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BlankiePillow makes a soft 'nest' for babies & toddlers

Lauren Rocha used to love to lay her infant son, Charlie, in his Boppy, a C-shaped pillow, to give him support while he played. But at eight months, Charlie was too big for the pillow. "So I started putting together some blankets to make him a nest," said Rocha, of Lighthouse Point.

Thinking she could make him something more permanent, Rocha bought soft blanket material and iron-on hemming tape and put together a larger lounging pillow. A mom friend over on a play date put her daughter in it and loved it. Soon Rocha was making her infant/toddler pillow for friends. Today, she sells it as The Original BlankiePillow. Here’s how she did it.

The Big Idea

The Original BlankiePillow is a 28- by 28-inch U-shaped pillow for infants and toddlers. The arms can be clasped together to support infants, or left open to support toddlers for lounging or napping. The muslin-encased hypoallergenic pillow has a removable, washable polyester cover and separate carry bag. The U.S.-made pillow comes in five girl colors and patterns, four boy patterns and one gender-neutral pattern. 

The pillow sells for $39.99 and includes free shipping in the United States.

Background

Rocha graduated from the University of Miami with a degree in finance in 2005. She worked as a corporate accountant until her son, Charlie, now 2, was born. Now also mom to 7-month-old Olivia, Rocha had been looking for a business opportunity to start from home.

Rocha receives support from her husband, Rodrigo Rocha, who helps with the website and shipping, and from her mother, Deborah Cutchens of Fort Lauderdale, who makes the carry bags.

Research

Rocha got on the internet and searched department store websites to see if there was a lounge pillow for older infants and toddlers. She could find nothing similar. She visited www.legalzoom.com and paid $1,200 for a patent search, to see if a like product existed. None was found. The fee also provided Rocha with a professional drawing of the product by a graphic designer and help filing a design patent.

Rocha used her homemade prototype to get feedback from friends and members of a Mommy and Me group.

Product Development

She enlarged the size of the prototype to one that fit a preschooler’s nap mat and a crib/toddler bed mattress. She used the Boppy as inspiration for the shape, but spread the arms out and squared off the back so it could be used as a back support on a sofa.

Rocha went to JoAnn Fabrics and bought Ultra Cuddle fabric, the softest blanket fabric she could find, in several pastel colors. "I didn’t want any patterns, like trains, that were too specific," Rocha said. "I wanted more neutral patterns, to appeal to more people."

The trim on the pillow is made from flannel.

"I didn’t test how they washed, but luckily they washed well," she said. Cutchins and Rocha tweaked the design for about seven months, working on weekends. The clasp was added a couple of months ago at a girlfriend’s suggestion, to make it usable by infants.

Rocha called every pillow manufacturer she could find, but no one wanted to make her product. Then she found a "cut and sew" shop, which makes small quantities of custom items to order. Rocha brought the fabric, zipper, and a cardboard pattern to the Coral Springs shop, which charged her $10 to make a prototype. Rocha waited until JoAnn Fabric’s had a sale, then sent her parents in on senior discount day to buy enough fabric to make 50 pillows.

Rocha got her design patent in February. The 50 prototypes were ready in March.

Marketing

Rocha used www.shopify.com to create an eCommerce website. "It’s very user-friendly. I would highly recommend it to someone who is starting up who doesn’t have the money for web design," she said. The site has both free and paid templates to upload copy and photos to create a website. For $30 a month, the site handles credit card processing.

The mom took photos of her kids and the product, and used www.pixlr.com to edit the images and add a white background, "so I didn’t have to buy Photoshop," Rocha said. The site went live and Rocha created Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest accounts in April.

"I’ve found social media is the hardest thing to conquer. It’s very intimidating," she said. "I’m not sure how to get people to my page."

The product is on Amazon.com, and Rocha has sent samples to mommy bloggers to get reviews. She used a Groupon to order $70 worth of brochures for $17 from Vistaprint, and will distribute them at preschools. She also has applied for a mom-business grant from Huggies Diapers.

Next Step

Rocha would like to secure grant money to help grow the business. She wants to apply to www.onestepahead.com, which sells mom-made baby products. Rocha also would like to expand marketing efforts by going to trade shows, and expand her product line by opening her own manufacturing house.

Challenges

"Getting the costs down for the product, and marketing – getting the product out there," Rocha said.

Initial Capital Outlay

She spent about $3,000 -- $1,600 on legal costs and patents, $1,200 for an initial inventory of 50 pieces and $200 for marketing and the website. Rocha sold seven pieces in her first month and is not yet profitable.

Typical Day

Rocha rises at 6:30 a.m. to fix breakfast and get Charlie ready for preschool. She drops him off at 8 a.m. and returns home to consult her chore list. "Every day I have a different chore, so it’s not overwhelming," Rocha said.

Olivia naps at 9 a.m. and 2 p.m., and Charlie is picked up at noon. Rocha said she’ll do an email check or hop on the computer when the kids are down, but otherwise she’s with the kids. Dinner is at 5 p.m., Olivia goes down at 6:30 p.m., and Charlie goes to bed at 8 p.m. After that, Rocha and her husband will pack orders from the inventory stored in containers in a spare room.

"I could stay online all day and push, but the kids are only young once, and I would feel guilty," Rocha said. "It’s so hard to juggle and balance. It’s all about time management."

Advice

"You have to believe in yourself and not look for affirmation from others," Rocha said. "Don’t focus on the reasons you can’t do something. Focus on the one reason it’s a good idea … And if you get discouraged, read about women who have made it against the odds."

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