Interview with Jennifer Leahy, owner of BlindSides
Find out how, when Jennifer Leahy couldn’t find a way to completely block light out of her son’s bedroom, she made her own DIY solution – and turned it into the exciting new product BlindSides.
What’s your career background?
I spent 10 years working in financial PR and marketing, mostly business to business. I have worked for large and small companies and at agencies and in house.
I think my previous experience has prepared me quite well for running my own business, having marketing skills – particularly when you have a limited budget – is very helpful and having been hands on in another small business opened my eyes to other aspects such as invoicing, keeping track of costs and dealing with suppliers.
How did your career change after having children?
I’d never really wanted to run my own business before I had children – having worked in small firms I’ve seen how difficult it can be for the owner to take time off for example.
When I had my first child I was in the fortunate position of not having to return to my previous role. However, after I while I was keen to stimulate myself mentally and that’s when I began to realise that running my own business could provide a challenge but also the flexibility to spend as much time as possible with my family. The question was what that business would be?
Where did the idea for Blindsides come from?
The idea came about completely by accident because I made a product that I needed but couldn’t find available to buy.
I was pregnant with my second child and was moving my eldest into a new bedroom. Like many parents, I was keen to ensure his bedroom was as dark as possible so he (and I!) wasn’t woken up prematurely when the sun rises early. As such I had made-to-measure blackout roller blinds fitted.
Unfortunately, because of the mechanism of roller blinds they didn’t reach all the way to the edge of the window frame so light can still get through. I asked the manufacturer and searched online for a product to bridge the gap but couldn’t find anything. So I made a very rudimentary version of BlindSides™ myself with things I had at home.
It was actually my husband who suggested my Heath Robinson solution could actually be a product and after doing some research and finding nothing else out there like BlindSides™ we decided that I would try to develop the product.
How did you move from idea to actual product?
Before investing in product development, I engaged a patent attorney to conduct a patent search and gauge the likelihood of being granted a patent. This didn’t throw up any hurdles so it was on to the next stage.
I was fully aware that I’m not a product designer so I enlisted an agency to work with on the product development. They guided me through the whole process from concept development and prototyping to sampling and full scale manufacturing.
Once the product was ready it was over to me to start networking in the nursery industry and launch the product.
What’s your USP?
There is no other product available that has the sole purpose of blocking out the light that sneaks in at the sides of blackout blinds and curtains without needing to glue, stick or nail anything to the window frames and thus causes no damage.
Who’s your target audience?
My main target audience is parents of young children whose sleep is interrupted by light coming into their bedrooms because there is light coming in at the sides of their blackout blinds or curtains. This could be in the evening so they can’t get to sleep or when the sun rises early in the morning and they’re woken prematurely. The light could come from street lights or perhaps it’s at nap time that the light bothers the children.
I should add, that although I originally developed BlindSides™ for my children, in fact anyone whose sleep is disturbed as I’ve previously mentioned, could benefit from them. And lots of people who know about BlindSide™s have said they think they would be of value to shift workers.
How do you spread the word about what you do?
BlindSides is a small but growing business and as such has a limited marketing budget. I’m fully aware of the power of social media and I try to harness this as much as possible not only to spread the word about BlindSides™ to potential customers but also to use it for networking.
Such is my belief in social media that from mid-February I am working with the Digital Mums organisation to help further build BlindSides™ presence on Facebook, Twitter etc.
What’s been your most successful PR strategy?
Using my PR experience I capitalised on our Invent with Tom win using it as a hook to engage the relevant media as well as directly with potential customers.
As a result of the press coverage we gained, one of the largest nursery retailers contacted me to find out more about BlindSides™ and stocking the product. These things take time and my UK distributor, Ardega Nursery Distribution, is working on this relationship.
What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?
The biggest obstacle, particularly in the early days, was time. As I mentioned earlier, I was pregnant when BlindSides™ was first conceived and so spare time was limited with a newborn baby.
Things usually take longer than you expect but even more so when you have two small children. I think you just have to accept this and have realistic expectations – sometimes easier said than done, however.
And your proudest moment so far?
I am most proud of having won Jojo Maman Bebe’s Invent with Tom competition. It’s a scheme they ran in partnership with Tom Pellereau, a past winner of the BBC’s Apprentice programme.
Its aim was to provide inventors of nursery products with the chance to reach a broader market and the opportunity to be stocked in its boutiques. We won last summer and I’m pleased to say that BlindSides™ are still stocked in Jojo Maman Bebe.
Why is work so important to you?
I want to be a positive female role model for my sons so that they mature into young men with respect for women’s role in the workforce. When my youngest was small he thought all mummies stayed at home with their children. Obviously I explained to him that in many families both parents work.
Most importantly I want to show both my boys that women can have a successful business/career at the same time as raising a family. I’m happy to say that they’re already getting the message and my youngest isn’t under the same illusion.
How do you balance your business with your family?
Like most other parents, it’s a constant juggle and childcare is key. In the very early days I worked when my oldest was at nursery and youngest napped. Now they’re older, don’t nap and are totally full on, they’re at school and part time nursery. I know they’re extremely happy there and I can work for concentrated periods of time.
I am also totally reliant on technology; I can check my emails quickly and easily even when I’m with my children, particularly if I’m expecting to hear from someone, without it really affecting our time together.
My boys are fully aware of BlindSides™ and I love hearing them talk about my product – on holiday last summer my eldest said “Mummy, the sun woke me up really early, they need BlindSides™ in here”.
What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?
I have learnt so much setting up BlindSides and I’m still learning every day. If I had to pick three things, they would be:
- Most of us are unlikely to be experts in all aspects of our businesses. Acknowledge the things that you don’t excel or have experience of and find a great team to close these gaps. For example, while I had the idea for BlindSides™ I’m not a product designer so I worked with an agency on this
- While not everyone is a fan of social media, it is extremely powerful so devote a portion of your time to it. And not just posting and tweeting your own comments and pictures. While it is an efficient and low cost way to spread the word about your business you can also find information that can benefit your business. For example, I found out about the Invent with Tom competition on Twitter.
- As a mum, I would also say, have some childcare in place so you can work without distraction and be realistic about what you can achieve in a certain time frame, especially if you are the main carer for your children. Things always take longer than you expect, especially when you may have to drop everything without warning if you child isn’t well enough to go to nursery, child minder etc.
You can find out more about (and buy) BlindSides on their website.