As part of our coverage of product news and trends of interest to expectant and new parents, Family Media and the Baby Show Series regularly publishes interviews with executives at the most influential and innovative companies producing products for babies and toddlers. The chats are meant to be helpful and informative to consumers, and there’s a bonus: It’s also just nice to hear from the people in charge! Not surprisingly, they are as passionate about their products as the parents and children who use them. In 2017, Family Media, in partnership with the JPMA (Juvenile Products Manufacturing Association), will bring the Baby Show Series to New York (May 20 and 21), Chicago (August 26 and 27) and Los Angeles (November 4 and 5)–not to mention a big trade show in Anaheim that will also have a special day for consumers (May 13).
Today, UPPAbaby strollers can seem like such a ubiquitous part of life in the big city that it’s hard to believe that the brand is only a decade old. We explored the secret of UPPAbaby’s success in a conversation with its founders, Bob and Lauren Monahan.
What do you say to yourselves when you talk about what the brand stands for?
Lauren: We build in all the features and functions that you do need, and for each of our stroller platforms, there is a lot that you get with each package–one-handed reclines, frames that fold with the seat on, reversibility and adaptability, and you can add multiple children. And now you can have the twin option for different ages and stages. We’d like to think we make life easier for you as a parent, and at the same time, we want our strollers to be fashionable and stylish and easy to use–and that you’re kind of excited about it. The strollers feel like you as a parent, versus something that you have to buy because you have a child.
Bob: I don’t want that to sound like we are patting ourselves on the back too much, but we try to make decisions for the parents. If you don’t need it, we didn’t put it on there. We’re not putting things on there just to raise the cost of the product. We’re doing all the thinking for you, and trust us, we try to present to you a really great stroller. It’s worth every penny. There’s nothing on there that’s frivolous; we try to be pragmatic with everything we do. The right weight, the right style, the right function, options, and just everything. We try to do the thinking for parents that may not know what they need before they have a baby.
Do you happen to know what the most popular colors are in NYC?
Lauren: Oh, black, black, and black. Although the new colors we just introduced for 2017 may change that…
Bob, for readers who are unfamiliar, would you share a bit about your engineering background?
Bob: I started out in the car industry. I’m the engineer and operations guy; so sourcing, manufacturing, product development, finance, operations, those are my roles. I’ve been doing product development for a long time, not just engineering, but like, how do you develop consumer products? How do you come up with the idea, put it on paper, make a model, build models, source it and finally bring it to light? That’s kind of been my thing for quite some time. And I guess by working at places like Ford, Reebok, and later at Dorel, I had covered everything from the wheel element, to the walking outdoors healthy element, and then combined them to make strollers.
What was your experience like in the stroller industry before starting UPPA?
Bob: I worked with launching some strollers, seeing what was going on, and learning about this whole [upscale] market, primarily in New York, where it started. Instead of just having low-end strollers, there were these high-end strollers that people were obsessed about. It was pretty exciting: people in their 20’s and 30’s, even guys, were obsessing over strollers. It opened my eyes to the segment and market potential. I thought I had the capability to develop more strollers that would meet a need.
How did you both decide to start UPPAbaby?
Lauren: I had ended up at Reebok, in marketing and product licensing, which was about looking at businesses, the whole life cycle of those businesses, including licensees. Then I had our first child and I was at home, realizing that I needed my own time. Full-time mom probably wasn’t what I was cut out for. We had our kids (three in total) and they’re about 20 months apart. And there was definitely that desire for work; and at the same time, as a mom, I had first-hand experience with the stroller market, and what people were using at that time, and a sense of what was and wasn’t working. It was really Bob’s concept. He really had the market knowledge and the know-how in terms of making products, to say, “I think that there’s a really big gap in here that somebody should fill and why shouldn’t it be us? There are parents like us that are looking for a product that we could create for them, that just doesn’t exist right now.” I knew as a user that this was true.
Bob: I had always wanted to, but it’s hard to find a good time to start a business. There was some stability, we had saved up some money, and it just seemed like, even with the kids, this was a good time to make this venture.
Lauren: We had a friend in NY whose friend was in PR and was working with some of the higher end juvenile clothing brands, and she said the same thing: It would be really exciting to launch into this category.
What was that like, what was your first break?
Bob: Well, we took a year to develop the product after I left my old job. Then we literally air-freighted 100 strollers to a trade show, and we sold 43. It was crazy.
Let’s fast-forward: You’ve launched a performance travel system that can grow with your family and a side-by-side…What’s next?
