After she and her husband lost their jobs, Jennifer Labit was at a point where she says her family was choosing between buying diapers or groceries.
In 2002, the new mom invested $100 in a baby product, hoping to sell it for extra money, and Cotton Babies was born. The infant company would quickly grow with the addition of washable and thus reusable cloth diapers to its product line, becoming an economic and environmentally friendly alternative to traditional parenting product companies. Today, it’s a St. Louis-based industry leader with more than 80 employees.
Smart Business sat down with Labit, founder and CEO, at the 2011 Ernst & Young Strategic Growth Forum to discuss how she continues to innovate Cotton Babies’ product line by engaging consumers.
Q: Where do you look for inspiration?
I look to moms. My moms tell me what they want, and we listen really carefully and we develop the products they want to see. If we don’t respond to what they want, they’re not going to buy.
We started selling cloth diapers a few months after we started selling products, and I realized almost immediately that this is what our customers were looking for. We started just selling baby carriers initially, and people usually just buy one or two of those, where with diapers they buy them and then they get addicted to them. Then they keep buying them because they like how cute they are. It’s like women with purses and shoes — they can’t get enough of them.
Q: How do you engage your consumers to get feedback?
When we’ve got a question, all we have to do is go out and ask them. Our brand pages combined, between my (Facebook) fan page and all the brand pages that we have, we have around 100,000 people that we can just put something out and Facebook tells us. It’s incredible, and everybody and anybody who wants to say anything does.
I’ve learned more from Facebook than I’ve ever learned from a group of 20 random people sitting there telling me something that they’ve been conditioned to say because they’ve been in a room with the same people for an hour.
Q: How do you filter through feedback to find the salient ideas?
Most of the time, people don’t have the guts to post unless they’ve got something that’s reasonable to think about.
When you hear it once, it’s like, ‘That’s interesting.’ When you hear it twice, you’re like ‘Huh.’ When you hear it the third time, there’s something going on and you better chase it.
Q: How do you find employees to accommodate your rapid growth?
We hire a lot on referrals, so we have a lot of friends of friends and family and people who knew people who were looking for work who’ve been pulled in. My staff is as much of a filter for me as our interview processes because they know who they want to work with. So we really look to them to help us find the right people
But we also started advertising on Craigslist anonymously. We put a job description out there, and we would not tell people what company we were. And what we found out is that we had people self-imposing the filter, so we were only getting a particular kind of person. I really wanted to get a lot broader in our staff, and what we found was that by advertising anonymously on Craigslist, we got a lot more interesting people with various skills. We’ve hired a number of them that way, and it’s been incredibly successful.
How to reach: Cotton Babies, (888) 332-2243 or www.cottonbabies.com