Culver entrepreneur hopes success of idea she helped patent is meant to be
It's been several years of waiting, but a Culver Community High School graduate (and familiar face at the school today) seems poised to see a business dream come to fruition.
Jamye Baker, who has worked the past four years in the CCHS bookstore, and is the wife of former school board member turned business teacher at the school -- and himself a CCHS grad -- Eugene Baker, developed the idea for Ciao Baby, a portable high chair, along with business partner Kim Strong. The story of their meeting and the growth of the venture has several Culver-related turns, and to Jamye Baker it also feels meant to be.
Baker notes late CCHS business teacher Mike Schwartz -- in whose stead her husband began working this fall, following Schwartz's untimely death from cancer -- had a big impact on her, and she pursued a business degree at Manchester College, entering into fashion retail. She was working with D.W. Wallcovering, located for several years on West Mill Street in Culver, when the company moved to Louisville, Kentucky. Baker decided to move with the company, and it was there, at D.W. Louisville, that she met Strong, and the two developed a business relationship which continues today.
The Bakers had moved back to Culver when Strong called about six years ago with the idea for Ciao Baby, which grew from a Thanksgiving visit Strong had at her mother's house with her three young children.
"They drug out this klunky, big high chair from the spare bedroom and she said, 'There has to be a better way.' She was looking at one of those camping chairs and said, 'What if?' So Ciao Baby was born. We also call it the portable high chair."
The reaction, "Why has no one thought of this before?" is a common one, says Baker, who notes the chair isn't just for young families, but grandparents, uncles and aunts -- a wide array of demographics.
Ciao Baby bears a strong resemblance to the camping chairs it's modeled after, but it's a fully functional high chair weighing just eight pounds ("Not much more than a lawn chair," Baker notes). A metal brace on the side allows easy folding up and placement in a very portable bag which easily straps over the wearer's shoulder.
"It's all one piece; all assembled. You pop it open, strap (the baby) in, and you're good to go. We say it's for mom's trunk and grandma's closet. It goes with you everywhere: the park, the soccer game."
Both Baker and Strong had sales and marketing backgrounds and knew how to develop a product. They filed a patent and researched their way into a working knowledge of testing children's products and the many stringent safety standards such products must meet by law.
"It took three years and 21 tries to pass all the safety standards required," she recalls. "The patent procedure took three years also...it was issued in 2007. We licensed it to a large company, but it fell through their cracks. But we had a contract, so we couldn't do anything with it. Finally in 2010, when that ended, we said, 'No one loves our product more than we do,' and decided we'll do it on our own."
The largest children's product show in America, explains Baker, has been held in Las Vegas the past several years, but when it was announced the show would move to Louisville, where Strong still lives and works, this year, Baker saw it as another of those signs too significant to be coincidence. So the two ladies signed up for the show and began building marketing materials.
At the trade show a few weekends ago, a number of retailers picked up the product, and in that one weekend, Baker and Strong took in $30,000 worth of orders, which they plan to ship when the product is ready in bulk, in January.
Interestingly, Baker says camouflage and NASCAR are the most requested patterns, so she and Strong have already been in discussions with Mossy Oak, who love the product. There's also been interest from companies in Japan and China, who would buy the product direct from manufacturers in China.
She adds the chairs will eventually be available directly off the Ciao Baby website as well, at www.theportablehighchair.com.
"We're just two people," she points out. "We take it one day at a time. We both have day jobs we both have no intentions of walking away from."
Nonetheless, Baker says they'd love to build some value and perhaps find an investor to take on the product.
"We went from zero to 60 overnight with this show," she adds. "We've been working on it so long -- now that we're 90 days away from product being available, it's kind of amazing.
"So we came back home and said, 'Wow, we need to order some product!'"
Many family and friends, she says, were unaware of this "other life" Baker has had as an entrepreneur.
"I just showed it at (the high) school last week -- they (co-workers) couldn't believe we'd been working on it all this time!"