Lauren: We are super excited about our new 2017 collection. It incorporates a first-to-market naturally fire retardant infant car seat, and some bold color trends and luxe textiles. The MESA infant car seat remains top-rated in safety and ease of use, but like we said before, people are always looking for options. So we’re excited to continue to innovate with the first-to-market naturally fire retardant MESA in Henry (Blue Marl). For our VISTA stroller and CRUZ stroller lines, we’re introducing some new colors, deep, rich tones inspired by fashion and nature trends. Plus, an authentic REACH* leather will be available on the bumper bar and handlebar of select new fashions of the VISTA and CRUZ strollers. Again, we are always sourcing the best and highest quality fabrics and materials. For people who are interested in learning more about *REACH, it is an EU certification that oversees and restricts the use of toxic chemicals in manufacturing in order to reduce associated risks.
Obviously the NY market is very familiar with UPPAbaby’s classic strollers. But what characterizes an UPPAbaby side-by-side?
Bob: I’d say it looks like a regular stroller that you put together side-by-side. There are ones out there like it, but I guess what makes it an UPPAbaby is we went the extra mile. To save weight, we made it all out of aluminum, there’s no steel. And we took the two wheels out that usually go in the middle–usually in a triple you have a set of wheels and a set of wheels and a set of wheels. We took the wheels out of the middle and we developed a structure that was strong enough to do that. So we’re probably 25 percent lighter than any of the other ones out there like that. If you’ve got 2 young kids, that’s could be huge logistical problems. Now you can fit through the doorways, you can do all these things, you can fold it up and carry it. Because almost every stroller that is set up for two kids, they looks good but you get behind it and start pushing and you realize that what you have is the Queen Mary.
Lauren: And then there are subtle things. They designed the cup wheeler so it sits inboard of that outer most wheel, so it doesn’t smack as you go past something. And there’s the sleek design of it, the feel of it, the SPF 50+ sunshades, it still stands when it’s folded and it’s a double!
Bob: And it’s suitable from birth. Our other umbrella is not suitable from birth; we made this suitable from birth. We figured, if you have twins…our VISTA is great, you can add these seats on, but it can become kind of big. Whereas this, right from birth you can put them right in here, it’s totally great, until 4 years old. This can be the one you need, if that’s your lifestyle.
Lauren: Also our side-by-side double can work for siblings too, if you want to put your newborn in the stroller at the same time. Some people are always going to want our flagship stroller, but when you’re on the go and when you need lightweight, like if you’re going to visit your parents for the weekend, bringing your VISTA with you is probably overkill. That’s your daily workhorse. That is your car. The G-LINK is your weekender or lighter on-the-go stroller.
Give me some insight into the future of the stroller market. In general, what are people like you thinking about?
Bob: Personally, I think that a lot of major innovations happened over the last six or seven years. We led the way in a lot of it in terms of modular seats, and attaching a second seat. Now we are launching the first to market naturally fire retardant infant car seat.
Lauren: Materials! Our materials for 2017 are innovative… from the MESA Henry car seat to the VISTA and CRUZ stroller collections. We are so excited to continue to provide options and really meet a need for everyone growing their family.
Is UPPAbaby likely to always be a mobility company or might you in, theory, get into other kinds of children’s products?
Lauren: I think that we have all these great opportunities with our products now, these growing lines, and growing internationally is a very big focus for our company. What we’re seeing is that, internationally, the wants and needs are homogenizing. We’ve had a great reception in the countries we’ve gone into so far, and we’re opening a whole lot more, and it’s been great. Our distributors in all of our other countries work so well together because the same information resonates with parents and the same needs resonate for parents. For us as a brand, I don’t think we’re jumping to say “we’re going to make the next this or that if it doesn’t seem related to what we already do. We tend to stay the course and grow organically, listen to our consumer, and give our parents what they’re looking for. If we hear an overwhelming desire for a certain product that connects to our given products, then we’ll do it! We are all about offering options.
Bob: There are a bunch of things we want to do in the mobility category. We have a list of things we want to do, and we have some fun things on the horizon for the next four or five years in mobility. I like the mobility category.
I’m seeing a lot of joggers…
Bob: It’s been tossed around, the three-wheeler-jogger is certainly a topic of discussion… nothing specific, except that we’re staying in mobility.
Lauren: You’ll see that we’re not very reactionary. We’re fairly methodical, and we like to fine-tune and give people what they’re looking for. We’re not into being that attention-grabbing. We listen and give people what they want and what they need and do a great job of it, and are comfortable growing in that path.