Setting up a £3M business & saving the planet ... Whilst bringing up 4 children.
Top tips for time management & making it happen by Helen Rankin, Founder of Cheeky Wipes.
Helen Rankin set up her eco-friendly reusable wipe business 12 years ago when she was 37 weeks pregnant with her third child. Starting up an ambitious & forward-thinking eco-friendly business is hard enough, but to do it around raising 4 children, requires some next-level determination, drive and time-management skills.
In anyone’s eyes, Helen is clearly a SUPER HERO. In this blog, she explains how she set up a business which turned over more than £3 million pounds in 2019 and has now saved over 40 million disposable sanitary products and 25 million packets of baby wipes from landfill, whilst raising her now 16, 13, 11 & 9 year olds.
1. Helen, what inspired you to set up Cheeky Wipes?
I’ve suffered from eczema for more than 40 years and never quite grew out of it like the Doctor said that I would. When my eldest son Archie was born 16 years ago, I was having a bad eczema ‘flare-up’ on my hands and I couldn’t use disposable baby wipes, they all really irritated my skin.
I was already using cloth nappies, so it seemed like a good idea to try cloth wipes. Initially I cut up an old towel, but within weeks, they looked like something you would wash the car with!
But gradually, my system for using cloth wipes developed from there. I came up with solutions to make them fast and easy to use at home AND out and about. And made them easy to wash without having to touch the pooey wipes again.
After a short spell in hospital with baby number 2, I remembered quite how much I detested disposable baby wipes and thought that maybe there was an opportunity for me to launch a kit, making cloth wipes easy for all parents – whether they used cloth nappies or disposable. Easy, money saving and better for the environment….it’s a win on all fronts.
2. How did you take your first steps to get your business off the ground?
I had already had a previous business, Instant Forever which sold cool photo guest books for weddings. Unfortunately at that stage Polaroid stopped production of their original Polaroid film and cameras…so that wound down over about a year. So I already had some notion of what it took from a marketing & website perspective. What I lacked, totally, was manufacturing expertise!
I tried to source all the elements of the kit myself in the UK (bags, boxes, wipes and oils) but I just couldn’t. Not for a price that consumers would be happy to pay.
Eventually I found a manufacturing sourcing company that I worked with for many years, Sorcit, in Nottingham. They had offices in China, could actually visit the factories and helped me in sourcing the products.
The only thing I initially sourced myself was the essential oils as I wanted to ensure the quality. We have a supplier in Hampshire who we have worked with for all that time.
3. How long was Cheeky Wipes in development before you launched?
I think it took around 9 or 10 months to get everything sourced and manufactured. We launched at a trade show at the NEC when I was 37 weeks pregnant with baby number 3!
4. Did you design it all yourself (wipes, boxes, bags etc)?
I looked after the branding element of it, so the logos which were used on all the bags and boxes, but initially the boxes were simply tupperware style boxes with our labels on them. It wasn’t until a few production runs later that we decided to go for it and commit to manufacturing our own bespoke boxes. We are now on version 4 of our own boxes!
5. Did you raise any funding to get started?
No. I relied on income coming in from winding down my previous business, but occasionally had to tap credit cards in order to pay customs duties and taxes for containers of wipes. It was fairly stressful!
6. How did you balance starting up your business, then growing it, around your children?
I think people say that ‘if you want something done, ask a busy person’. I’m fairly organised (from a business perspective…not my wardrobe!) I remember answering emails with a baby breastfeeding on one boob, while expressing on the other boob! I was extremely lucky in that my in-laws were happy to help with the pick and packing side of things. My father-in-law had been in charge of a factory before he retired and converted his garage to become my pick and pack store. That left me to able to concentrate on everything else!
I think generally it has been fairly balanced. I’m usually there for school pick up and drop offs and even though I am now sometimes still working after school, it all mostly works out.
