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Leslie Brooks’s son, Grady, models some of Hippo Hugs’s weighted blankets. He often sits nearby as Leslie sews. (Picasa)
Leslie Brooks’s son, Grady, models some of Hippo Hugs’s weighted blankets. He often sits nearby as Leslie sews. (Picasa)

MICROBUSINESS

Weighted blankets give autistic people the warm fuzzies Add to ...

Leslie Brooks had always been handy with a needle and thread. So when a psychologist she was working for told her a young autistic client was having trouble sleeping at night, Ms. Brooks decided to make the child a weighted blanket – a type of bed covering stuffed with weights that can help calm children and adults with sensory disorders, anxiety or stress.

That was the start of her life as an entrepreneur. In 2011, Ms. Brooks founded Hippo Hug Inc., a Calgary company that specializes in weighted blankets and weights-stuffed animals.

“This is putting together a hobby I like and my professional training,” says Ms. Brooks, who worked for years with children with autism as a behaviour consultant and speech and occupational therapy assistant. “At the same time, it’s allowed me to stay home with my son.”

Ms. Brooks planned to make no more than 10 blankets in Hippo Hug’s first year. Instead she got – and filled – orders for about 60 that year, with each blanket selling for between $110 to about $300, depending on size and weight.

The appeal of her blankets was clear from the start. Unlike other weighted blankets that are filled with sand or plastic pellets, Hippo Hug blankets use galvanized metal discs encased in plastic composite – designed by her husband, an engineer – that Ms. Brooks orders from a manufacturer.

The weights are enclosed in four layers of fabric, with each weight sealed in its own stitched-down pocket. This way, if the blanket gets ripped – which is unlikely because of the sturdy construction, says Ms. Brooks – just one or two discs will fall out instead of hundreds of small pellets. The size of the discs also makes them less of a choking hazard than other fillings; each one is roughly the size of one Oreo cookie layer without the filling.

“You don’t get the bulkiness of a blanket stuffed with pellets,” says Ms. Brooks. “My blankets look like quilts, so if you’re a kid with special needs and you invite your friends over, they’re not going to look at your bed and say, ‘What’s that, why is your blanket so big?’”

At first, Ms. Brooks made the blankets on her dining room table, which she cleared each time she and her family sat down for a meal. But as demand grew for Hippo Hug products, she started to wonder if she should designate a spot in her house for her business.

The family dogs forced her to make a decision after they ran through the sewing machine cable, causing the machine to crash and break on the floor. Shortly after, Ms. Brooks relocated her micro factory to a room in the house originally intended to be a craft room.

“It’s now completely dedicated to the business, all except for a small shelf which we fill with toys and stuff for my son [Grady],” says Ms. Brooks. “He sits in the corner and does his thing, and the rule is he’s not supposed to climb on the table while I’m working.”

Ms. Brooks finances Hippo Hug largely with money from her and her husband’s bank accounts. At one point, she considered asking friends and family to invest in her growing business.

“But it’s a risk,” she says. “Besides, I’m not ready to let anybody else impose their opinion on my business.”

To avoid inventory costs, she makes each blanket to order but still needs to cover the upfront cost for material, including the metal discs, which she orders in the thousands. Her heaviest blanket, which weighs more than 11 kilograms, requires about 1,000 discs. Ms. Brooks says she orders about 80,000 discs at a time to keep her materials inventory low and minimize her financial risk.

While it started out as a sole proprietorship, Hippo Hug is now incorporated, which allowed Ms. Brooks to get a business line of credit.

“I haven’t had to use it a ton and I’ve really done well in paying it back,” she says. “I buy materials as I need them and I’m never making huge purchases. At the most I’m making purchases for $600 and paying ourselves back first.”

Demand for Hippo Hug blankets continues to grow. Last year, the company sold 120 blankets. Ms. Brooks is looking to outsource manufacturing. Right now she gets help from her mother, who cuts all the batting and marks sewing lines, and another person who comes in to stuff the metal discs and sew them into pockets.

“I’ve been trying for the last two years to outsource the manufacturing part of the business, so instead of me sewing, I could be doing more selling,” says Ms. Brooks. “But it’s a challenge and I’ve had no luck finding anybody in Canada.”

Nonetheless she’s planning to ramp up production, with a target of making 500 blankets next year. Ms. Brooks says she's considering overseas production, which typically requires large-volume orders and full payment upfront. 

She could probably bring in a few extra people and do more, she says, but as she’s done from the beginning, she wants to keep the financial risks as low as possible.

“What if I don’t sell 500 blankets?” she asks. “I’m working now to do only 500 because I don’t have the money to do more and I don’t want to overextend myself and put the business into debt.”

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