After Michal Chesal’s son, Coby, was born with Down syndrome in 1999, she wanted to use a wearable baby carrier. But it didn’t work out, she said. A physical therapist told her it wouldn’t give Coby, who had poor muscle tone, the right kind of support.
So Chesal, who lives in Hollywood, began playing around with the baby slings on the marketplace, crisscrossing and wearing two of them together. She took the slings to a seamstress to connect them. Chesal started using the makeshift carrier with Coby and then for years after, when her daughters Noa and Ally were born.
Today Chesal is president of Baby K’tan, which makes wearable baby carriers. This is how she did it.
The big idea
Baby K’tan (a play on words that means "little baby" in Hebrew) is a soft baby carrier composed of two over-the-shoulder slings and a waist sash. The carriers are designed for use with newborns to babies weighing 35 pounds. Carriers are sold in adult sizes from extra small to extra large and come in cotton, cotton/mesh blend, and organic cotton versions in a variety of colors. Prices range from $55 to $65.
Chesal used her two handcrafted slings for six years with her children, now 12, 9, and 7, before she turned it into a business. The idea simmered in the background for years as people complimented her on her carrier and asked her where she got it.
In 2005, at a dinner with friends Isaac and Aviva Wernick, Chesal recommended they use the carrier for son, Eitan, who was born with a heart defect. They discussed ways to improve the product, and a business model was born. Chesal, who owned a promotional marketing company, and Isaac Wernick, a cell biologist, became business partners.
Chesal and Wernick began meeting two to three nights a week after their day jobs to do online research. They looked at manufacturers, fabrics and other baby carriers on the market. They learned about the design process and how to apply for a patent. They researched how to get samples made and do safety testing. They reached out to other moms who had made similar products, and to small business resources such as SCORE for advice.
"We tried to access any help we could get," Chesal said.
Chesal had the two loops of fabric and wanted to connect them. She wanted something all-cotton with no connectors or snaps that was machine washable and dryable. She found a way to connect it with an adjustable back support band, then added a waist sash for extra stability.
"No one had a design background, but it was a simple idea," Chesal said.
For more than a year, the partners ordered samples from factories, rejecting fabric that was too thin or straps that were too wide.
A prototype was ready in 2007, and the partners placed an initial order of 200. Since then, they have tinkered with different fabrics and sizing.
"The sizing is based on adult sizes," Chesal said. "It’s like a personal piece of clothing. It has nothing to do with the weight and size of the baby."
The product is now manufactured in China and warehoused in Davie, near the company’s office.
Chesal and Wernick spent about $50,000 initially on setting up the business, patents, samples, testing, trade shows, marketing and the initial inventory. Baby K’tan sells about 50,000 items a year and the company became profitable in 2011. The partners have one full-time and two part-time employees. The product is sold in 700 U.S. retailers and through seven international distributors.
In April 2007, the partners attended a juvenile products industry trade show. "It gave us hope because it gave us some concrete orders," Chesal said.
The partners divided duties. Chesal took on the front of the house and handled marketing, sales, trade shows and demos. Wernick took on the back-end of the business - manufacturing, warehousing, filling orders and inventory.
"We had zero budget for marketing, so we tried to get as much editorial as possible," Chesal said. She also got creative, seeking remnant advertising rates from magazines with last-minute advertising holes to fill. She also partnered with other mom entrepreneurs in press releases, advertising campaigns and trade shows, where they could cross-promote products.
Realizing that sales were being generated organically from satisfied mom customers, Chesal created a Brand Ambassador System. Mom customers who demo their own Baby K’tan and distribute brochures at parenting events can earn points toward merchandise.
Baby K’tan also sends out products to mom bloggers for review purposes, and relies heavily on social media, using giveaways and discounts on Facebook, and joint promotions with retailers.
The marketing, Chesal said. "As much as we do in-house, our competitors have big ad budgets. They can put major ads in magazines and sponsor events," she said.
The partners want to add more products, but they’re taking baby steps. "We don’t want to bite off more than we can chew," Chesal said.
Chesal, a single mom, rises at 7 a.m. and gets the three kids ready for school. They leave on the school bus at 8:15 a.m. and Chesal heads to the Davie office with dog, Tinkerbell.
During the workday, Chesal oversees marketing, sales and promotion, and puts out fires.
Most school days Chesal is back at home to meet the kids’ school bus at 4:15 p.m. A couple of days a week, a sitter stays with the kids until Chesal arrives at 6 p.m.
Then it’s dinner, homework and after-school activities. The kids are in bed around 8:30 p.m. and Chesal will do an email check. "I’m trying really hard to get out of that, so I have more down time," she said. "I try to leave most of it at the office."
"It’s not easy, but keep at it. Follow your heart. If you have an idea and keep putting it off, somebody else is going to come up with that idea," Chesal said. "If I had to do it over again, I would have started so much earlier."