The #Takeoff series is about crowdsourcing issues important to Canadian small businesses. They tell us about their defining moments and we write about their stories, the issues, and strategies for success or how to overcome obstacles.
Tell us your business's takeoff moment: tgam.ca/takeoff
Just five weeks after launching SleepBelt Inc., a Toronto company that makes a patented stretchy band for cuddling a baby hands-free, Hayley Mullins and Ashley Wade learned their product was being mentioned – three times – in a book to be published the following year by the breastfeeding advocacy group La Leche League International.
The triple shout-out in Sweet Sleep was a priceless endorsement from an organization that is well known among mothers and health-care providers worldwide. After the book's release in July of 2014, SleepBelt was featured on a number of Canadian and U.S. TV shows, and on several mommy blogs.
In other words, SleepBelt had hit the publicity jackpot.
"From that recommendation, we heard from health-care providers that SleepBelt was being discussed in a lot of breastfeeding courses," says Ms. Mullins, who invented the device that became SleepBelt after her baby accidentally rolled off her chest. "We grew by 100 per cent in the year the book was published."
Today, SleepBelt is sold online and through about 20 retailers in Canada and abroad. Several hospitals in Canada and the United States have also bought SleepBelt for use in their maternity wards and neonatal intensive care units. The product is being touted by health-care professionals as a great aid for breastfeeding and skin-to-skin infant care.
"They're also using it to prevent infant falls," says Ms. Wade, sister and business partner to Ms. Mullins. "Health-care providers are telling us they're wrapping it around moms after they give birth because some of them are so tired that they fall asleep while their baby is on their chest."
SleepBelt Inc. overcame the challenge new businesses face of getting noticed when the breastfeeding advocacy group La Leche League mentioned the stretchy band, which prevents infants from rolling off caregivers. (SleepBelt)
With their tight budgets and small teams, most small businesses can't afford to buy advertising or pay for publicity campaigns to generate some buzz for their brand. Priya Chopra, founder and president of 1milk2sugars PR, a public relations company based in Toronto and Montreal, says startups in the first five years of business tend to have a hard time getting any publicity.
And entrepreneurs are often more concerned about hitting their sales targets than getting mentioned in a newspaper or social media.
"It is a challenge to get noticed as a new brand," Ms. Chopra says. "But if you think about it, a solid piece of publicity can help reach a vast market in one shot, something that would require a lot of knocking on doors and phone calls to achieve."
SleepBelt got what may be the best type of publicity: endorsement by a credible third party, Ms. Chopra says.
"That publicity from a third party – and not from the brand itself – is much more authentic than if the brand makes such claims themselves," she says, "thus, the reason why third-party endorsements or media mentions are so coveted."
So how does a budget-constrained, time-starved enterprise get its brand in the spotlight? Before they start putting themselves out there, businesses need to outline their key messages – basically, what they want their target audience to know about them and their brand, Ms. Chopra says.
After these key messages are laid down, the next step is to send out press releases to community and regional papers as a starting point.
"Once sent, the follow-up is the critical part, and brands need to vigilant in their follow-up with press outlets to remain top of mind, without being overbearing," says Ms. Chopra. "Timing is everything so the entrepreneur must be patient as the process to get on the radar of media can take time."
Ms. Chopra says it is also a good idea to get involved in relevant committees and networking groups and, if the budget allows, to sponsor industry or community events.
If and when the third-party endorsement or media mention happens, it is important to seize the moment and make the most of it, says Robert Mensies, president and creative director at Edge Marketing Strategies in Winnipeg.
This is where social media becomes the entrepreneur's true best friend. Mr. Mensies suggests posting the mention online and urging followers to spread the word. Asking a third-party endorser to reinforce its support of the brand with a tweet or two can also intensify and prolong the buzz, he adds.
But with "best of" and "top 10" rankings now so common online, entrepreneurs should also take the time to do due diligence on the third party that is endorsing them, Mr. Mensies cautions.
"Make sure it's a legitimate endorsement," he says. "If it's an editorial, find out if it's a true editorial or if it's something you need to pay for. If it's another brand that's cross-promoting your brand, be aware of who's behind the brand and what they stand for."
Today's exciting buzz quickly becomes old news tomorrow, so entrepreneurs should do what they can to extend their moment in the sun. Ms. Chopra advises asking the media outlet or third-party endorser about promotional pieces – such as labels or seals – that can be used for marketing.
SleepBelt Inc. co-founders, from left, Ashley Wade and Hayley Mullins. (SleepBelt)
At SleepBelt, Ms. Mullins and Ms. Wade designed a package label that highlights the La Leche League recommendation.
"But something the brands should not do is inflate the actual achievement or continue to promote it years after it is achieved, as it can appear dated or may even appear to be a 'one hit wonder,'" Ms. Chopra cautions.
A year after SleepBelt's publicity windfall from La Leche League's book, Ms. Mullins and Ms. Wade have hired a media relations firm, Toronto-based Media Profile, to help them continue building their brand. SleepBelt is active on social media – especially Facebook and Twitter – but needs to bump up its online friends and followers. Ms. Mullins and Ms. Wade are also busy going to trade shows and health conferences, and making numerous phone calls each day.
Being mentioned in La Leche's book gave SleepBelt a running start and the co-founders say they have no intention of losing momentum.
"While the book was important, it's actually word-of-mouth that's driving our growth today," Ms. Mullins says. "The way our product was embraced by experts – that's a huge reason why we're so successful today."