Not many people go on Dragons’ Den and decide a hefty investment offer isn’t enough. But Grainne Kelly didn’t go on the Irish version of the programme in 2014 just to secure a financial injection into her car booster seat business BubbleBum. Despite receiving a €200,000 (£153,860) offer, Kelly felt she wasn’t getting a good enough deal.
‘I was very clear from the get go,’ she explains. ‘Guys, I can get cash, I want to know what else you can give me. If it’s great marketing, I’m all over it, but if it’s cash I don’t want it and it’s expensive for me to give you equity.’ So Kelly turned down the offer, but her business hasn’t exactly suffered since.
Kelly, who used to own a travel agency, came up with the idea for BubbleBum after numerous trips abroad. She was having the same issue time and again.‘Every time I arrived at the car rental desk, they didn’t have a car booster seat even though I pre-ordered it,’ she explains. ‘I used to crack up every time I got there, so I said I’m not accepting this any longer.’ Asking her own customers revealed a similar sentiment and in 2009 Kelly set up Northern Ireland based BubbleBum, selling inflatable booster seats for 4-11 year-olds.
‘It’s portable and packable,’ she says. ‘When you’re travelling you can put it in your backpack, and children can take it to school. If mum’s dropping the kid off at school, granny might be picking them up, but they don’t have to worry about not having a booster seat.’ On holiday of course, it also circumvents the erratic car rental service. ‘It can cost you up to €11 a day to rent and then you get one covered in vomit and whatever else,’ Kelly adds wryly.
It’s evidently struck a chord with frazzled parents thankful for one less thing to think about and the seats are currently stocked at John Lewis, Boots, Argos and Halfords to name a few (priced between £23 and £30). Turnover was $2.4m (£1.6m) last year – most of BubbleBum’s trading is done in dollars and it operates in 27 markets. It’s profitable, though Kelly says ‘it’s minute at the minute because we’ve invested it all back in again’.
But the early stages were fraught with hurdles. A friend Kelly knew had worked in China and she tagged along on the next trip they made to find a factory to make a prototype car booster seat. ‘It was the most challenging thing dealing in China because unfortunately everyone seemed to be trying to rip me off and I wasn’t wise enough at the time,’ she says.
Non-disclosure agreements and confidentiality clauses weren’t high on her agenda, though they’re now the first things Kelly warns other budding entrepreneurs about. She learned their importance the hard way - insisting on waiting for a prototype to be made the day she was at the factory after being told it would take five days. ‘I said I’m waiting, I’m not leaving, but they left the factory with my drawings while I was in the factory, drove to Shanghai and applied for a patent on my product,’ she explains. ‘So they have cost me tens of thousands over the years.’
The challenges in reaching overseas markets were also time-consuming. ‘I’m not an engineer and I’m not a compliance officer but I had to become both to ensure we had every possible test,’ Kelly says. ‘When we got the product ready for the UK and Europe I tried to prepare it for the US and nobody would take me seriously.’ So, Kelly and her family upped sticks and moved to America for a year to get the product ready for the US market. ‘All the regulatory requirements for launching in the rest of the world – the instruction booklet is one page; for America we have 36 pages of how you shouldn’t do it,’ she explains. ‘And it’s very difficult to find out how you should do it within that.’
Having turned down the Dragons, it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising to find out that Kelly rebuffed Amazon a good few times when it came calling too. ‘We refused to sell to them for years. We were managing our pricing really, really well in the US and the last thing I wanted was for Amazon to come on board and start dropping the price,’ she says. Amazon isn’t a company known for backing down though and after much back and forth BubbleBum now sells on the site– and has become its number one bestseller among child booster seats.
‘In the US, the consumer is very savvy,’ Kelly says. ‘They check everything online, buy everything on Amazon and they check the bestseller list, which is something I don’t see happening so much in the UK.’ She's noticed UK sales increased more recently. ‘I think that’s just because we’ve got credibility in the marketplace now. In the UK they want to wait and see how you do first and then buy your product.’
Next on the agenda is a ‘potential licensing opportunity’ and ‘strategic partnering in the US’, while Kelly also says Bubblebum has more products in the works too. Amid all the business, Kelly also had heart surgery for an irregular heartbeat in August. ‘I had been really tired all the time, but I was still getting up and going to the gym at quarter past five. Then I had the surgery and I can’t believe it – I said what have I been like for the past 20 years?
‘Now I’ve got this new lease of life which I didn’t realise I had. I’m flying, it’s great. I’d recommend heart surgery to everybody!’