INTERVIEW: Julie Wilson and Amy Livingstone, Cheeky Chompers
‘The product being made by mums has been important to us’
Sometimes the most obvious business ideas are just staring you in the face. In the case of Julie Wilson and Amy Livingstone, it was their dribbling babies who proved to be the ‘light bulb’ moment that changed their lives.
The couple had become friends at an ante-natal clinic on Edinburgh’s southside and were trying to think of a business concept over a bottle of wine. They came up with the neckerchew, the world’s first chewy dribble bib for teething tots.
Because the teether is attached to the bib it resolves the constant frustration of picking them up from the floor, or losing them when the baby decides to drop them from their pushchair.
“Everyone says it seems such a simple idea they wished they had thought of it,” says Julie. “It was there in front of us, but also came from talking to other mums about what would make their lives easier.”
She and Amy have not wasted any time turning the idea into a global business. They set up Cheeky Chompers, employed a young designer to turn the idea into a product, and agreed a manufacturing deal with a company in Glasgow.
Since the first product went on the market three years ago this month, they have got patents and trademarks in place, not just in the UK, but in 31 countries. Crucially, retailers can’t get enough of what is now a range of products, with many of the big names such as John Lewis, M&S and Boots taking orders.
Yet when they took their idea to the BBC’s Dragons’ Den they were told they had “delusional expectations” and left empty-handed. Afterwards the phones didn’t stop ringing as willing investors offered to help.
Tom Joule, who runs the eponymous country clothing and children’s wear chain, was among those who got in touch.
Julie says: “He told us he was shouting at the television. He couldn’t believe they wouldn’t invest.”
He agreed to a collaboration, developing Cheeky Chompers products using his firm’s fabric designs.
They initially planned to sell 5,000 neckerchews direct and 5,000 in shops but have so far sold 650,000. Turnover was forecast at £70,000. It has just hit £1.2 million and is expected to double again this year. With figures like that, it is not surprising that business awards have also followed.
Amy, who previously worked in hotel management, says: “We never expected the business to take off like this, but there was nothing like it on the market.”
Next on the agenda is a licensing agreement to put a children’s cartoon character on the products. It will be announced next month and will extend the brand in the gift market.
There is also a growing market in the special needs category and they are looking at how to develop products that follow a child’s development.
Amy, who has a boy aged four and a two-year-old girl, explained how growth had also brought a few problems, such as counterfeiting, which is a persistent issue.
“We’ve even had people pretend to be me and Julie. It’s quite exhausting keeping on top of it,” she says.
Despite the rapid expansion of the business they want to maintain the principles on which it was founded.
Julie, a mother to a four-year-old girl, says: “We have traded on the product being developed by mums for other mums. It is important that the customer knows we have been there and know what it involves.”
Mums have certainly responded enthusiastically to the range of bibs, blankets and chewy toys. There are 12,000 Facebook followers, and many of them post photos of their children with the products.
Julie and Amy are also proud that they have a manufacturing deal with nappy firm Tots Bots in Glasgow.
“It’s nice to know we are creating jobs, and manufacturing jobs, too,” says Julie who spent a career working in health clubs and latterly as business adviser at Scottish Enterprise.
There was also happy outcome for the student who designed the first chewy teether.
“He is now working for Dyson,” says Julie. “He is one of their top product designers.”
Photo: Julie Wilson (left) and Amy Livingstone (by Terry Murden)
Education: Leeds University (Sports science)
Career highlights: worked in health and fitness clubs in London; sales and marketing in Australia; business development for Scottish Enterprise
Mornings. And people who don’t do what they say they will do.
Education: Queen Margaret University (hospitality and tourism management)
Career highlights: Events manager, George, Balmoral and Hotel du Vin
People who are not polite