A multi-award winning entrepreneur, Grainne Kelly is the CEO and inventor of Bubblebum UK Ltd, manufacturer of the world’s first inflatable car booster seat. George R Vaughan took time to talk through the business with her. and
Founded in December 2009, Bubblebum now exports to 27 countries globally and is stocked by major retailers such as Walmart, Amazon, Halfords, John Lewis and Target.
Mother of two, Grainne Kelly invented Bubblebum to meet a personal need; frequent travel between her native Ireland and England left her transporting bulky fixed booster seats back and forth on the plane because the car rental companies were not providing booster seats for her children. Grainne took her idea from concept to shelf in just 9 months.
Within months of setting up the business, Grainne, her husband and two sons Fintan (now 14) and Lorcan (now12) left their home in Northern Ireland to live in the US.
Whilst many business owners would have waited to break into the US marketplace, Grainne forged ahead. Her family immersed themselves in the culture in order to understand the market and get the product ready for certification US standards testing and certification. Grainne qualified as National Child Passenger Safety Technician and built the necessary relationships to launch the product into the US market. The product won the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety Best Bet Booster 2011, which resulted in major media exposure including the front page of USA Today and The Wall Street Journal.
Since setting up the business, her husband has become the COO and her two sons have been involved with the design of all Bubblebum products, as well as being part of promotional literature and advertising.
I caught up with Grainne to find out a little more about her unique new initiative.
What is your business background?
“I left school to study art and math but veered into the construction industry, then into commercial radio, followed by a long time in the travel industry. I left the travel industry having built a very successful business of my own to create BubbleBum. While I was not academically qualified in business when I first started, the school of life taught me pretty quickly and I followed up with a Leadership Program in Cambridge University and Business School.”
Were you always keen to be an entrepreneur?
“I did not know what an entrepreneur was back then and I guess I still don’t know. I don’t think you can plan to be an entrepreneur, you either have an idea or you don’t. If I had not had an idea I would have found a way to make things work, I call it being resourceful rather than entrepreneurial.”
How did the idea of Bubble Bum first come about?
“I needed a solution to a problem that I faced myself. I was traveling with my own children and overtime I arrived to a the car rental desks they didn’t have the car booster seats even when rebooked in advance, so I decided that I was going to create my own inflatable version.”
Was it a challenge to start up your business?
“If you look at it as a hurdle then it will be a hurdle. I took what I believed to be small steps and used every challenge as a learning block. There were many regulatory hoops to jump through but I persisted in asking stupid questions and asking to be treated as a 3yr old to get through them. “
When did you first begin trading with BubbleBum?
“We first started trading in Dec 2009 online and launched into UK independent retailers in Feb 2010, shortly before I moved to the USA to get the product ready for market there.”
How did the process develop from idea to the production line?
“I took many trips to China after I had created my drawings and having crash tested the prototypes that I had brought back and applied for patents, I had to then apply for the government approval to sell the product in the EU based on the crash test results. It was an arduous task but nonetheless I managed to take the product from concept to shelf in 9 months.”
Tell us a little about the product and what makes it so unique.
“I was told that an inflatable car seat was not possible and could not pass crash testing as it had to be crash tested in the deflated state.
“BubbleBum is inflatable and deflatable, therefore portable and packable. It makes it easy for a chid to have a booster seat on EVERY journey. The brand is cool therefore desirable to kids as they do not like to sit on ‘baby seats’ and it is narrow in design making it the only seat that fits in every combination of 3 across. Basically it is the functional equivalent of any rigid backless booster seat with the added bonus of packing down to fit into a schoolbag or hand luggage and weighs the same as a packet of Digestive biscuits!”
Is it a frightening prospect when everything hinges on you as designer, fundraiser and business owner?
“Sometimes it is overwhelming that other peoples livelihood depend on my ability and performance. But, if you do the right thing for the right reasons only the right thing can happen. As long as I know that I am acting in the best interest of the company and maintaining integrity then the rest is out of my control.”
What is next for Bubble Bum?
“We have some new channels and some possible licensing opportunities that will take us on a totally different journey in the short to medium term. We have launched new products, the Junkie and Sneck in the past year and we are planning on expanding our range in the next 18 months again.”
Is it difficult to separate business from your personal life when you own your own company?
“It is difficult as my husband works with me too. I dragged him away from his previous employer when we moved to the US as quite simply I needed his skill set. We are diametric opposites so it works.
“I do not allow the phone to go upstairs and we have the rule that nothing or no one related t anything to do with work can be discussed after we have put one foot on the bottom stair. That way, upstairs, where we have another sitting room, is a work free zone. Otherwise it becomes all-consuming.”
What do you like to do in your spare time?
“I love going to bootcamp with my husband! I really love to spend time with our two boys watching movies, life passes you by so quickly; they are 15 and 12 now. I try to read but have the attention span of a goldfish unless the book is riveting. I love spending time with friends as I do not get a lot of time at home, I am away for the next 6 out of 7 weekends. I love having friends over for dinner (although I hate to cook, so my husband does that) with all their kids.”
Do you have any hobbies?
“Running and gym as well as walking with our springer spaniel.”
Any advice for women looking to start their own business?
“Don’t over think it. Take calculated risks. You don’t have to ask for permission to succeed. It is not a rocket science, don’t be blinded by technical jargon don’t be afraid just ask plenty of stupid questions! “
For more information on Grainne Kelly and BubbleBum visit their site here.
Be sure to check out our exclusive BubbleBum competition where you can win some great prizes here.
George R Vaughan