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Just like many parents, Sophia Procter was struggling to get her little boy to eat at mealtimes, which made every day an ongoing challenge.
She wanted to make eating fun and enjoyable in the hope that this would get her son to eat.
She had the idea that maybe her Thomas the Tank Engine-obsessed son would eat if he could play with his trains around the edge of his plate.
After endless searching for a plate with a train track around the rim, she found that no such product existed, and therefore a new business idea was born.
Sophia created Munchy Play and has gone on to make deals with the likes of Mattel, which has grown her business by over 230%.
In this episode, Sophia talks through the process of creating her product from scratch, including protecting her design idea and launching her business during Covid.
Here’s her unfiltered advice below:
- Creating the blueprint for a brand new product
- Conducting your own product research
- Protecting your design and ideas with a patent
- Funding your startup by freelancing
- Use negative situations as an opportunity to create innovative solutions
- Online stores are the easier route for small businesses to get started
- Business challenges that come with Brexit
- Securing licensing deals with big brands such as Mattel
- You can become more resilient by learning to accept failure
- All mums are working mums
- Keep your business growth sustainable
- Success is when you no longer have to do everything yourself
Creating the blueprint for a brand new product
So Sophia, you came up with this idea for a kid’s plate with a built-in track around the edges, back in 2017. There was nothing else like it on the market.
So talk us through how you came up with this blueprint for a brand new product.
It’s a question I do get asked a lot.
Everybody has an idea in them and when you start saying, “Oh, I designed a plate, and actually I brought it to life,” people start unravelling all of the ideas they have.
So I think it’s really important to share this because there is no blueprint, there is no book for it, and you do have to figure it out a lot.
But whatever journey you are on, it does tend to follow the same process. And the first thing is when you have that light bulb moment.
So for me, I was really struggling with my toddler. He wouldn’t eat at meal times, and it was just this perpetual problem, and I was back at work, and I had this sort of mum guilt that I think a lot of parents have, that as long as I can feed him, he’ll be alright.
And I struggled all the time.
And it wasn’t until I realised that he needed some sort of form of play or fun to make it an enjoyable place to be, that I thought maybe I’ll just put his favourite Thomas the Tank Engine around the plate.
And that’s when it all changed.
When you have that moment, when you have that idea, the first thing you need to do is just research if that product even exists. And so naturally the first thing I did was go on to Amazon because I wanted to buy a plate with a track, and it didn’t exist.
And I thought, that’s so strange because it’s such an obvious idea. Why does that not exist?
Conducting your own product research
Once you’d found the manufacturer, and you built the initial prototype, how did you then assess demand for that kind of product?
What sort of research did you do in the market?
Yeah, I mean this is important because you can’t just be passionate. There has to be the commercial side to it. And being bootstrapped, you don’t have the budget to get a massive crew out there to do all that research. You have to do it yourself.
I spent a lot of time in the British Library. I actually had a mentor in the inventor in residence at the British Library who was really helpful and put me in the right direction. And then I did my own field research and I literally, I got a prototype of my product made, which is so different to how it looks now.
I got that made and I took that to people in the street. I literally was in Westfield, thrusting it into parents’ hands saying to them, “Do you like this?” Because nobody wants to stop, do they?
And I was like, “Do you like this? You’ve got a child, I can see you’ve got a toddler. Is this a product you would buy?” And people were very honest.
A few people said, “No, I don’t like the idea of playing at mealtimes.”
A lot of people said they loved it and a lot of people said they struggled at mealtimes, which confirmed to me what I already knew.
And of course in the sort of other research that I did, looking at research papers, looking at different trade bodies, plastics, I really delved deep into it all and found that a lot of products today for kids are made from melamine, a lot of the major retailers stock melamine kids plates.
I looked at the association of melamine and some of the toxins, the potential toxins in that product, and I wasn’t convinced that that was the right plastic I wanted to use.
So I found a far more sustainable and safer product, which was polypropylene. So I did so much research into every element of this because if I’m putting my name to it and this is going to children, it’s got to be the very best product that is possible.
And that’s something that businesses, small businesses do.
They can put their heart into a product, and they can also start from the beginning and do things the right way, do things their way. And not having any background in manufacturing really was an advantage I think, because I wasn’t doing what I thought I should be doing.
I was doing what I wanted to do because it was the right thing, not because that’s how it’s always been done.
So that’s a massive bonus when you start your own business.
Protecting your design and ideas with a patent
So once you’d nailed the design for it and the materials, and you’d assessed demand, how did you then go about protecting the design?
Can you talk us through that process and how much it cost to protect your idea?
