Shannon McLaughlin founded Ubuntu Baba baby carriers out of a personal need to help her baby sleep for longer periods of time and to give herself more freedom as a struggling and overwhelmed first time Mom. These are her leadership insights she’s gained along the way:
Before I launched this business, I was a freelance web designer, working mainly with female start-up businesses. I’m very passionate about the user experience journey when shopping online so it’s been an interesting journey launching my own product-based business now and being able to put my knowledge to the test.
1. The most impactful business advice you ever received and why?
During the first few weeks of me experimenting with the idea of starting this business, one of my web design clients mentioned that I should meet up with a business friend of his who was ‘good with money’ and often mentored young entrepreneurs. I happily obliged and sat down for a cup of coffee with Rob.
He asked me what my plan was and how I was going to make money and then after I told him my story he sat back, took a sip of his coffee and asked, “So do you also plan to sell jam?” “What??” I asked him, completely confused.
“Well this is clearly a hobby business so I’m asking why you don’t just add some jam or honey to your list of products? You want to ‘give back’ to charity from day 1, and then sell products with this tiny margin, why don’t you rather just start an NPO?”
Now I’m a straightforward kind of girl, but at the time I found him a little rude but was also very interested to know exactly why he thought my calculations on pricing were so off. We had a long chat that day and he said to me.
“If you can’t write down your basic business plan on the back of this serviette and show me exactly how you plan to make a profit, then you’ll never make it for the long haul. And all this trying to save the world nonsense… that’s lovely and heart-warming, but you’ve got to DO good, before you can BE good.”
That was that, and as much as I wished that he was wrong, I knew that he was right. The original price I had in my head to launch my product with, was just way too low. I had looked at the competition and they were really affordable and already established in the market space I was entering, so I was scared to go in too high.
In the end, I went home, really did my calculations thoroughly and realised how off the mark I was. I wanted to ‘give back’ and have a cause for my business from day 1, but I realised that wasn’t going to work for me either. That would have to come later.
I decided to cast all fear aside and price as though I wanted this to be my forever business. I knew I wanted to eventually hire people to work for me and in order to do that, I’d have to make real money.
Fast forward a few weeks and I launched my first product at exactly double the price of my biggest competition. I still remember my Dad telling me I was nuts to launch with that price, but by the time I was ready to go to market, I was so confident in the quality of my product and my offering that the price wasn’t even a pain point for me anymore.
That advice has helped me price every single product correctly since then. And after 4 and half years of running the business, we’ve managed to donate R28k to charity, because the goal was to create a sustainable and profitable business first, then look at giving back.
2. What have you changed in your approach to getting results?
I remember that whenever I came up against challenges, I’d feel so frustrated and need to voice that frustration or find someone to blame for the issue at hand. Once I started hiring staff, I realised that this is all backwards.
Getting angry and emotional about something that has gone wrong is an absolute waste of time and energy.
- It makes the person at fault feel worse than they already do.
- It makes you go into an irrational and close-minded perspective where no solutions are available to you.
I remember that perspective change for me, where I was faced with the opportunity to basically discipline someone, or go – okay, this is what happened, how can we fix this, learn from it and move forward?
When you embrace this change – incredible things happen. The worse the situation – the more love I give to it and the less I let it affect me – it allows everyone in the team to start thinking and creating from a more solution based mind set, as well as reporting less problems to me, because they realised very early on that it’s not actually a problem, but something they are able to solve.
3. What is the importance of modelling behaviours for your team?
This is super important, especially with the type of clients we have. Customer service is one of those areas that employees usually share stories about, eg: I had this nightmare of a customer you know… I disagree with that and try and instil that into my team.
I’ll always listen to the story, but then I’d help them imagine the reasons why that client was like that. Whatever that complaint email says – it’s true. It’s that person’s truth and they fully believe it or they wouldn’t have written the email or bad review.
Note: This is not the same as ‘the customer is always right’, because they aren’t, but the customers point of view is always true.
I always train my staff to step into the shoes of that customer and imagine the day that they’ve just had.
