How I Built a Baby Clothes Brand Moms Can’t Resist

More than a decade after founding her eponymous children’s clothing brand, Kate Quinn was still struggling to make a name for herself in the world of fashion. So, in 2018, she did what many in the sector have done of late and placed a bet on direct-to-consumer. Pivoting to a strategy that cut out the middleman turned her Seattle-based company into a cult brand, thanks in part to moms’ penchant for sharing cute pics on social media. Quinn’s prints of jungle animals and botanicals on everything from onesies to quilts are in such high demand that some products fetch many times the retail price on mom-run secondary markets. Now, the company faces a fun new challenge: How do you acquire new customers when brand loyalists snap up your products as soon as they drop? –As told to Graham Winfrey

I went to the Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising in Los Angeles wanting to start my own company, but I didn’t graduate. It was really expensive, so I went for a year and chose classes I thought would serve me in running my own business. One of the things I learned at FIDM is that baby clothes are much less sensitive to the economy than women’s stuff. People are always buying baby gifts, even when the economy takes a turn. That set me on a hunt worldwide for manufacturers.

I ended up finding some family-owned factories in India, and in 2006 I started selling organic cotton baby clothes on Craigslist. Seattle Magazine did a little write-up on me and it got me more attention than I thought possible, so I went from Craigslist to specialty boutiques pretty quickly. The designs aren’t typically based on trends. I get a lot of inspiration from interior design. It’s often nature-based, and maximalist for sure. We do a ton of prints.

I had international distribution and was selling to Nordstrom and Target and on Zulily, but as a brand we never really broke through. We’d have a good year and then a supplier wouldn’t ship. And if you don’t ship a fall collection on time and everybody cancels, it’s probably 40 percent of your year. There were tons of cancellations and tons of late shipments. Another huge issue was not receiving our samples in time, so then we couldn’t presell or take them to the trade shows. It was just one thing after another.

For the first dozen years, we really struggled. Wholesale represented 70 percent of our revenue, but I was just done with all of the extra costs, risks, and challenges that came with being an omni­channel brand. I’d do four big collections a year, so you’re making four big bets, and I didn’t even know if any would sell through at the retailer. On top of that, I was disconnected from the customer because it was all about the retailer.

So, in 2018, I decided to get rid of the wholesale business entirely and sell only on our website. Until that point, we would sell a bodysuit for $11 to a retailer and they’d sell it for $22. We took that wholesale margin and just gave that back to the consumer. We put the fall 2018 collection online, and it sold more in the first couple of days than it would have from the entire wholesale practice.

On October 3, 2019, the site did $90,000 in sales out of nowhere. It had been averaging $10,000 to $20,000 a day up until that point. We think what happened is one of our creatives on Instagram caught the eye of somebody with a lot of followers and basically got a whole bunch of people coming to the site. We had about 20,000 Instagram followers at the time. Today we have more than 430,000.

Instead of doing four collections a year, we now do 50 to 70. Each collection has hundreds of items, and is its own purchase order–and its own little bet. So instead of making four big deposits, we make 50 little bets, and we can take more chances. We can be more creative.

Today, we employ a flash-sale model. When we announce a collection on Facebook, there could be 1,500 comments. The majority of those are one mom tagging another. We get virtually all of our awareness online through Facebook and Instagram. Our customers are very social. Parents love showing off pictures of their babies. That’s just kind of part of what you do as a parent.

If anything, our challenge right now is how to acquire new customers when our current customers are gobbling up all the inventory. A lot of it sells out within the first hour, so we still struggle with predicting and forecasting. Being entire­ly bootstrapped has also been hard. If we were to take on an investment partner in the future, they would have to support us in doing what we do best. For now, we’re going to stay obsessed with our customer.


From the September 2022 issue of Inc. Magazine