Amie Nilsson’s Merino Kids business is growing faster than her own brood. She tells Amanda Cropp about ambition, innovation, sleepless nights and the cut-throat world of design for the under-fives
Photographs taken to promote Merino Kids’ new Cocooi Babywrap show eight sleeping infants swaddled in pastel merino.
How anyone managed to get these eight little darlings snoozing in unison beggars belief. What the pictures don’t show is the three months’ preparation that went into the photo shoot, including three dummy runs with mannequins.
Merino Kids’ founder Amie Nilsson is fanatical about detail, and in this case it paid off big-time. The eight real babes were chosen from more than 300 entries in a competition that was covered by TVNZ’s Close Up, and the shoot went without a hitch.
As for the Cocooi wrap: it picked up a major International Forum (iF) Product Design Award even before the official launch in late March, and an honourable mention at the annual Red Dot awards presented in Germany as Idealog went to press.
There is no doubting Nilsson’s design and marketing savvy—or her ambition. She set up Merino Kids just four and a half years ago, operating out of a spare bedroom and selling over the Internet, and expects her company turnover to exceed $20 million within two years.
Initially, Nilsson did the graphic design and photography herself, saving money on models by using her children Lily (now 5), George (3) and Scarlett (2).
Merino Kids’ first product was the Go Go Bag, a baby sleeping bag with an innovative vent function allowing it to be used with car seat and buggy harnesses. It too picked up an iF award; Nilsson doesn’t underestimate the importance of two wins in the prestigious Hanover-based competition, which attracts over 2,300 entries from 35 countries. “It takes us from being just a national product to being an international product,” she says. “It changes the level completely and it opens doors every day.”
However, Nilsson’s artistic talents began opening doors for her long before that. Fresh out of school, she set up a business designing and painting ceramics. Winning a national competition led to a string of corporate commissions. On her OE she painted frescoes on villas in Spain, sold her paintings to tourists while cooking at a ski resort in France and a safari lodge in Zambia, and did a stint as a fabric designer in London.
Back home, Nilsson worked in marketing for Montana Wines before completing a graphic design course at Natcoll, aiming to use her new skills to promote and sell her art on the Internet. Realising there was a good living to be had as a freelance designer, she set up shop as Amie Design.
But when motherhood intervened with the arrival of Lily, Nilsson began looking for another outlet for her creative talents. “Graphic design is quite a stressful job. You’re always working to deadlines and you don’t want to be doing that with a young child,” she says. “I was working for a print deadline when I was in labour and when I got out of hospital I was still doing proofs.”
Lily’s tendency to kick off her bedclothes and wake up cold in the early hours of the morning sent Nilsson in search of a sleeping bag. Everything on the market was made of synthetic fabrics filled with polyester and, after a trial run with a borrowed bag gave Lily a heat rash, Nilsson cobbled together a wool and cotton model on her home sewing machine.
The end result—a child who slept soundly through the night—not only gave the new parents a decent night’s sleep, it showed the market potential for a sleeping bag made from natural fibres.
Families are highly mobile these days, often juggling work and childcare with a social life, so Nilsson was determined to have a product that worked with a car seat. “Your life shouldn’t stop because you’ve got a child,” she says. With the Go Go bag, “you can be anywhere and everywhere with your baby and still keep them in a routine. If you go to a barbecue you can put your child to sleep, pick them up out of a cot, put them in a car seat, then into bed when you get home.”
“ We have patents, design registrations—anything we can use to protect our products. We spend a lot on lawyers. I keep my eyes open and my ears to the ground. If we’re copied I get onto it straight away”
Nilsson engaged a professional designer to fine-tune the bag and was clear about her objectives from the start. It had to be an essential baby item rather than a fashion accessory: practical and stylish, yet durable: “Over a six-month period a child sleeps something like 3,000 hours.” The sleeping bag is adjustable and comes in only two sizes so parents aren’t forced to keep buying larger sizes as the baby grows. The bodice is carefully fitted to prevent infants slipping inside.