For example, it could be a Mom with a new-born baby, she could be 3 weeks post-partum, in agony still and recovering from her c-section, she may not have any help at home and so she has already dropped her other 2 kids at school, made breakfasts and school lunches, experienced a very stressful morning, had her baby vomit on her twice, and then received the wrong colour carrier.
That could have been the cherry on the top to push her over the edge… and now she’s taking it out on you. As the person on the other side of that email / phone call, it’s your job to bear that burden and make that customer feel heard and understood.
When my staff come to me with problems of their own, I need to deal with it in the same way, so they can feel how it feels to be listened to, empathised with and understood, before we go onto creating the solution.
4. Are leaders fundamentally different from other people? How/why?
I don’t believe I was born a leader. I have always been super introverted and shy, and I still am introverted, I would never put up my hand to be the leader of a team.
The leadership role I’m in today, still makes me feel uncomfortable at times. This role has somehow just become who I am, before I realised that I was actually a leader, and someone that others look to for how to move forward.
So I don’t think that it’s a personality trait, I think that it is something you can become.
For me, I went through a deep depression when I became a new Mom, and it was during that time that Ubuntu Baba was born – it helped me out of the depression but it also made me aware of some serious problems in society, things that women are ashamed and scared to talk about.
I felt compelled to build the essence of that into my brand and not just sell a product but offer new Moms the support that I did not receive, because I was too afraid to speak and didn’t know how to reach out for that support. So perhaps, it’s an experience that can create a leader.
5. What are the leadership traits you most admire in others?
One of my biggest role models is Marie Forleo. She’s an online business coach and I did her B-School program back in 2013 and that really changed the course of how I looked at making money.
Her motto is ‘create a business and life you love’ – and I think that’s key, you can tell the happy leaders from the not so happy leaders, it makes such a difference in how they go about their days and communicate with their teams.
She also says, ‘everything is figureoutable’ and I try to instil that into all the problems I face, there is always another way or something you haven’t thought of yet.
6. Most important and impactful business books you’ve read?
The Choice Factory by Richard Shotton is one of my all time favourites.
I’m obsessed with why people do the things they do, why they make the choices they do when shopping online. Why they click here, and not there. Why they click on the email address or rather fill out the form.
All these things can be boxed into the ‘behavioural science’ category and that’s exactly what this book is about, but in relation to how you can use those bias’s in your marketing strategy. It’s fascinating. And also eye-opening (and scary) to see how we’ve all been led to make certain choices, without even knowing it.
It’s a great book in terms of becoming aware so you don’t fall into traps (in business and personal relationships), and in terms of working ethically and using those biases to help people making purchasing decisions that will ultimately improve their lives.
Money, a love story by Kate Northrup was also a beautiful read for me and taught me so many things about myself that I didn’t know. I’d recommend this to any women who wants to be more in control of her financial situation.
Then an oldie, but a goodie is Book Yourself Solid by Michael Port – I haven’t read it for years, but so many concepts in that book that I still use today by default because they just work.
And finally, right now I’m reading The Republic of Tea, How An Idea Becomes A Business. As an established business owner looking for ideas to expand and grow, I find this book so creative, the story of dreamers who made their dreams a reality. Very inspiring.
7. What is your favourite business mantra?
I’m not sure if this counts as a business mantra, but I have this in my notes from years ago and always look to it – it’s from the Author of The Little Prince, a beautiful little story written way back in 1942:
“If you want to build a ship, don’t herd people together to collect wood and don’t assign them tasks and work but rather, teach them to long for the endless immensity of the sea.” ~ Antoine de Saint-Exupery
8. What was the most significant change you’ve gone through as a business owner?
I think it’s been to try and not react immediately to any situation, especially the more triggering ones. That’s not to say don’t get angry and react but do it when nobody is watching or listening first and let out that steam so that you can get back to thinking clearly and logically.
An emotional response in the moment is almost always one that you’ll regret, but also don’t be too hard on yourself if it happens as there is always a lesson to be learnt.
Sometimes, emotional responses are needed. Every experience, good or bad, is as it should be and happens so that you can have that notch on your belt – once something is done it’s done and it’s all about growing from that experience. So being mindful and knowing when to react emotionally and when not to, is the goal.