NZ Women in Business Series: Amie Nilsson, Founder, Merino Kids

In 2003, Amie Nilsson founded Merino Kids™, an internationally renowned, award-winning textile company from New Zealand that specialises in using 100% natural fibres for the design of newborn, baby, infant and toddler sleepwear. Since that time, the company has grown significantly to become a global leader in the use of natural fibres for young children.

When Amie first started Merino Kids, it was born out of necessity for her first daughter Lillybelle, who kept waking up cold in the night after wriggling out of her blankets. As a mother researching the availability of baby, infant and toddler sleepwear products, Amie was shocked at the number of synthetic products that were flooding the market. More so, she was dismayed at the size and state of the unregulated global industry.

Using her background in textile design and knowledge of merino as a 100% natural wonder fibre, Amie created her first product, the Go Go Bag™, using fresh innovative ideas based upon respect for nature.

Merino Kids uses 100% natural materials to create finer, safer garments that insulate and breathe better in both hot and cold environments, ensuring young children and babies are perfectly adapted to their sleeping environments. These values run across a range of products designed to make a difference to the lives of families with young children. Their success is proven and global demand for the award-winning designs is growing daily.

We spoke to Amie about her tips for entrepreneurs; her company's plethora of design awards; and the UK woman in business she most admires.

TNW: How did you come up with the idea for Merino Kids and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

AN: Merino Kids began after having my first child in 2003. I was inspired through sleepless nights with my new baby daughter Lilybelle. I found the only available sleepwear on the market contained man made fabrics and these synthetic fabrics started causing my daughter to come up in a heat rash. I was unable to find a solution in the marketplace so I did a lot of research on natural breathable fibres. I had a good knowledge of merino fine wool as a unique breathable fibre, and with this designed the Go Go Bag, the sleeping bag for parents on the go! It was from this first product, Merino Kids was born. I knew that it was important to get it right the first time and conducted extensive research into product design and selling methods, consulted with top professionals and specialists and trialled each design on my own daughter until I got it right.

During 2007 this perseverance was truly rewarded when the Go Go Bag was awarded our first (of what is now a trifecta) prestigious International Forum Product Design Award in Germany.

TNW: What makes your company different from your competitors?

AN: Our design led focus on creating functional and practical safe sleeping products allows us to ensure we are agile and responsive to the demands of what actually works for parents of this day and age. Making a difference to the lives of new parents (and grandparents) during a very emotive time - helps drive my vision of being the leading provider in quality sleepwear. Providing natural sleep solutions that not only help babies and infants, but also provide parents with peace of mind and most importantly a good night’s sleep continues to be my main objective. No one can function properly from day to day without sleep.

Being a family focused business and with two thirds of our staff having children of their own, we understand our customers and hope that we offer support in the products we provide and support in our communities. As an example of this we have recently set up our Baby Sleep Seminars to provide support and help. We provide this as a free service by inviting guest speakers to cover important topics such as sleep position, putting baby to sleep in the day and at night, feeding/winding, routines and how they help with sleep, sleep cues as well as how sleep (patterns) change over time.

We have just launched corporate gift packs for new mums in the work place and have recently developed Merino Kids mornings.

I think it is also very important to listen to ideas for new products, frustrations and even offer money back guarantees to our customers so they are confident in what they are buying.

We aim for best quality but Merino Kids is still a fast moving and flexible business and we are constantly looking for ways to improve existing products and develop new ones to complement current lines.

TNW: Who were your first customers and how hard was it to attract them?

AN: By choosing the internet as our main sales channel right from the outset, it meant I could fully explain the benefits for parents and their baby using a natural fibre product, as opposed to anything else on the market. For me it was a manageable channel without the huge overheads of running a physical shop or relying on retail stores to re-tell the story behind the product. It was an important step to growing what has become a huge online opportunity over the last 9 years along with managing the cost of doing business in what has been a very competitive retail environment. As we have evolved, we have ensured that Merino Kids is well balanced for online and retail distribution and through this model, Merino Kids has evolved as a truly global business receiving orders from all four corners of the world.

TNW: Who are your customers and partners now?

AN: Our customers are mainly direct consumers i.e new mums & dads or supportive friends and family wanting the best quality products for their little ones.

Our key partners are also the future of the business and they range from the growers of the fibre we specialise in, through to the manufacturers and on to the fulfilment and distribution operators throughout various markets.

TNW: What is next for your company?

AN: To keep creating and developing some of the world’s best natural baby sleep products so we can continue to take the brand deeper into the larger markets. To do this we are partnering with certain experts who focus on local online sales and fulfilment allowing us the assurance of good quality customer service.

