Solvej Biddle - the creator of Content and Calm travel products from Yattendom
- Credit: Archant
Being a mother and having a career can be demanding - so why not combine the two? That’s what mumpreneur Solvej Biddle did, drawing on the trials and tribulations of parenthood to help launch a new business, Jan Raycroft reports
If Solvej Biddle is a gambler, then she is a good one. She had a healthy fledgling company that looked like it was starting to fly – and then the chance to pitch for a cash injection on BBC’s Dragons’ Den came up.
“At first I was cautious and wasn’t surprised when some friends said ‘Look, if you go on Dragons’ Den they might trash your business’. But I wanted an overview and advice on what to do next, not just the money, so in the end I said ‘Fine, I’ll do it’. As it turned out, that was the right decision,” she says.
Indeed it was, and today Solvej and her small team at Content and Calm operate from an office in Yattendon, selling the children’s travel products she’s designed to an international market. They’ve just started trading in the US, a notoriously hard market to crack.
Back in 2010, Duncan Bannatyne was clearly impressed when Solvej stood before him and the other Dragons, showing first the carry-on travel case she’d designed for children, and then a travel cot canopy, both ideas which grew from her own journeys with her two children.
But, noting that several retailers were already showing interest in her work, he wondered just how the Dragons might help. Solvej explained that she needs their advice to upscale and meet demand.
The Dragons often appear slightly disinterested before offering a deal and that turned out to be the case before three, Peter Jones, Deborah Meaden and Bannatyne suddenly began a determined negotiation with Solvej. Eventually she agreed to a deal of £80,000 investment shared between Jones and Meaden for a 22.5% stake in Content and Calm.
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But there was more to it than that. The exposure on Dragons’ Den led to buyers from major chains contacting her, and other private backers came forward to give the business a further boost. It was an inspired move by Solvej, a former London lawyer, which has helped see Content and Calm establish a firm footing at a time when many small businesses face a desperate struggle.
So where did it all start? With travelling of course. “Trying to keep to sleeping patterns for young children is really difficult when you go abroad, particularly with little ones in the hotel room with you,” says Solvej.
It’s something she’s experienced with both her children, with family in Denmark (her mother is Danish) and husband’s relatives in the States. “You’re thinking about black-out blinds or rigging towels up at the windows if you’re in one of those places where it’s light until really late. And how do you make the room pitch black so they sleep, while you are using it as well?” she recalls.
After one such trip with then baby Andrea Anna, Solvej began hunting on the internet for a travel cot canopy that provided a black-out effect, found nothing, and so began to sketch out her idea. She wanted something that not only suited long distance travel but also those overnights where you stay with friends or family to avoid what can seem like all-day travel.
In 2007 she gave up the legal role to work full-time on developing the canopy and getting it to market. By 2009 she had her first product on sale, with production starting in China. It’s a route many entrepreneurs have taken, and indicative of China’s strong manufacturing base – quickly turning ideas into high quality items is, as Solvej says: “A skill they already had.”
And it’s been a learning curve too. There’s the logistics of keeping unit costs down while coping with the growing Chinese economy and wage increases there.
Trade shows produced more UK interest and Solvej began to branch out. Next came the Protectishade, a shade that even the wiliest tot can’t pull off, and which screens them from all angles during the journey.
Before long it had been joined by a version for pushchairs and strollers. The child can always see out but is screened from harmful rays, the wind or annoying insects. The very lightweight version for buggies sells at just £9.99, while adjustable Protectishade Original which can be attached to car seats is £39.99.
As Solvej’s own children grew, so did the product line, and one of the big favourites is TrayKit, a sort of backpack which morphs into a tray that can be attached to the seat in front or used on the lap.
The tray part has extendable sides (which nicely limits the number of times parents have to scrabble around to find vital ‘treasures’ dropped on the floor).
The fun here starts before the journey begins as children can choose what they want to take with them and pack it in the TrayKit’s numerous sections before setting off. And TrayKit itself has developed into a range of colours and styles for all ages.
Going from a one-woman business has allowed her to take on employees.
Helen Purcell, originally a summer student from Warwick University, now handles international sales and marketing, while sales assistant Stephanie Gaughan brings additional skills including web design.
Solvej is full of praise for the Yattendon Estate who came up with the perfect premises at The Old Brew House in the village centre when she began looking for a business base after moving from Fulham last year: “They were innovative, different – there was none of that ‘corporate face’. I was simply invited to go and have a look and let them know what I needed.”
As well as the US market, Content and Calm is looking to expand its operations in France and further afield in Australia and New Zealand.
As they often make very long journeys by car there’s a chance to show them the benefits of Protectishade. Then there’s South Korea, one of the markets that likes to ‘Buy British’.
“It’s very risky building a business internationally, but you can’t count on just the UK economy,” says Solvej, “even if it often seems that the government here is relying on small businesses to turn things around.”
It may be tough, but we reckon the businesswomen of Berkshire, like Solvej Biddle, will have an important role to play in getting the country’s economy moving.
See www.contentandcalm.com, tel 01635 201181.