All4Women Entrepreneurs is a monthly feature where we put the spotlight on amazing female entrepreneurs starting businesses in South Africa. This month we spoke to Shannon McLaughlin (who started baby product business, Ubuntu Baba) to find out how she did it.

  • Entrepreneur: Shannon McLaughlin
  • Company name: Ubuntu Baba
  • Industry: Manufacturing and sales
  • Employees:15
  • Year started: 2014
  • Website: www.ubuntubaba.com

Whether you’ve been shopping for baby products or just keeping up with current events, Ubuntu Baba should be familiar to you. But Ubuntu Baba is more than just the SME that took on Woolworths and won (after they created and sold a range of baby carriers conspicuously similar to her original Ubuntu Baba carriers).

Shannon, the founder and owner of Ubuntu Baba, started her business in a quest to find the perfect baby carrier, and launched her baby carrier business in just four months! As a new mom struggling to find the perfect carrier for her busy lifestyle, Shannon says necessity pushed her idea for a multi-stage baby carrier into reality at unbelievable speed.

Related: Farah Fortune’s journey from her bedroom to the top of Africa

Creating a prototype

As a first-time mom navigating life with a newborn while working from home as a website designer, Shannon was looking for a baby carrier that would make her life (and that of her new baby) easier and more comfortable.

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“It’s crazy what a Mom on a mission can achieve, even amongst all the sleepless nights,” she says. “Working from home, I had to get things done and look after my son at the same time. Babywearing was the best solution for us, but I just couldn’t find the right carrier.”

Shannon’s creative side kicked in and she started putting all the aspects of her perfect baby carrier into one design. Shannon believes that all challenges can be turned into opportunities – and that’s how Ubuntu Baba’s first carrier was born!

Shannon McLaughlin, Ubuntu Baba
Image supplied by Ubuntu Baba: Shannon wearing her son in the very first Ubuntu Baba carrier

From concept to product in just 4 months

With no experience in the manufacturing and product design field, it’s a wonder that Shannon managed to move from concept to product in just four months. Shannon credits her own desperate need for a suitable baby carrier for the speed at which she worked.

“It wasn’t easy. I had absolutely no experience in designing or manufacturing a product. Luckily my dad has years of experience in this field and he’s great with a sewing machine,” she laughs.

“After nagging my dad about my idea for a bit, we set to work and went back and forth with him showing me how we could turn my idea into the baby carriers we have today,” she says.

Related: The Lazy Makoti’s guide to finding your spot in the market

Standing up for herself and winning

Although she had her father’s help and experience to turn her initial idea into the Ubuntu Baba brand and its unique product, getting it right was not easy. Shannon designed and altered prototypes several times before the baby carriers were just right. That’s why she was so shocked when she was alerted to a very similar product being sold at Woolworths.

“As soon as I realised how serious this thing was, I knew I had to protect my business and I spoke to a lawyer,” Shannon explains. Although she knew she had every right to seek intervention on the matter, she also realised that taking on a multinational as a small business would not be easy.

Shannon says her instinct was to appeal to everyday people’s sense of right and wrong, and that is why she decided to make her fight with Woolworths public with this blog post.

“It may have been ‘fair game’ in the eyes of the law, but in the eyes of most human beings, it was not, and I had that on my side. I knew that making the issue public would save our business, more than anything else I could do,” she says.

Her fight was successful, and Woolworths agreed to remove their carriers from stores (you can read the full statement on the outcome here). With a positive attitude and fighting spirit, Shannon was able to save her business. And along with that business, she also saved the jobs of her 15 employees.

Ubuntu Baba
Image supplied by Ubuntu Baba: The Ubuntu Baba team

Not going big, but not going home either

Although Ubuntu Baba is a well-known brand in babywearing circles, Shannon’s public victory against Woolworths made Ubuntu Baba a household name across the country. You may assume that this would have made it easier for her to launch the business into mass production and mainstream retailers, but she says that isn’t the path she wants to take with her business.

“I don’t plan on becoming an instant millionaire,” Shannon jokes. “I am more interested in sustainable growth for my business.” She adds that an important part of Ubuntu Baba’s success is the user experience and that this has been important from the inception of the product.

“When someone asks about stocking my product, I first ask them about their experience with babywearing. That way I know that customers will be shown exactly how the carriers work by people who have experience in babywearing themselves. It is important for me to know that when people buy my product, they know exactly how it works because I want customers to get the best out of our product or their money back.” That’s why Ubuntu Baba is only available online on the Ubuntu Baba website and at selected boutiques.

Shannon plans to continue being part of a community of entrepreneurs catering to a growing market of mothers looking for alternative baby products, while focusing on long-term growth for Ubuntu Baba.

Now read: The story of how Liz Senior built a 65-franchise business from her backyard