It’s patent pending and I own all the design rights to it, which are actually even more important because design rights actually stand up quite strongly in the court of law and the brand name itself, Munchy Play, is trademarked.
I got the best team of lawyers in London to do this all for me. It’s quite a big thing to do on your own. I don’t recommend it. And it costs tens of thousands.
Again, it’s all territory which territories you decide to do, but I went the full way.
Funding your startup by freelancing
I mean that is a huge cost. Plus you spent around three years in research and development.
How else did you fund those early days other than the redundancy package?
So one thing is when you launch your business, in most cases you are just starting from scratch, and you don’t know if you’re going to produce a revenue stream then, you don’t know how long it’s going to take to come to market.
I actually thought it would take me, naively, six months. I was like, I’ll get this done in six months. I’ve brought an Olympic flame from Athens to London. I can do this in six months. Three years later!
When you’re creating something from scratch, there’s no template for it. So you’ve got to really be in it for the long haul. And with that means you’ve got to find another revenue income for yourself.
And I loved working in the media industry. I loved writing, I loved helping other small businesses. And so what actually happened was when I left my job, there was a six-month period of gardening leave, and we had to go into this office to do career searching.
And I hate wasting time. I’m not one of those people. I would never just sit around as a lot of people would and did. I actually used it to make money and I started in the gig economy and I started writing for people. I started to hone my skills.
I realised that I wasn’t just a press release writer, but I could write SEO content. I started to educate myself about the new AI chat that’s coming. Everything.
You sort of learn that as you develop, and I started to get some really good clients.
Use negative situations as an opportunity to create innovative solutions
And of course then when you were ready to launch Munchy Play, the pandemic hit.
So can you talk us through what impact that had on the shape of the business and how you turned that real challenge into an opportunity?
When you look at my product, it is a simple product and that’s why I think it’s successful. But what you don’t often realise is, simple products are really hard to make.
There was a lot of engineering behind it, which is why it took so long. And in the manufacturing world, I had to buy it all. A big hunk of steel basically. And that’s what makes my product, think of a big sandwich maker.
And if one part of the product didn’t work, they’d have to take it off the machine, and you’d wait another six weeks to two months to get that machine back on and try it again.
So it was a very drawn-out process, that’s why it took so long.
And finally in March 2020 when I was just ready to press the green light, I mean I was just ready, the pandemic struck, and I had been keeping an eye on it because I could see it coming.
I think a lot of us could see it coming. Everyone but the government seemed to be able to see it coming, didn’t they?
You could see what was coming. This wave was just coming in our direction. I was fully prepared that we might be going into some sort of quarantine, and I pressed pause, mostly because the factory wouldn’t be able to open.
But also, you’ve got to measure the temperature in the room. Who wants to launch a product, who wants to buy something at that time? Everyone was worried about security, their health, how they could bring money into their homes.
I mean we all lived through it, didn’t we, three years ago? Oh, I’m even getting goosebumps thinking about it. It was a really awful time.
And I pressed pause and I was in full panic mode. I have health anxiety anyway, so that was not very good for me.
We pulled our son out of school two weeks in advance because I was just so worried. And homeschooling became very early for us.
So with all that going on, I kept on freelancing and what I saw, it was really interesting, actually. What an advantage it was I think looking back, I’d already for the past three years built up this little gig of writing for people, which I’d become quite successful at this point.
And it was such an advantage going into lockdown because I knew what to do, I knew where to get work, I had clients, I knew what people were looking for, and I had my PR background.
So I was very fortunate. And when you couldn’t leave the house, and you couldn’t do anything, my husband was unable to work in his industry. I was basically the breadwinner for a short period of time.
That meant working from the moment I got up, to the moment I went to bed, honestly, with a bit of childcare thrown in. My husband did so much of that and that was a challenging time.
But what I learned at that time was that small businesses started by saying to me, “Help, what do we say to our clients? What do we say to our stakeholders? What do we say to the media?”
And I’d prepare all that.
I wrote 10,000 words in one week for an Australian government body. They were a little bit ahead of us about how to deal with a media strategy in a crisis. So I was very busy.
But then not very long after, maybe about two to three months after the pandemic, the tide started to turn and clients were saying to me, “I’ve just launched, I’ve come up with this idea.” And it was all fascinating stuff.
It was like curbside pickup for major high street shops, QR codes on menus, which we take for granted but weren’t a thing then. So a lot of contactless stuff. And people were, you could say, well were they taken advantage of the situation? And I absolutely don’t think so.
People were being innovative, people were thinking of ways to make life better, commercially better for them maybe, but they were making life better. They were coming up with ideas and pivoting. And I was so impressed with that. And it all started to happen when people started to ease into the world of lockdown.
