by Fiona Luke September 12, 2016 4 min read
From adversity comes strength, as they say. That is certainly the case for Emma Lovell, inventor of the Fly Babee device that will very likely mean many more aeroplane passengers can sleep without being interrupted by a baby's cries.
Lovell came up with her invention, a canopy that sits over baby bassinets in planes and on prams, in 2010 after her mother was diagnosed with lung cancer in Britain when her daughter was only five months old.
"I made the difficult decision to relocate to be her primary carer. Throughout that year I flew back and forth four times between the UK and Sydney for two weeks at a time so my husband could spend some time with my daughter. She was a good little traveller but would not sleep," she explains.
So Lovell started taking big sheets and rolls of masking tape on flights to make a canopy over the baby bed on the flight. Everything, including the overhead reading lights and entertainment screens as well as people going to and from the toilet, would distract her daughter and keep her from sleeping. Eventually she explored the idea of designing something to fix the problem.
"I started drawing and my first prototype was made from a box, plumber's tubing and fabric from Spotlight," she says.
Eventually Lovell had a prototype designed in China, which was 80 per cent right. It took a full year to get it perfect. The sticking point was the material that attaches the Fly Babee to the bassinet, as it has to be quickly removable in an emergency. She says the process was a learning curve about how important it is to work with agents who have experience working with the Chinese.
"I use an agent now, which has smoothed things out. He's from New Zealand, so he's English-speaking and speaks Chinese," says Lovell.
However, the first $25,000 order, funded from a small inheritance she received after her mother died, of 1000 products shipped from China were unsellable.
"I opened up the boxes and they were twisted and bent, nothing like the perfect prototypes. In China prototypes are all hand made, but the rest of the products go to mass production, it's a production line and each person is doing one small thing, and they're not paying attention to the whole product. I relied on internal quality control, that was my first mistake and I didn't fly to China, that was my second mistake," she explains.
Lovell explains that once the merchandise has reached Australia the manufacturer is no longer responsible. But if you use an agent, and you have a good relationship with them, you have a better chance of compensation if things go wrong.
"We've moved manufacturers and I ended up having 700 remade for free on the basis I was prepared to put in another large order. Two years later I'm just recovering the cost," she says.
Now, the business is approaching the end of its first full reporting year, having only been up and running for 10 months of the previous financial year. Lowell says the business has quadrupled sales from the first year to the second year.
"We've managed to get about 50 retailers on board, including Baby Bunting and Baby Kingdom and a number of independent retailers. For the first year I concentrated on direct sales online through my website because I wanted to stay very close to my customers and get direct feedback from them. We're just about to do mark II based on the feedback I've had over the last 12 months," she says.
The next phase is to scale the business internationally. The product has passed testing in Europe and US. Distribution agreements are about to be signed in Malaysia, Singapore and Sweden.
As for engaging with the airlines, Lovell says she initially met with resistance.
"They're very hard to communicate with. Trying to find the right person to talk to is impossible. I started with Qantas and Virgin and couldn't get hold of anyone. Bravely or stupidly, I launched anyway. Eventually Qantas rang me and said, 'Who are you, what are you, can you come in?' "
Lovell met with 10 Qantas staff, from senior engineers to cabin crew directors. "They were brilliant, actually. They sat around this huge table, and I went in and pitched the product, and they took it away for testing and it came back as approved for use. Once we did that, it was easy to go to Virgin. They went about their testing, and we were approved for use in Virgin."
This is a great position from which to approach other airlines as well, and a firm foundation on which to build a bigger business. No doubt the sky is far from the limit for Fly Babee.
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