2 May 2021|Latest Posts, Meet the Successful Founder
Katharine is, by her own words, an ‘accidental entrepreneur.’ She lives in the Northumberland countryside with her husband Tom, their daughter Evie and their retired greyhound Jack. She loves being outdoors and getting muddy in her wellies, and is kept active by her retired horse Chico, his old pal a one-eyed Exmoor, Honey and her young horse, also called Jack.
Can you tell us a little about your background and the company?
Having studied at both Sheffield and Newcastle Universities, I settled in the North East having moved from my home town of Oldham and have lived here now for over 30 years. My career has spanned local government and higher education, working in economic development, international student recruitment, higher education liaison and latterly change management. However, my passion is my business, So To Company Ltd, which was set up following mine, or rather my baby daughter’s, negative experience with wooden barred cots. I worked on my business part-time until I took the brave/foolish/exciting (depending on my mood!) step to take voluntary severance and focus on my business full-time in April 2018.
How did the idea come to you for the company?
I experienced a problem with traditional wooden barred cots which meant my premature baby daughter injured herself. This included getting her arms and legs stuck in the cot bars and bumping herself on the solid surfaces. I bought cot bumpers thinking that they would protect, but was further alarmed to read in the small print that there was a danger of strangulation and suffocation through using them. This, to me, was unacceptable so led to me starting on the journey to create a product which addressed all the safety hazards I, and countless other parents, face with the traditional cot.
I work with a number of external consultants, two of whom have now been involved with the design for a period of time and which means that they know the product inside out and are very trustworthy and knowledgeable. I do not currently employ anyone directly. My fundamental rationale for the business is that when you put your baby to sleep you do not expect him/her to be in a situation of potential injury – all babies should have access to a safe space in which to sleep. So, Karekot has been created to systematically ‘design out’ all the negative aspects of the traditional cot. Karekot is soft-sided, breathable, washable, and crucially there are no cot bars which cause entrapment. All the hard elements are padded, and all the edges are rounded and it has a unique drop side which reduces the potential for parents to injure their backs when lifting heavy toddlers in and out. When the child is older enough it converts to a first toddler bed.
How did you achieve awareness?
This is a really interesting question to me as I have not deliberately gone out and shouted from the roof tops, mainly because getting to grips with social media has been challenging for me (I’m getting there!) and also because I am not yet trading and you only need to buy a cot bed at a certain time in your life. However, I have been working on Karekot for a long time (my daughter, the inspiration, is now 11!) and, in that time, I have constantly been involved in networking, presenting, researching so I have raised awareness incrementally. Having won Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation award for 2021 has certainly raised my profile – I’ve never been so popular on Linked In and I’m increasingly getting asked by anxious parents when Karekot will be on the market.
How have you been able to gain funding and grow?
My funding journey, I guess, will be similar to many entrepreneurs: Bits of cash injected by family, small loans, Director’s loans, and a convertible loan from the North East Jeremie funds. I’m very fortunate to live in the North East which has brought with it the privilege of accessing European matched grant funds which have helped to evolve the design of Karekot. As a result, I am still currently the sole share-holder in the business. I am currently seeking equity investment to support manufacture, sales, marketing and team development.
What are the key successes?
My key successes include securing the convertible loan at the outset which enabled me to progress the design concept and protect the IP. Securing a patent in the US enables us to enter the market, (which holds 32% of cot and cot bed sales), with a sales solution further to the banning of the ‘guillotine’ drop side in 2011 because of the numbers of deaths in them! Most recently the winning of Innovate UK’s Women in Innovation award has really boosted my profile, and put the business in the spotlight as well as gaining substantial grant funding to help get Karekot to market. I was also recently a finalist in the Investing Women AccelerateHER pitching competition which, together with the Innovate UK award, has helped to build my confidence and pitching skills. Both achievements, I feel, are testimony to my resilience to get Karekot to market and validate the product.
What were/are the challenges and how have you overcome these?
I’ve had loads of challenges: Juggling developing the business whilst working full-time and looking after a young child, especially difficult when my husband worked away a lot; securing finance has been particularly problematic, being a single founder in a non-trading business with a product which is not an ‘ap’ or ‘fintech’ has tended to put me in the periphery of investor minds; Earning nothing, having taken voluntary severance a few years ago to focus on the business fulltime has meant no income for three years. This places inevitable strain on family, diminishes any concept of ‘luxuries’, and places incredible pressure to succeed, which I guess can be a good thing, and my husband has been incredibly patient extending the ‘we’ll review in six months’ to the following six months, and then the following etc etc …; working in a sector I have no training or experience in, managed by working with a fabulously knowledgeable and supportive team who are now completely used to me asking the stupid questions and; worrying that someone will get something similar to market first, which I’ve mitigated by patenting and, as of yet, there is nothing like Karekot on the market.
What are your plans now/for the future?
My plans for this year, with the hugely welcome support of the Innovate UK grant, is to finalise the design of Karekot, get it tested and on to the market where it needs to be! We are seeking equity investment to support the development of our sales and portfolio through first selling to consumers in the UK and then building exports, particularly to countries where Karekot is patent granted. Thereafter we will build the brand through different styles, personalisation, furniture ranges and look to develop Karekot in different sectors including boutique hotels and nurseries.
What would you like to share with others to encourage them to start their own entrepreneurship journey?
It sounds trite to say it, and I am not ‘there’ yet, but do not give up! I have constantly questioned myself about whether Karekot is good enough, but I can honestly say that not one person, even those saying that they are not going to invest, have said ‘it’s not a good product, give it up’. I think, had I heard those words,, I might well have thrown the towel in! So, having total conviction in what you are doing, and wearing the passion you have for it like a permanent tattoo on your forehead is what you need to do. And be prepared for plenty or knocks which can easily erode your confidence.
Can you share you top tips for entrepreneurial success?
Have a unique product/service, be resilient, have more than a dash of confidence, don’t be afraid to look stupid by asking, be doggedly determined!
Who are the 5 people who inspire you the most?
I’m surrounded by inspirational people but two public figures who I strongly admire are:
Laura Tennison of Jo Jo Maman Bebe, because she grew her business organically, runs her successful commercial enterprise with ethics more akin to a charity than a commercial proposition and, if I’m honest, it was Jo Jo Maman baby cot bumpers which made me finally flip and embark on this adventure! https://www.linkedin.com/in/laura-tenison-mbe-28800014/
Jacinda Ardern – for her empathetic style, her authenticity, her decisiveness, strength and ability to make key leadership decisions when they really count. https://www.linkedin.com/in/jacindaardern/
What are your favourite inspirational /motivational quotes?
‘I think all great innovations are built on rejections’ Louis Ferdinand Celine
‘Most of the important things in the world have been accomplished by people who have kept on trying when there seemed to be no hope at all’ Dale Carnegie
‘No one can make you feel inferior without your consent’ Eleanor Roosevelt
‘I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.’ Maya Angelou
What are your social handles and website links so our readers can connect with you?