I started to think, well, my plate is helping my son because we are struggling, we live in a very small house, and it’s helping. And I always 100% believed in my product.
But now even more so that mums are not buying makeup, they’re not having their hair done. And even though money is tight, people would always find it for their children or just to make life better in any way they could.
So I thought, well actually maybe this is the right time. Maybe I should take a punt on this. Maybe this is the time that I should launch my business in the middle of lockdown with Brexit looming, with us all stuck in our house. Why not?
The other thing was that people were buying online. So you might remember that you could pretty much only go into a couple of supermarkets I think, and everything else you’d rely on online for. And my business strategy up to that point had been retail heavy.
So I really envisaged my product in garden centres and in big stores. And overnight, I literally changed my business model to an online one.
I built my business on Shopify. I joined Amazon who were massively supportive, and I completely changed my mindset and I changed my approach and I thought, well now this is the time that maybe we just do a soft launch online.
That blueprint is still in pace.
And despite the challenges of lockdown, it actually set me up for a very successful online presence. I built an online community, and the product now still sells mostly online.
So there are some benefits as a business. I never planned to launch a business in lockdown, that’s for sure. A lot of people don’t. But I do find there were some benefits in doing so.
And at that time, Amazon had launched this startup programme with Enterprise Nation and that was amazing for small businesses. They opened the door when retailers had it closed and locked.
And I’d speak to retailers, I actually spoke to the owner of JoJo Maman Bébé, a lovely woman.
Laura, that’s right, Laura, yeah.
And she was so lovely, and she said to me, “Love your product, would love to help. But we’ve got our doors closed, and we’ve got stock, and it’s a difficult time.”
And I thought how lovely of her to even take the time to respond when people don’t. Lovely lady.
But it was very indicative of that time. You couldn’t get into retail at all.
And so I had to really start thinking, well, if I’m going to do this, how am I going to get to the customer? And everyone of course is online, on social media and Amazon of course, and Amazon massively helped me.
They opened the door, they said, join this programme with Enterprise Nation, and it gave you access to free training. It was an amazing network. They used their platform to put me on BBC News.
So that all sort of helped the snowball of the brand building. So difficult time, but you can always find opportunity in it, I think.
Online stores are the easier route for small businesses to get started
So the pandemic really forced you to have this strong digital proposition early on.
Do you still plan to go down the retail route?
Yes, I would like to. Retail is a whole other beast and I would love to be able to be in the stores that my customers love. But one of the challenges is that as a small business, the door’s not very open for you.
And the feedback I’ve had is, “Love your product. However, you’re a small business, you only have two lines of a product, and it’s too much hassle.”
And that is the sad truth, to get you in the system to get all the admin set up. And that is such a shame that that’s the approach to small businesses in this day and age.
But I don’t need to rely on that. I have a really successful online model, munchyplay.com is driving traffic massively through our social channels, online advertising, Amazon and Etsy are really great places for us. We’re actually stocked in some retail places like Drayton Manor and a couple of gift shops.
So there is a massive opportunity and as we see, the main people who buy our products are grandparents and parents and even grandparents are shopping more online, particularly after Covid.
My in-laws actually never ever, well every week they do their weekly shop at Asda and since the lockdown they still get their groceries delivered weekly through their online booking system.
So I think we’ve seen a real sea change there, and I definitely noticed that from customers emailing me. A lot of grandparents like to email me, which is lovely.
So I think it’s very strong actually our online presence, and you can build an online business very successfully.
Yeah, we have seen a huge shift in a way that consumers shop.
Business challenges that come with Brexit
You mentioned Brexit earlier, I wanted to ask you about that. What’s been the impact of that on your business?
One of the things when I launched Munchy Play, the ethos behind it or some of the passion I had was, I really want this to be a well-made safe product that parents love and that is high quality. It might cost a little bit more, but it’s going to be good.
And for that, I always knew it had to be made in Britain. I used to work for a very British company, and it was kind of part of the values there, and I took that with me because why wouldn’t you want to support your own economy? So that was one part of it.
Also, manufacturing is massive in the UK it’s one of the things we do really well, but it is more expensive than going to the Far East, but with reason, I think.
So for all those reasons, I decided that I would manufacture my product in the UK and that meant that I wasn’t as affected by Brexit as a lot of my competitors were.
We never had to worry about delays importing from China. There was loads of cargo that was stuck during the lockdown period, so we didn’t have the logistical problems.
But that said, there was still rising costs in raw materials. The price of plastics went up, the price of recyclable cardboard went up. We used no single use plastic in our product, so even our packaging is cardboard. So all of those prices went up. So that affected me.