This year, we have a large focus on sustainable development and getting involved more at a local communitiy level.

We have started this by running our sleep seminars through our showrooms in NZ and in the UK. We have also just launched Merino Kids Mornings which allows us to show parents how our products best work, in the comfort of their own home.

TNW: What lessons have you taken from your successes &/or failures?

AN: I face continual challenges each day at work and I put a huge amount of work and research into getting our products exactly right. Most importantly, I ensure that family time is never sacrificed and this will remain forever my top priority. My drive to maintain a balance between business and family results in long and unorthodox hours and has meant immense pressure, but my determination and natural tenacity ensures that Merino Kids succeeds.

TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?

AN: If you have a great idea and you feel passionate about it, knowing that it can offer something unique to the market, the best thing is to make it happen by ensuring you have done as much research as possible with experts in the field you’re focusing on. Get good advice, talk to as many people relevant to what you are doing as you can.

Set a budget of how much you need to  invest and look into all your risks and then triple it!  Rome was not built in a year and neither will your business.

To be an entrepreneur you have to take a risk, but it needs to be a calculated one. You will need to eat, breathe and read your market to understand it in depth. Always talk to people in business as they have been through all the pot holes and storms that you are about to encounter and you need to be able to stay strong to weather the storms. Always follow up any leads no matter how small, you never know where they can go. Never let no be the answer, always push until it is a yes!

From the inception of the business I have juggled family and work life.  Always try to get the balance right, it is never easy.

TNW: Do you have any role models or mentors?

Karren Brady is very inspiring for me. She always says it as it is to ensure she gets want she wants to get done!

The New Zealand Trade and Enterprise Beachheads programme in the UK has been fantastic for us. Not only offering support in an Advisory Board capacity, but also brilliant networking opportunities. Mentoring is really important and the only way to help women in business grow in the SME sector which is such an important part to any economy. I think, however, adequate mentoring is really lacking for women in SMEs.

TNW: If you hadn’t chosen entrepreneurship, what alternative career path might you have pursued?

AN: I have a design, sales and marketing background. But I find entrepreneurship is much more challenging yet satisfying and provides much more diversity.

The disadvantage of course is that you don’t switch off very often. I make a real effort not to log on to my laptop when it is family time.

TNW: What has been your biggest challenge throughout the history of your company, from planning to funding and execution, and how could others learn from it?

AN: In order to take the business to where it is today both my husband James and I have made a number of sacrifices. In order to move the business forward we have thrown all our resources at ensuring it can continue to grow, a big risk when you have a young family consisting of three children.

You could argue the greatest challenge is never getting started at all: something that family, friends and colleagues equally understand that the journey is never easy and I hope that is an inspiration. My underlying belief, passion for what I am doing, tenacity and drive means where others see only risks, I can see reward. In this case, the reward is providing an increasingly safe and natural environment for kids to grow. As an industry that has yet to be regulated, the challenges are considered great indeed. Cheaper synthetic fibres, competitive pricing, monopolistic profits, lack of education etc are many of the challenges we face day to day. Research, innovation, design and sustainability are all vehicles with which I am trying to help change the industry and I think we are slowly chipping away at the obstacles.

TNW: Is there a moment in the history of your company which you remember as the highlight so far?

AN: We have had many highlights for example, winning three successive International Design Awards; when we were appointed to the New Zealand Global Beachheads Programme; finalist in the New Zealand Design in Business Awards; Fastest new entrant NZ Growth Company; 2nd Fastest Consumer Product NZ Growth Company and 7th Fastest NZ Growth Company overall in the Deloitte’s Fast 50.

A wonderful husband whom I rely on and work beside, a brilliant dedicated Merino Kids team, without these very important people it would be difficult to meet the pressures of being a mother and manage the demands of business. Support from great friends and family is also so crucial.

This is what makes "Merino Kids" an exciting, fun, family friendly environment that allows our team the opportunity to have the same flexibility with their own families as we do with ours.

TNW: Is there anything we haven’t asked you, but you’d like to share with The NextWomen readers?

I believe that you “don’t get anywhere by thinking small”, an attitude that I like to impress on everyone as well as myself.

We have an amazing team and everyone involved with Merino Kids feels a great personal, emotional attachment to the Merino Kids brand. I feel passion and enthusiasm inspires everyone. The team continue to grow with the business, which can always be tricky as abilities and comfort zones are often being stretched. The culture that has been implemented from the top down allows both support and room to make mistakes and learn from them.

My philosophy of family first extends through to employees. Merino Kids is a family friendly working environment, providing flexible working hours and enabling employees to bring their children along as required. It’s not unusual to see a pre-schooler entertaining him or herself in the office!

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