Alana Steyn – Mud Mates – CEO Business Marketing Interview 37

Alana shares the idea that started the Mud Mates company, what spurred her to launch something the New Zealand marketplace hadn’t seen and how she tested her idea with Mum’s via markets first

Alana also talks about the recent rebrand around the fun and playful elements, expanding the product range, sourcing fabric and her balanced approach to Facebook & Instagram posting.

PLUS Alana shares her own advice for business owners considering developing an eCommerce site.

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Ryan: This is the Ryan marketing show. And you’re listening to episode 37 of 100 today on the show. I have Alana Steyn from kids clothing fashion retailer Mud Mates. And what are we going to be talking about today? I guess this is a little bit of a different one because I already have a relationship with Alana through the New Zealand Business Mentors Network so I know a little bit more about the business than I usually would on one of these interviews, but for the people listening Alana give us a bit of background on Mud Mates, what the company does and how the whole idea came about.

Alana: OK so it start a couple of years ago when my son was a younger and we were going to Parent and Child and he was starting to play outside in the sandpit and things and getting grubby and I was changing his clothes all the time. We looked online to try and find some coveralls for him, and struggled to find any that were affordable. So we hard a pair made up for him and he started pretty much living in those every time he went outside or we were doing messy play and basically had so much positive feedback from other Mums and from my ante natal group, other moms that I thought well, here we go this could be an opportunity. And basically it went from there, started getting them maid and started selling them locally just through word of mouth. And it’s grown and grown since then.

Ryan: So the initial idea is really just to solve a problem you were having to keep your kids clean. And did you make the first one yourself or did you go and get it made?

Alana: Actually a friend of the families made it for us, she used to make it for her kids, my mum used to make them for me and my brother as well. That’s one thing I’ve noticed at markets, I have had so much feedback from grandmas saying, oh yes we used to have these for my kids and then they have disappeared from the market. For me it was all about just trying to save time and changing clothes all the time and reducing the washing because with kids and babies it’s just constant. Anything I could do to save time and washing in that regard was a bonus for me. And obviously other Mum all felt the same because they really keen to start snapping them up and getting them on the kids as well.

Ryan: So you knew that there was benefits from this because you were alleviating this particular issue for your own sanity. How did you take that next step when the other Mum’s were looking at the coveralls that you had had made and saying, ‘hey I want one of those’. How did you then respond?

Alana: So I started sourcing fabric and supplies and pricing them up and seeing how much it was going to cost. I started getting them made for the Mums around here locally that wanted them. I did the a market pretty soon after that’ the local Mum’s market and that was a good way to start getting the word out. I jumped on to Facebook and started on there and that proved really popular and an easy way to just spread the word about Mud Mates.

Ryan: Did that then help you refine the product further as you went to those markets and you know put the product up there or did you have your own vision in mind of what this product should look and feel like.

Alana: Yeah I knew what I wanted. When we looked for them for my son there were lots around with the overalls with the bib and brace and not the sleeves, I want something that was full coverage because my son got messy everywhere the arms didn’t escape it, so I want something that I could just slip on over his clothes and then he could go and you know enjoy his water play, sandpit play and jump in the muddy puddles and I know he’d be clean underneath.

Ryan: And so what has that been meant for you when you know that you can put him into any situation and he’s going to stay clean and dry.

Alana: It is great, I can just relax and let him go. I’m not one that loves mess, I was always quite reluctant to send him outside if it wet grass or muddy out here but now I can relax and my daughter has them as well and they love playing outside and they have a mud pit and if they’re outside the water comes out and there’s always mud around, so I can just relax and know that when they’re ready to come inside, I can just flip the coveralls off and they are good to go.

Ryan: That must have added benefit when kids feel they can play anywhere that gives them a bit more confidence to be able to go into these different environments that if they are always just wrapped up in cotton wooled inside, maybe they wouldn’t get that experience.

Alana: Yeah that’s true and I was probably guilty of that, saying ‘oh no no no you can’t go here it’s muddy or you can’t do that because you’re going to get wet.’ But now I don’t have to worry about it.

