A £120,000 export deal will see 60,000 of the cups sold there this year and puts the Surrey-based producer on course for a £300,000 turnover. Similar in size to a shot glass and free of the BPA industrial chemicals often found in some reuseable plastic containers, brightly-coloured Babycups “are perfectly sized for little hands and mouths” explains the business’s founder Sara Keel. She nursed the concept for years while weaning her three children and unable to find a mini cup without a spout or lid they could drink from.
“The only ones available needed almost the suck of a vacuum cleaner to release the liquid. I couldn’t see how that was good for little ones’ physical well-being,” she explains.
“Then I found many health experts also advocated open-cup sipping which is indeed better for babies’ teeth, jaws and facial muscles.
“Oral health problems are the one of the biggest reasons for children needing hospital treatment. Sipping is best for baby, which is the foundation of our approach, but it has to be taught so requires parents to spend time.
“A cup with spout is an immediate win for the grown-ups however. It isn’t messy and can be a pacifier so a lot more convenient for some.
Babycup founder Sara Keel and her children
“That was one challenge we had to overcome. The other was the mindset that no little child could ever drink from an open cup.”
After working on her concept with an injection moulding fabricator in Hampshire, Keel launched the cups at a UK trade show in 2013 and recalls:
“My first order from there was from nursery products chain JoJo Maman Bebe, their buyer was so positive about what I was doing. They reordered and I was on my way.”
Keel then seized the chance of a Department for International Trade (DIT) grant through its Tradeshow Access Programme (TAP) and attended Cologne’s KIND + JUGEND fair, a move that has paved the way for more shows and a string of overseas trade deals.
NHS England is customer as are regional health authorities in Canada
“Sipping is best for baby, which is the foundation of our approach, but it has to be taught so requires parents to spend time. Our market is as big as the birthrate”
Now it exports to 30 countries selling directly, and to retailers, distributors, education and health services – NHS England is customer as are regional health authorities in Canada.
Other training through the DIT helped Babycup improve its international payment processes.
“We still have regular meetings, having that expertise available is crucial when you are a small business, on your own and learning so much,” says Keel.
“Being active on social media helped us secure the China contract. Understanding cultural differences presents its own challenges when you export.
British company Babycup makes small open cups that help prevent tooth decay
“In Japan nurseries are very popular and often include a tea ritual at the end of the day, so it has made sense to market our cups to the nursery sector. But in China the extended family does the child care so a different approach was needed.
“We’ve also created a second website for our US customers as descriptions of products are expected to use more direct language and comparing your products with competitors, something we shy away from in the UK, is common. But there are also strict regulations on how it is done, claims have to be backed up.
“In the main traders overseas have grasped Babycup – the product and our business – more quickly than those in the the UK, where initially we were dismissed by some as ‘being too niche’.”
Ben Raby, head of South East DIT sees Babycup as a shining example of how to get a British product on to a global stage.
As a result Sara has “made her business more profitable and resilient,” he says, urging others to make more of the reputation Britain has around the world for producing quality goods.
“The support is out there for businesses to get these products in front of customers,” he adds.
While an engineering company carries out the fulfilment side, Keel is supported by a “team of freelance experts,” she says, “brilliantly skilled mums who like me work between the school runs.”
The cups help to teach infants to sip rather than suck
Angel backers, who invested £120,000 originally, have now put in £40,000 for new tooling that as well as doubling production will cut waste.
Although it would have halved Babycup’s costs had it manufactured overseas, being Made in Britain has always really mattered to Keel.
“There are no shipping costs or import duties, so when you take that into account there is not such a big difference,” she explains. “I can see the products being made and be certain of the quality. That’s priceless and the best protection for my brand.”
More products are planned as Babycup plugs into a more networks of support including NIPA, a group of innovative nursery and baby brands.
“My ambition,” says Keel, “is to have one of our cups on every high chair. Our market is as big as the birth rate”