Nilsson says merino is naturally fire resistant—a lot of children’s sleepwear is sprayed with fire retardant chemicals, she says—and its heat regulating properties are a major plus because Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is associated with overheating. “In hot conditions [merino] moves the heat away from the baby’s body to the outer part of the garment, and in colder conditions it insulates. In a synthetic bag the moisture builds up on the inside of the garment and then, when it cools down, it becomes cold and damp.”
For marketing purposes Nilsson refers to merino as ‘fibre’ rather than wool. “People think of wool as being itchy and hot, but merino is fine and soft. When we started selling in Sydney, the first response was ‘We don’t like wool, it’s too hot.’ Now people can’t get enough of it.”
Expanding the range to include Merino Kids and Pure Cotton Kids pyjamas to wear inside the sleeping bag was a natural progression.
Although some manufacturing is done in New Zealand for the local market, export products are manufactured in Shanghai using cloth woven in Italy from New Zealand wool. This gives scale and quality, but the design is all homegrown. “Everything is custom-made, from the fabric colours to the zips and domes. We do all the detail and we design all our own fabrics.”
Nilsson has been careful to include confidentiality clauses in her contracts because, despite its cutesy-pie image, the global baby gear market is cut-throat and intellectual property protection is a major issue. Eighteen months of research and development went into the Cocooi Babywrap and Nilsson is not about to see that kind of investment filched by copycats.
“We have patents, design registrations—anything we can use to protect our products. Everything is documented from the day we come up with an idea, right through until it goes into production, and any slight changes are documented too.
“We spend a lot on lawyers. I keep my eyes open and my ears to the ground. If we’re copied I get onto it straight away.” Merino Kids has instigated legal action against four companies over the last 18 months and the offending products were removed from sale before the cases went to court.
But there’s no point in protecting designs without a strong brand image. Nilsson says her background in graphic design had advantages when it came to shaping the Merino Kids brand. “It’s having a vision and being able to articulate it, and I was lucky I had the control to do that.
“Even to this day it’s sometimes easier for me to mock things up rather than have them go back and forth [to an advertising or design agency].”
Merino Kids now has a staff of 13 in New Zealand, the UK and Australia. From its humble beginnings selling from a website, it now sells in more than 50 boutique baby stores in Europe, Australasia and the US, and expects to be exporting 90 percent of output within three years.
Coping with the rapid rate of growth (currently 100 percent annually) is a challenge, and Nilsson has appreciated having advice on tap from husband James, who has a background in banking and acts as board chairman. “In business, it’s really important to know what your weaknesses are and make sure that you have good people around you who fill those holes. We have an amazing team and that’s a very important part of what we do.
“A lot of people go into business thinking they are going to create a lifestyle. You have this vision of it all being amazing and easy, but it’s definitely not. There’s a lot of hard work involved. It’s much easier working for someone else.”
This was brought home rather forcefully late last year when Nilsson was on a three-week solo business trip to Europe. She departed knowing a cyst on her thyroid required surgery but doctors said it could wait until her return.
“I’d flown to Amsterdam for the day and halfway through the flight back to London the cyst burst in midair, moving my voice box and windpipe by one-and-a-half centimetres. I thought I was going to die and kept thinking ‘Oh my God, I haven’t said goodbye to my family and friends.’ When we landed I got myself to hospital and got the right medication so I could breathe and swallow.”
Back home Nilsson had the operation and spent five days in hospital. “I went hard out and pushed myself too far. It was a short, sharp lesson.”
Despite resolving to take better care of her work/life balance, Nilsson hardly seems the type to sit back and take things easy. Further new products are in the pipeline and she is cautiously eyeing the potential of a growing Chinese middle class with a craving for western products.
“A lot of [Chinese] mums sleep with their babies, so there are a few changes that need to happen and quite a bit of educating the market; but there’s a lot of exciting things that could happen over there.”
Expect to see another meticulously-planned campaign, clever pictures and all, aimed at pulling the heart—and purse—strings of a whole new sleepless set of fond parents.