RIPON MEANS BUSINESS: A peep into the baby bottle market

Claire Mitchell with her Chillipeeps products and awards at home in Grewelthorpe.  (130503M2a)
Claire Mitchell with her Chillipeeps products and awards at home in Grewelthorpe. (130503M2a)
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One of her daughter’s first words was Chillipeeps and, despite winning a string of awards and expanding her business over two continents, inventor Claire Mitchell still chooses to work from her garage-come-office in her family home in Grewelthorpe, near Ripon.

A stressful family car journey complete with a hungry 10-week-old baby crying on the back seat would not be the obvious inspiration for the birth of a multi-award winning global business empire.

But for Grewelthorpe inventor Claire Mitchell it signalled the start of Chillipeeps, her innovative baby product – a portable teat or spout which can be attached directly to a carton when a clean, sterilised bottle is not available, allowing you to rehydrate your baby anywhere, at any time.

“Back in 2007 we were on our way to Leeds in the car for a family party,” Claire, 41, tells me while laying out her impressively designed products, including quirky merchandise such as an “I love Chillipeeps” bag designed by one of her loyal Twitter followers, Jeannette Austen.

By “we” Claire means the “Chillipeeps family”: husband Robert, also 41 – or “Popa peeps” – and daughter Mimi, otherwise known as “Mini peeps”, and the product inspiration.

“Mimi was hungry and crying and I said to my husband as he rummaged around the back car seat: ‘why did we not pick up a clean bottle?!’

“I was thinking for the rest of the day, ‘why has someone not invented anything that can directly attach to the carton?’ I couldn’t stop thinking about it for the rest of the day. I just couldn’t get it off my mind.”

So Claire made it her mission to invent exactly that: a product which “provides solutions for everyday problems that people haven’t yet tackled”.

“We set about researching the product and sent Peter Jones, the Dragon’s Den entrepreneur an email. We knew we wouldn’t get a reply, but the automated message advised us to go along to a patent meeting So we drew up a product and went along to a meeting and the rest is history really,” grins Claire, who used to manage a care home before her car journey epiphany six years ago.

“The man we met at the patent meeting had three kids and he just loved the idea. It ended up being a three-hour meeting because he liked it so much!”

Claire enlisted the help of a product development company in Ripon to create a product prototype, before selling her Chillipeeps teat in 12 countries across the world, including Japan, Singapore, Sweden, Indonesia and Belgium.

“On the first day we launched we had Japan interested and it was really, really exciting,” says Claire.

But it has not always been such a smooth ride for the former engineering student, who still works for a care home in Bradford on a consultancy basis alongside building her business enterprise.

“I didn’t have any experience in product development when Chillipeeps started out,” she tells me.

“I went along to three marketing companies in Harrogate who sent me straight out of the door. I had Mimi strapped to me at the time so it was always quite disheartening.”

And it was not just getting the product of the ground which proved a setback for Claire.

One of her biggest hurdles was getting through the breast feeding regulations and prejudice against bottle feeding babies and toddlers. Chillipeeps’s website even establishes that the company “encourages and promotes breast feeding and believes in alternatives when babies are not breast fed”.

“I have never judged,” Claire tells me. “I breast fed Mimi for eight weeks but sometimes it is just not practical, for example baby may have a cleft palette or mum may be on medication. It’s about what is best for baby and what is best for mum.

“You can’t plan what life throws at you. You just have to go with the flow and realise you can’t plan for everything.”

Claire’s “go with the flow attitude” has seen the modest prototype for her Chillipeeps teat – designed in the back bedroom of her and Robert’s Grewelthorpe home – develop into two further designs – a sterilised teat, which can be used straight from the packet without being sterilsed prior to first use, and a toddler teat.

And the back-bedroom business, which has now migrated to to the family home’s garage, has already won an innumerable stream of awards, from the Baby Products Association overall concept and innovation award in 2009 to Women on Their Way outstanding new product award in 2010.

“We have had some brilliant feedback. It is a product which can go everywhere and my customers love that fact about it,” Claire says.

“We have a lot of staunch followers.”

And although the product is manufactured in Lincolnshire and sold across two continents, Claire admits working from home with husband Rob, the company director, can be a struggle.

“Working for home is really hard,” says Claire.“But Chillipeeps is part of our lives now, our family – one of Mimi’s first words was Chillipeeps,” laughs Claire, who said she came up with the name years before the company was established and thinks it “fits perfectly with a baby product”.

And despite Claire’s expanding product repertoire and endless collection of awards, she is still keen to keep the business at home in North Yorkshire.

She expands her reputation by attending baby shows and developing her online dialogue with customers, such as Twitter follower Jeanette who came forward to design the “Proud to be British” range of bags, which are given away at shows and on the internet.

“I have a lot of customer interaction on Facebook and Twitter,” says Claire, who launched an ‘ask a Chillipeeps inventor’ event on the social networking sites and runs night-time mentoring sessions on Skype.

“I like to give something back,” she says.

And although Claire’s legion of mum and dads from all over the world who faithfully rely on her innovations to feed their children are able to ask the entrepreneur whatever they wish directly on the internet, Claire still remains bashful about the impressive “inventor” title.

“I never saw myself as an inventor,” she muses. “But I have always had that voice in my head which said, ‘why had you not done that before?’ It is something I couldn’t get rid of.”

- To find out more about Claire’s company, visit www.chillipeeps.com