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Weekend getaway helps launch baby box business

When Kate Compton Barr met a group of girlfriends in Sedona, Arizona seven years ago, she never imagined emerging from the weekend getaway as a co-founder of a company.

Yet there she was, six months pregnant with her first child, listening to her friend Amber Kroeker describe how she designed and created an American version of a Finnish cardboard baby box.

“Somehow, four days later, I was co-founding a company, and we were planning launches and I was waist deep in patents, tech transfer and brands,” said Barr, who since January has been with the Center for Academic Innovation. as a behavioral scientist.

“It’s one of those situations where it’s really great not knowing at the beginning what it would take to do that. It was me, Amber and our friend Lauren (Hughey), and we went there. Naively , I went.

Kate Compton Barr, pictured with her husband, Daniel; daughter, Winnie; and his son, Max, served as CEO of a baby box maker called Pip & Grow before returning to UM earlier this year. (Photo courtesy of Kate Compton Barr)

Pip & Grow was the product of that weekend and Kroeker’s initial work. Although none of the original co-founders remain actively involved in day-to-day operations, the company continues to carry out its mission under new leadership to manufacture and sell sturdy, environmentally friendly cardboard boxes for help reduce the risk of sudden accidents. infant death syndrome.

Given its humble beginnings, crude prototype appearance, and general lack of business experience of its co-founders, Pip & Grow is a phenomenon.

Barr said Kroeker, a child safety specialist, had been working on the project for a year or two in conjunction with her full-time job at UM as co-founder of University of Michigan Medical Partners. Kroeker received a grant from UM to develop the baby box, which in Finland has been a popular item since the 1930s.

The prototype that Kroeker showed his friends in Sedona was not exactly inspiring.

“It’s like any prototype,” Barr said. “It was a little clunky, but it looked super solid and passed all the tests. But she didn’t know what to do with it.

None of them really did at the time, but Barr offered his experience as a member of the behavioral science team at UM’s Center for Health Communications Research from 2009 to 2014.

At Barr’s suggestion, they included on the headboard the three rules for placing the baby safely in the box: put the baby on their back, keep the box away from any loose toys or blankets, and make sure the baby is alone in the box. .

The company’s original name was to be Safe Baby Company, but Barr learned that was already a registered trademark. They came up with Pip & Grow after a weekend of brainstorming.

“Petting is what chicks do when they hatch from an egg,” she said. “So we thought of the concept of a nest, and this box is kind of a nest for your baby, so you go out and the box grows with you.

“The baby can sleep there in different settings for a while. In my family it turned into a rocket ship when my son was a little older and it was my daughter’s reading nook because what kid doesn’t like a box? »

Although they learned on the fly to some degree, many other decisions were intentional, including where the box, mattresses, and sheets were made.

“One of our business philosophies was that we were about people, planet and profit,” Barr said. “The human part was making the boxes and all the components in the communities where those jobs would do the most good. Our sole purpose was to help support healthy children, and healthy children are raised in safe, stable and prosperous families, which means jobs.

The boxes were made in Flint, Michigan. The sheets were from a company in the home state of Barr, NC, and the mattresses were from a company outside of Atlanta. Pip & Grow was originally intended to be a direct-to-consumer business with a wholesale component, but Barr and his partners quickly learned that wholesale was their primary customer.

The first year, they sold between 500 and 600 boxes. By the time Barr stepped down as CEO in 2021, the company was selling several thousand a year.

“It took a little while,” she said. “We didn’t know what we were doing. Figuring out how to reach our audience took a bit of time. But once we found an audience, we found ourselves very busy.

The boxes are all the same size and are designed to accommodate a baby up to 4-6 months. They are 31 inches long, 19 inches wide at the base, and 21 inches wide at the top for easy stacking.

Although it hasn’t even been a year since she parted ways with Pip & Grow, Barr fondly reflects on the experience and how it helped shape her professionally.

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“In many ways, those years made me,” she said. “I sat in I can’t tell you how many rooms with people that made me very nervous. CEOs of big companies, politicians or investors, and at some point I just had to get over myself. I had to learn how to speak in public, learn how to present to the media and be comfortable with that and present myself in a confident way.

One of his last decisions as CEO before leaving was to offer the entire organization paid leave for the month of August 2021. The gesture, although costly, was met with understanding by partners. from Pip & Grow and was included in an article in Forbes magazine.

Following the Forbes exposure, Barr said she was inundated with more than 100 applications to work at Pip & Grow. Leaving the company she helped grow was not an easy decision, but she has no regrets.

“Over these years, I’ve crystallized who I am and where I’m willing to flex and where I’m going to hold a boundary,” she said. “Ultimately one of the boundaries I had to find for myself was that I needed to be with my family more, and my creative energy had taken us as far as I could and it was time to change it.”

The company is now led by former Pip & Grow marketing director Sarah Nau, and Barr is back at UM to work with the Center for Academic Innovation’s educational technology tools, such as eCoach and Tandem.

In September, Barr and her girlfriends will reunite in Charleston, South Carolina, for another get-together. We don’t know what will happen to it.

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