But also, I did see that suppliers that I use were struggling a little with the workforce challenge. Over 460,000 people left the UK and returned to the EU as a result of Brexit. That’s the figures and that has impacted us as a country, I think. And so you can’t deny that that has had an impact on the supply chain. Some delays that have affected everyone I think in the UK.
And then the shipping to Ireland issue. So that came a little bit later, and it’s very onerous to be able to send packages to Ireland these days. There’s so much paperwork, there’s so much more administration that goes with it, that I think that’s made it really prohibitive to a lot of people.
So I don’t see many positives for small businesses, unfortunately.
Securing licensing deals with big brands such as Mattel
And six months after launching Munchy Play, you struck a deal with Mattel as a licensed partner.
I’d love to know how you clinched that deal and how you gained credibility in the market.
Do you know, that just makes me smile when you say that because it is, I think one of my great successes. Because I had this dream and my son was obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine. I don’t know if you have that in your life, but they go through these obsessions, don’t they?
But Thomas, that was there for a long time, and I just thought, oh, wouldn’t it be lovely if I could while he’s still a toddler, just have a Thomas plate and make that.
And unfortunately, he was a little bit older by the time it was available.
But the dream was always, I started off with the Choo-Choo plate that was called, and you can see it was really basic. It was kind of a concept that I just thought I’ll get out there and see if there is demand for it because as you were saying earlier, the only way to do it really is to do it.
You can do your research, but you got to put it to market. So I did have to just put myself on the line and try it. So we started with that, but it was always Thomas I wanted.
I had a mentor through Innovate UK, and she was wonderful.
And I said to her, “The product’s launched, and it’s really doing well, but the dream was always Thomas. Thomas and Friends.”
And she said, “Well just approach them.”
And I said, “What do you mean just approach them?”
She said, “Just approach them. Licensing is sales, and they’re going to want to work with you because your product is innovative. There’s nothing like this.”
So luckily it was actually the brand licensing exhibition, which is the big license event, I think that that winter. And I registered for it, and I put my details up on the website, and I was literally inundated by major brands who all approached me to say, “Would you be interested in a licensed partnership?”
And I could not believe it.
I really was surprised because I was such a small player and I had only just launched, but I did know that I had something quite special because you can’t repeat that, but I always had my eyes on the prize.
So I contacted Mattel, and I found the loveliest people, Gemma and Holly and I approached them, and I just said to them, “Look, I’m a small business owner. I’m a mum, I work really hard, and this is my dream. And I really believe that with Thomas and this product, we can make this a huge success.”
And I didn’t even need to sell it to them. They just got it.
And they’re like a second family to me today. So much so that a year later they said to me, “You really should do a Hot Wheels plate. I had just a generic car plate.”
And so I said, “Okay, let’s try Hot Wheels”. And that has been a massive success too. So I think, you say how do you clinch that deal? Well, I showed them the product, but also I was very honest. I think being vulnerable in business is something that we are sometimes scared of doing.
At the same time, there’s a little bit of faking it to make it, so you don’t want to be like, on this call, that’s actually my bedroom behind me.
You do want to actually be taken seriously, but you can be honest and say, “I’m a small business, and we’re still developing our brand, but I will work very hard at this, and I could show you from past sales that this is only going to increase. This is my business plan, this is the strategy.”
And people will, if they believe in your product enough, and they believe in you enough, I think that’s going to really serve you quite well.
You can become more resilient by learning to accept failure
Where do you think that determination and passion and resilience comes from, Sophia?
Do you think your background working for corporates like British Airways and Red Bull has helped you? What have you learned from that career?
Do you know, the thing that helps me the most, I think it’s my superpower, is that I’ve always been a bit of an underdog. So I’m born on the 31st of August, which means I was always the youngest at school. I was the youngest at university, I was the youngest everywhere.
And that does mean that you are actually statistically, you’re less likely to go to university, you’re less likely to have a higher income. Children born in August are less likely to do well in sport because they’re the smallest, and they don’t get picked first.
It’s fascinating when you look into it.
And I struggled, I worked so hard at school, but I never really got the results because I just wasn’t maybe the most academic and maybe being younger didn’t help and having foreign parents, my dad’s from Cyprus, my mum’s from Ireland, they worked around the clock. They had a fish and chip shop.
So I think all of that was a bit of a struggle, but I think because of it, I was failing a lot and learning how to fail. And I see my son, he’s eight years old, and he hates failure.
We did his maths the other day and I said to him, “Oh, you got that wrong.” And he was so upset, and I said, “Don’t be upset. This is so good. I’m glad you got that wrong because you’re going to learn from it.”
