish the opportunity to meet other like-minded people to share ideas, and I don’t think I will ever stop doing this, as it helps to give you a fresh perspective on things and re-prioritise, because it’s all too easy to get caught in your own bubble.

If you could give one piece of advice to a mum of a baby or toddler starting a business, what would it be?

Don’t be too hard on yourself and give yourself a break occasionally, in both the mental and physical sense. It’s too easy to let your business take over every waking (and probably sleeping!) moment when you work from home. Yes of course it’s very hard work, and you need to set time aside regular working time when you are starting out, but overall you do need to be enjoying what you are doing. I find that if you schedule breaks and the odd night off, which you no doubt deserve, it will mean you come back to your work with a fresh head and more energy and both your business and family will benefit in
the long term.

What are your plans for the future?

At some point in the not too distant future I would like to start designing my own range of breastfeeding tops and dresses under the Milk&Mummy label, as I have lots of ideas ready to put to paper. However for now I’m really enjoying doing what I do and hopefully making a bit of a difference to breastfeeding mums out there.

You can visit Milk&Mummy here:  MilkandMummy.com

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2 Replies to “I started a business with a baby: Emma Downie of milkandmummy.com”

    1. Thanks so much Julia for your good luck wishes. Business has been really good so far, considering we have only just launched, so hopefully it’s a sign of things to come.

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