7. Do you have non-negotiables in life and business? (i.e. I make sure I only work 4 days a week / pick up my children from school 3 days a week / go to a weekly spin class etc)
For me, it’s about trying to keep that balance. I find holidays the most difficult thing as I do get stressed by the amount of emails building up, so find it better to get up early every morning or every other morning to stay on top of them – then I can properly relax for the rest of the day.
But it’s much better than it was, I have a great team around me and I can rely on them to keep Team Cheeky running without me sticking my nose in!
8. What were the key challenges you experienced in launching Cheeky Wipes?
I think we had two major challenges. One is the manufacturing side of things. Things can, and do, go wrong and we had some production runs where the quality of items wasn’t as good as I wanted.
The other aspect was consumer attitudes. So many people were (and some still are) disgusted at the thought of reusable wipes, sanitary pads etc. I’ve always been much more disgusted by the eco impact and money wasted on disposable plastic filled items, but each to their own!
9. How did these challenges impact you and how did they make you feel?
The consumer attitudes changed slowly over time as we grew and our customers spread the word, attitudes started to slowly shift. Helped in a large volumes by both Sir David Attenborough and his Blue Planet series and also by Hugh Fernley Whittingstall and his #waronplastic
Production issues were more challenging! I had no experience and often felt out of my depth. And it’s so easy to take things personally when it’s your own business! So I developed my ‘What would Sir Alan Sugar do?’ moments!
It sounds silly, but it helps take the emotion out of the problem and for me, allowed me to step back, think rationally and come up with a solution.
There’s always a solution.
And quite often a #brightside too if you look for it, even if that’s only learning how NOT to do something next time!
10. Did you ever consider giving up and if so, what kept you going?
I did have one moment, about 3 or 4 years in, when I realised that once again, I didn’t have the money that I needed to pay customs and import duties on stock coming into the country. I just wasn’t making enough to break even. I thought there was still an opportunity to grow the business, but we couldn’t continue as we were.
It was a crucial moment. I talked to my husband and realised that something needed to change in order to make the business profitable.
For me, that was starting to source products myself. I slowly built a reliable network of trusted factories, pretty much all of whom are small family businesses, like ours. I’ve met all the family members and we have great relationships.
11. What key lessons have you learned that could share with others going through these challenges?
Don’t be afraid to fail or make mistakes. Everyone does. But learn from them and use that experience to do better next time.
12. If you could go back in time, would you do anything differently?
That’s an interesting question. In all honesty, I don’t think I would. Like I say, you learn, grow and develop from making mistakes. The business has grown slowly and organically over the years and for me, balancing running the business with looking after the kids, that was the best thing.
13. How have the challenges you’ve faced changed as your business has grown?
I think I’ll rephrase this one – they say all challenges are actually opportunities and this was certainly my perspective. I had a bit of an epiphany last year whilst on holiday with my kids. I’d stopped at Eurotunnel and been browsing for something to read and picked up a book on strategy written by the Harvard Business Review.
Not exactly my standard poolside reading!
But reading the book made me realise that I could do so much more with the business, given that the kids were that bit older now and less hands on. But the trouble was that I didn’t really know where to start! I needed some help.
Thankfully, I found it in the form of a business mentor, whom I have been working with for the past year. He’s great, he happens to be my loyal sidekick Claire’s uncle and has 40 years experience in business and had previously mentored for the Prince’s Trust.
He is great and we are working together to transform the business from a ‘lifestyle’ business to a scalable one. We don’t always agree on things, but he has helped prise my fingers away from the nitty gritty daily routine of things which has left me free to grow and develop the business.
14. How long into running your business did you hire team members and who were they?
For quite a while I ran the business myself, with help from my father in-law and casual help. But my friend Claire was my first proper employee. Claire has done everything, from overlocking wipes which were not quite finished properly, through pick and pack, customer services and she is now Head of logistics and product development. Mind you, if we exhibit at a Baby Show, I’m definitely her bitch when it comes to setting up and dismantling the stand! Claire acts as my inspiration and brakes if necessary as I have a mind a bit like a pinball machine!