Ryan: So that’s the coverall product, when did you branch out into the other products or how did that come about, how did you get that from the market saying hey can you do something something else to go along with these coveralls?

Alana: Yes it’s over the time I’ve added some different products to the range, I think the first initial one was little shoe covers because I was finding my son his cute little Bogart shoes and you know he’d be outside and they’d just get grubby so the shoe covers were an easy addition. They just basically slip on over the babies or crawlers shoe or socks that will protect them. From that it just sort of expanded again to the overpants range.That was something that came from feedback from markets. People were asking just for the pants so they came about and since then we have added fleece line overpants which are perfect for the snow, long sleeve craft aprons which are really great full bodied wrap around craft apron long sleeves, comes right up to the neck so perfect for painting or any kind of messy play, water play to keep kids clean obviously and then earlier this year we introduce fitted table clothes to our range which is slightly different because it’s not children’s clothing, but again it’s all about protection so protecting of table tops which is great for at homeif you’re doing messy play on the dining room table or you know the kids table a they also help save time again because they make clean up easier and quicker. So you can fold them up, take them outside shake off any excess arts and crafts material, throw them through the wash and you’re done.

Ryan: That sounds great because you’re enabling your customers to create these messy environments wherever they want, knowing that the cleanup is going to be simple and easy to make happen. When did you take all of these products nationwide. When did you think I need to be selling these online and growing, see if a bigger audience out there for them?

Alana: Probably, once I started on Facebook it grew quite quickly. The coveralls started going around New Zealand. Then probably a couple of years ago I thought I need to get a website, need to get something online, which was a pretty big job. Got that setup and then since then it just keeps growing. A lot more of my sales our word of mouth. Other moms are finding, saying amazing things and telling their friends about them and then jumping online as well. Now they’re going all over New Zealand even overseas as well. It always amazes me when a sale comes through from Invercargill and then you know way up north and yeah it’s just fantastic that it’s you know that Mud Mates is being found and people are liking our products.

Ryan: Now one of the places that we’ve obviously spent some time is where kids congregate, which is obviously going to be in child care centres or areas where they’re learning. That’s obviously a lucrative market. How do you go about getting into that market is that kind of you directly approach them or is that something that you’ve let word of mouth kind of spread it around those centres.

Alana: So it’s a bit of both at the moment. I have had lots of sales from early child care centres throughout New Zealand that have just found me online whether it by online, through google search or word of mouth and then I’ve spent some time focusing on the local childcare centres, you know contacting name, calling in with samples and letting them see the products and I’ve had alot of sales that way as well. So going forward my aim or goal is to start contacting early childcare centres around New Zealand and approach them directly to get our products out in front of them because they are beneficial for childcare centres because obviously they’re going to save their staff time not having to change the kids clothes all the time. The parents are going to be happy that they’re not coming home with changes of washing and the table cloths are proving really popular with the childcare centeres for messy play but also if they’ve got kids with allergies they can have a dedicated tablecloth to keep it clean and safe for them.

Ryan: Excellent. Now we kind of skipped over that that first topic around creating a website. It sounds very easy there. Now since then you’ve recently updated or upgraded your whole web site. And sometimes it’s challenges with these types of things. What have you learned through the process of building these digital assets that maybe you never wanted or intended to or even expected to have to learn back when you first created these coveralls.

Alana: The main thing is you need to be prepared to spend the money. You get what you pay for and I’ve had issues around that but ended up getting it all sorted. It does take a lot of time and it was something I’ve never done before so I did need help. I could do some of it, uploading the products and maintaining the web site once it’s up and running but the whole sort of setup of it, I needed a developer to help me do that. And I also had a graphic designer to help with the rebrand and designing the new logo and how the website was going to look and that side of things as well.

Ryan: For the different types of looks and feels, we went through evaluating different logos and different colours and so on and I was only one input. What are all the things that led you towards what the new brand looks like? How did you go about getting that feedback?

