When Steph Duke gave birth to her daughter Phoebe she fell in love with baby products from the USA, but found the shipping so expensive. She tells us how she started My Little Duke to enable mothers UK and Irish mums to get them without the costly delivery charges.
What’s your career background?
I studied English and Drama at Queen’s University Belfast before completing a PGCE in English and SEN (Special Educational Needs.)
While studying, I worked as a top level sales assistant in my local Topshop store and was a carer for my visually impaired cousin.
Once I completed my education I taught English for a year in a private school before settling into a permanent English teaching post in a local school. I have been teaching there for three years and am now on maternity leave.
What inspired you to start My Little Duke, and what is it?
My Little Duke is an online baby boutique. We stock and sell unique baby items from the USA and are based in Northern Ireland.
I was inspired to start this business with my husband after our daughter Phoebe was born in December 2014. While I was pregnant I found myself wanting to buy lots of gorgeous products for my new baby, but most things were coming from the USA.
I was put off buying many items because the international shipping was just so expensive! So I thought – why not sell some of the items I love from here in Northern Ireland? That way, UK and Ireland mums can get faster and cheaper shipping AND I get to share some of these beautiful baby products!
How have you balanced your work around the demands of a young baby?
Thankfully, we are still a very small company with limited stock. Things have been easy enough to manage up until this point. Having a young baby is unbelievably time consuming and I have been parceling up some lovely packages with the help of Phoebe in a wrap!
I can’t forget to mention my wonderful husband; he has been and continues to be the backbone of this operation. He is amazingly talented and creative. Without him, we wouldn’t have the website or gorgeous graphics. He has been taking care of all things technical and I am so grateful. It is something I am beginning to get to grips with but a lot of it still goes over my head!
Do you plan to return to teaching once your maternity leave is over?
Unfortunately yes. In those first few months after Phoebe was born, I couldn’t bear the thought of going back to work and being apart from my baby. I may have even cried a few times when I did let myself think about it for too long!
Yet, as time moves on (Phoebe is now six months old) I am beginning to soften to the idea of returning to work.
I have been fortunate to be able to offer private tuition to a couple of my students in preparation for their upcoming GCSE English exams. These sessions have been a refreshing break away from my new role as mother and allow me an hour to just be Mrs Duke and teach some English.
In terms of my career, teaching is, and I hope always will be, one of my first loves. Even though I will probably cry my eyes out for the first day back … I’m sure I’ll soon get into the swing of things just fine.
What skills from your career have been useful in starting your business?
As a teacher, it is vitally important to communicate effectively. This is something that has helped us hugely as we begin to grow My Little Duke.
I chose to include a blog on our website; here I muse on my experience of motherhood thus far and provide more in depth information on our product range. The response to the blog has been quite overwhelming, in particular, a recent blog post on my breastfeeding journey to date. (You can read the blog here.)
My aim is to be honest with other mamas out there about life with a new baby in the hope that something I write might resonate with someone out there and help in some way. We have received much more exposure as a result and this has really helped to connect us with potential customers.
As an English teacher, I am a big advocate for children reading and getting children to love and enjoy the experience of reading. I am so excited that I get to stock and sell a selection of BabyLit books and playsets in our boutique. These are such a neat idea for those that love literature and want to get their kids enjoying classics from an early age.
Who is your ideal customer?
Primarily our ideal customer would be new mamas. Those mamas who want something a little different for their little ones. Those mamas who want quality, stylish and practical items.
Yet our products also make for fantastic gifts for both new babies and mamas so our appeal would therefore hopefully widen.
Where would you like to see My Little Duke in five years’ time?
I am still in the ‘I can’t believe we are really doing this’ frame of mind so I cannot even begin to imagine where we will be with My Little Duke in five years from now!
Our friends laugh at us as we have been very laid back about starting this business… we are taking it one day at a time, one order at a time and trying to enjoy the crazy ride we are on. It still feels like a dream come true and we are still enjoying the moment.
Who inspires you?
A lot of my inspiration for My Little Duke came from a mum who I don’t even know. I mean, I know OF her, but I don’t know her personally.
Her name is Elle Rowley and she lives in San Diego, California. Elle runs an amazing family business called Solly Baby, making gorgeous wraps for baby wearing mamas all over the globe. She is humble, gracious and so incredibly mama-minded.
Her success with Solly Baby definitely inspires me. I would be honored to stock her baby wraps in our boutique.
What tips do you have for other mums thinking of starting a business on maternity leave?
Having a baby changed me more than I ever thought possible. It made me re-evaluate everything about my life in ways I never even dreamed.
Becoming a mother has been one the most incredible experiences of my life and my outlook is clearer and more selfless than life before Phoebe. Starting a business really fitted this new vision and purpose, and this is the case for lots of new mums out there.
It certainly hasn’t been easy starting this business but it has been worth it. If someone had told me that I’d be the owner of an online baby boutique, selling products from the USA that are gorgeously packaged (I was never very good at wrapping!) I would have laughed in their face! Yet, here I am, in the throes of this incredible journey with my incredible husband.
So one tip I have for any business minded mamas out there is to go for it. If you are able, willing and passionate about something – why would you not?
You can learn more about My Little Duke and browse their products on their website.