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The History of Babyworld and Pushchairs and Car Seats

History of Babyworld and Pushchairs and Car Seats

 

An interview with Chris Blake, Chairman, of Babyworld.com Limited

So how did it all begin?

Roger Abrahams, registered the domain name back in 1995, over 10 years ago and a babyworld site has been available on the web continuously since 1996, making us one of the oldest sites of its type in the UK. Roger's early site provided a place for on-line pioneers to talk about pregnancy and childbirth and came under the wing of Radcliffe Medical Press who provided medical expertise and some early administrative support.

How did you get involved?

I had spent most of career to that date in the publishing industry. In 1998 I was getting frustrated as a Director of an international scientific publishing group and I was convinced that the web was going to have a profound impact on the publishing industry, in fact a profound impact on all aspects of modern life. Its difficult to remember back to what the web was like just 8 years ago, no Google, no Freeserve, no lastminute.com! There were only relatively expensive dial-up service providers, no broadband, and only a few percent of UK adults were on-line! Having become a parent myself a few years earlier, I was aware of the insatiable demand for information and reassurance that new, and especially expectant parents require. What, I wondered, if there was a web site that could provide that information, and allow mothers to swap experiences….. Through one of those random chances that change our lives, I discovered the early babyworld.co.uk community and refined my own vision for a web site that would have, in equal measure: a community where parents can talk to each other; reliable and up to date advice and information; and an on-line store where parents could buy the products they wanted. I would love to be able to say that the rest was easy, but it was not so simple! Most importantly, this vision was going to need funding.

How did you raise the finance for babyworld?

I put together a business plan and set about trying to raise the £1m I thought I would require. I got "one sentence" rejections from all of the "new media" venture funds that only a year later would be pouring tens of millions into similar on-line ventures. I did, however, find a business angel, and through my publishing industry contacts he was willing to provide £750k. A few weeks later in the autumn of 1998 we were in business.

What happened next?

With the funds, we could build a new site from scratch: new design, new content, new community features. We hired paid staff for the first time, many of whom are still with business today, and after 6 months of frantic work launched the new service in April 1999. While we had been concentrating on getting our site up, the on-line world had been changing. Freeserve had been launched and was bringing millions of households on-line. The media was full of stories of the US dot.com gold rush. Only a few months after our launch Freeserve bought the business for £3.7m. Crazy times!

What was Freeserve's vision?

I think they saw babyworld as a building block in a new on-line media empire they were intent on building. Tim Halfhead, who had joined the company a few months before the sale to Freeserve to exploit the commercial potential of the site, took over as Managing Director of babyworld while I helped them launch their iCircle portal. In fact after 3 months with Dixons / Freeserve I left to pursue a career in venture capital leaving Tim and the babyworld team developing the site under Freeserve's ownership. Site traffic continued to grow, but in September 2000 Freeserve brought in-house the previously outsourced e-commerce fulfilment, only to close the e-commerce operation in early 2001. All but one of the original team left as the operations are moved from Oxfordshire to Freeserve's Clerkenwell head office. Freeserve continued to pay the bills, and kept the membership ticking upwards through the bust years that followed the Internet boom. In 2003, Wandadoo (as Freeserve was now branded), was happy to dispose of their niche media asset, and I and Tim eventually reacquired the business in July 2003.

Did it feel like starting all over again?

In many ways, yes! We got many of the old team back together both as employees and shareholders, and we had to start again raising finance to redevelop the site. Once again we were working from a borrowed office and looking to re-build our revenues as an independent site and with Tim back at the helm as Managing Director. A small fundraising, mainly from staff but also from a handful of outside investors, enabled us to take new premises, back in rural Oxfordshire, and to re-launch the e-commerce service.

So two years on, is it working?

Yes, and beyond all our expectations. The on-line shop re-started in August 2004 and has been a run-away success, so much so that we are in the process of converting an additional barn at our office near Wallingford, as additional warehousing. We have also added a showroom, where customers can come in and see our complete range items. The community site is also going from strength to strength, with visitors and member registrations climbing all the time. It has been quite a journey for babyworld.co.uk through the first 10 years of the web. We have seen all of the highs and lows as the web has turned from an academic curiosity into one of the main channels for information and shopping in the UK. I think babyworld is set for a very exciting decade to come!

January 2006