We then employed another friend, also called Claire who continues to do a fantastic job running the warehouse admin side of things.
And around the same time, an old friend, Jo, took over the Customer Services side of things. If you’ve ever contacted Cheeky Wipes, it’s likely that you’ve spoken to Jo. She is brilliant, she is warm, straightforward and super friendly.
From there we have grown to a team of almost 30 who mostly work part-time. The warehouse team tend to be comprised of friends of friends, or sons / daughters of existing members of staff, which gives it a fantastic working environment.
15. What were the key lessons you learned as your business grew?
Not so much a key lesson, but a key value for us all is that we all have to actually use the products ourselves. (Obviously a bit tricky for the younger male members of staff!) All the management have used the wipes on their babies, use the period protection products and makeup removing pads ourselves and can therefore talk openly and honestly about them. I think that’s absolutely key for us. We love the products because we use them ourselves. Daily.
16. What are your top tips for time-management and productivity?
Nothing earth-shattering, but having a to-do list works for me. I don’t create a new one daily, maybe twice a week, but I add to it and delete daily. It really helps focus my mind on what’s important and gives me a sense of achievement when I get things off the list.
It can be a bit frustrating on those days when you’ve got something that you need to do but for whatever reason, something else crops up and you don’t get it done. But that’s not the end of the world.
17. What would your top tips be for someone interested in following your footsteps?
Find something you are passionate about…then work out how to make a living from it. I enjoy running my own business and I love our products, so I find it easy. I’ve also got good people around me who encourage me and rein me in.
18. What’s been the best thing about your journey with Cheeky Wipes so far?
This is going to sound so cheesy but I don’t care. It’s that we are making a difference to people’s lives. We get unbelievable feedback from customers. From the parents who started an eco-journey, revisiting their lifestyles as an entirety having started with Cheeky Wipes.
To the women who have suffered for years with chafing and discomfort with period protection who say that our period pants are ‘game changers’.
Parents to disabled adults who have found our bum wipes makes it easier for their children to clean themselves, giving them some independence.
Just yesterday, we had an amazing email from a lady, who had made the switch to our toilet paper alternative due to the covid-19 loo roll shortages. I’ve got to share it, it made us all smile in the office:
‘I’ve been using this kit for a couple of months now and I’m still as happy as ever!
I actually can’t bear using paper toilet roll anymore. I don’t feel so fresh.
Being an older lady I often suffered with dryness and had to use vaginal creams but an amazing realisation hit me a few days ago so wanted to update you! I haven’t had ANY problems: no dryness, no itchiness, no soreness….nothing! My stock of creams have been untouched! I can’t rate these highly enough! Easy to use, clean etc and still as white as ever.
I love looking at my washing line of my ‘fairy nappies’…takes me back 30 years when my daughter’s terry nappies were pegged out!
I can’t thank you enough!’
Lots of companies say it, but we are customer led. We listen to all the feedback, good AND bad because that’s how we build our business.
19. What are your plans for the future of Cheeky Wipes?
Onwards and upwards! This year, we’re really excited to be working with the fantastic Not-For-Profit, City to Sea this year as an official partner of their #plasticfreeperiods strand of work. City to Sea are a UK-based, not-for-profit organisation, campaigning to prevent plastic pollution at source.
We’ve been supporting them for a number of years, providing cloth period pads as part of their Schools programme to raise awareness of the environmental issues around disposable period products as well as educate about alternative, accessible options.
We’ve co-created a bespoke product range with them which should land in July so watch this space for more info on that!
And we ‘ve got ideas for new products, plus expanding our range of pants to include more for incontinence which is a HUGE issue for older women and men too.
20. If there were one thing you couldn’t do this without, what would it be?
My team. They are all just ACE.
With many thanks to Helen for sharing her story and brilliant advice with us.
Did anything resonate with you? Let us know in the comments below.