And we have to set our children up to accept failure because it is so important. All of the battles I faced when I was younger are what make me a resilient person today.
I’m not frightened of putting myself out there. I’m not frightened of failure, and I’ve failed so much. I’ve already failed in this business because I’ve already had to overcome so many challenges and I could have stopped, I could have stopped when the plate didn’t work, but I carried on.
So resilience is what gets you through it. I always say this, that you look at success, but at any point in that journey, if I’d stopped, I wouldn’t have been successful.
The plate failed on round one, it failed on round two, I couldn’t get parts of it to work. It was because I kept going that I succeeded.
And it’s that being in it for the long haul, that determination. I think that comes from resilience. I think it’s probably part of my personality to be quite determined. I like to prove people wrong, and I’m quite a focused person I think.
So I think all those things sort of helped me and more than anything, the belief in my product, I really just, sometimes I would doubt myself. Sometimes I would doubt whether I was the right person to do this. Sometimes I would doubt if I could get it made in the UK. That was not easy.
But I never doubted my product and that’s what saw me through it, the ability to just go, you need to do this. Even if for me, success was always getting this product to market. And then when you do, you’re part two of the journey, which is what’s next?
I’ve got business now I’ve got to start thinking about that. So a very interesting journey for sure.
All mums are working mums
I know you’ve said, everyone I spoke to thought I was overly ambitious. Do you think a male entrepreneur would’ve got that same reaction?
So Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg is such a good book that talks about this, and it says how women don’t put their hands up enough. Women don’t assert themselves enough. And we compare ourselves to our male counterparts.
I think there was an example where a woman will go for a job when she can do 100% of that job. A man will go for a job, and he can do 60% of that job. It’s fascinating, and we need to learn from that because we’re not helping ourselves.
So yes, would men be treated differently in this situation? Quite possibly. Am I being overly ambitious? Well, you can say that, but I feel that it’s determination that’s what gets you there.
And I hope I’m a role model to my son, actually. He said to me yesterday that he said at school I was the smartest person he knows, which is so lovely. Not true, but it’s so lovely.
But that’s probably from me saying to him all the time, “Look how hard I work. Look at how hard work gets you somewhere. Look at how I fail and how I have to pick myself up again. Look at how Mummy does this and picks you up and makes sure that you’ve got food.”
I really think it’s important we educate the next generation. And I do think that things are changing and shifting, but it’s really important as mothers that we educate our sons that whether you work or you don’t, all mums are working mums.
Keep your business growth sustainable
So give us a snapshot of the business now, Sophia, and what is the next milestone for you?
So we are, gosh, about to celebrate our third milestone. So we were actually named the London Startup of the Year last year, which was amazing, by the Federation of Small Business. And I think that’s lovely.
Am I still a startup now? I’m not sure.
I think we are entering that next growth period. And last year I moved my manufacturer to a slightly bigger one that had more robotic capability, in the UK still. And that has really supercharged the business.
Having Mattel behind the brand has grown us by 230%. And we have an exciting new product coming soon, which I can’t share yet, but it’s on the way.
So really, it’s about sustainable growth. I think you can grow far too quickly and not be able to manage it. Being a control freak. I try to avoid that situation. So I’m always very mindful I’m really across all parts of the business.
I look at everything in detail from the licensing to straight through to distribution, everything I’m part of it. So for me, it’s about sustainable growth. It’s about continuing to innovate as a business and a brand and to grow our presence online because that’s such an important place for us.
I would like us to get into retail. But if that comes, then it will come at the right time with the right partner that buys into our product as well.
So there are a lot of things there. And ultimately I would love to expand to international markets too, but I do need some support for that, and I don’t feel like I can perhaps do that all on my own just yet.
Success is when you no longer have to do everything yourself
I mean, what do you think it’s going to take to get there? As you go through that next phase of growth what do you need to put in place to really make sure it’s a robust business, and you are not still doing everything yourself?
I’ve got a mentor who says that her job is to make me redundant. So she says, “When you can stop doing everything, that’s when we’ve got success. You need to put yourself out of a job.”
Which is so true, but I find that so hard. And of course I’m still growing as a business. We’re still in that early growth period, but it’s getting better every year, every month.
So I need to put more provisions in place I think, for that growth so that I’m not doing so much of everything. And I’ve already started to do that.
We’ve got a really good pool of freelance support. This year, I’m going to start getting a bigger warehouse so that we can have more in the lead up to Christmas because demand was so big in quarter four last year and I think it could be even bigger this year.
So I need to put those provisions in place and grow and maybe even look at investment opportunities or some sort of opportunity there, perhaps.
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