Alana: I’ve had lots of feedback from customers about what they think of the logo and the brand and I asked my friends and got some good feedback. I had an amazing graphic designer that I worked with who was a great sounding board to put things towards, and we just looked at trying to keep the fun playful nature of Mud Mates which is what it’s always been about letting kids have fun get messy without having to worry about the cleanup afterwards. And yes working with my graphic designer, she put some designs forward and I asked few people for feedback. I really liked the colour scheme that I had originally, it just needed a bit of updating to make it a bit more current. We came up with something that I just absolutely love now. I love all my marketing material and the website looking great. It’s easier to use as well and easier for people to navigate, quicker. Yes it’s all worked out well.

Ryan: Now you are big on Facebook and Instagram as well and for New Zealand Mum that’s a huge channel both for time spent and also for influences on what they should be doing, seeing or buying. Do you have a particular strategy that you use or do you just put things up there that you would like to hear or read about?

Alana: Yeah, it’s one thing I always thing I should have a Facebook strategy and plan it out and know exactly what I’m going to post and when but I tend to just do it as I said as I go so if I see an interesting or read an interesting blog that I think my followers will like I will share that. If I see a funny meme or quote I’ll share that. It is about getting a sort of balance between fun and interesting outpost that they’re relatable to my target market as well as sharing product information or I’ve been getting lots of positive feedback and photos from happy customers so I always make sure I share those on my page as well.

Ryan: And so what are the addresses for those the Facebook and Instagram pages?

Alana: So it’s Facebook.com/MudMates and Instagram.com/MudMates.

Ryan: Cool. When you went about launching the website, were those important channels to tell people about the rebrand or did you kind of just do it as a soft launch?

Alana: I use Facebook and ran a giveaway and encouraged people to go and have a look and check it out and say I’m on Instagram. I also have an e-mail database so I sent and email out letting everyone know that it was live and I ran a free shipping special offer to celebrate the launch.

Ryan: Does that help come on the campaign side of things when you give away shipping. Does that give you an extra kind of bump in sales?

Alana: Yeah it does. Yeah. And it’s nice to be able to say thank you to my customers for the support over the years as well. So I like to do things like that in sales occasionally because obviously without them I wouldn’t be here so it’s nice to do things to say thanks. I also ran a chocolate giveaway on my Facebook page as well which is always a great way to boost engagement and get people interested.

Ryan: So that’s a really good insight into Mud Mates. And just a final question now is where do you want to take it from here? There’s there’s lots of different avenues. You can decide to grown and go all in or keep it going where it’s at. Have you got any different options you’re weighing up?

Alana: At the moment it’s going great. The growth over winter from last year was fantastic, so I’m going to just keep going and see where it goes. Obviously approaching early childcare centres is something that will help something and something I can do over summer when it’s not so busy sales-wise. And then we are looking at introducing another new product very soon, which are drawstring bags which are going to be great as a swimming bag, school bag, overnight bag, library bag …it’s multipurpose. They can be personalised with the name as well. So they’ll be coming soon.

Ryan: I guess that will then smooth the seasonality with Mud Mates the coveralls being very popular in winter. Having something like a swim bag can give you revenue throughout the year.

Alana: Yeah I am hoping that will help although to be honest it’s quite nice being not so busy over summer because you know with school holidays it’s nice being able to be around and have the time with the kids and not have to worry about them having to put them into care or anything like that. So hopefully this will be enough just to keep me going but have a nice balance still having the with the kids.

Ryan: I guess that’s one of the beauties of running your own business is you’ve got two angles to look at. Yes you want to grow but being able to grow at times or at a pace that fits with family commitments or other things you want to do… it seems that with Mud Mates you know you’ve created a product that works great through winter that allows you to have that family time over the summer.

It’s been fantastic working with you over the last wee while doing the mentoring side of things and I think you’ve got a very compelling business and you’re right, you haven’t invested in some of the digital areas that get you further ahead and I think the design has done a great job on the branding and I look forward to hearing and seeing more about these new products including the swim bags.

Alana: Great. Thank you.

Ryan: Thanks for your time Alana.