Cloth diaper business expands with West Duluth storeEntrepreneurs Joy and Joshua Herbert have expanded their online cloth-diaper business by opening a West Duluth storefront.
By: Candace Renalls, Duluth News Tribune
Debt is something entrepreneurs Joy and Joshua Herbert of Duluth try hard to avoid.
But when they started their Little Neetchers cloth diaper business in 2009, staying out of debt became more challenging. That’s why they started their business small and moved forward slowly and carefully.
Joy dreamed of having a storefront. But that was a risky venture right off for a couple in their 20s on a tight budget with two young children.
So with a $7,000 loan, they started with a home-based online business, selling reusable diapers and accessories. Once online, they built a following of environmentally conscious parents eager to save $1,500 to $2,000 per child and keep 1.5 tons of diaper waste out of landfills — by foregoing disposable diapers. Over time, the Herberts grew their business and broadened their product line to include other natural baby products, including their own line and many others made locally.
That got the attention of those behind the annual Joel Labovitz Entrepreneurial Success Awards, who presented the Herberts with the micro-enterpreneur award in 2011 over eight other finalists.
As 2013 began, the loan was paid, and the time was right for them to open a storefront to reach more customers.
“The business had plateaued,” Joy Herbert explained. “We’re hoping to reach people who are not sure about cloth diapers. They can come in, and we can tell them about it. That’s the goal of the storefront.”
So in April, Little Neetchers opened in a cheery 800-square-foot storefront at 5628 Grand Ave., which boasts large windows, brick walls, high ceilings and wood floors,
“It was what we wanted and had been waiting for for a long time,” Joy said.
And they did it cheaply.
They got a good deal on the rent, they say, which includes utilities. They brightened the space by painting the walls and ceiling themselves. Wheels were added to large wooden utility spools, acquired for free, to use as store display tables. Reclaimed wood, salvaged from a relative’s farm, has been fashioned into display shelves, tables and the store’s front desk. Old milk crates also serve as shelves.
The look continues the sustainable theme of their business.
With a new $6,000 loan the couple, now both 32, readied the store and expanded their product line. But Joshua Herbert estimates they’ve spent only a couple of thousand dollars so far.
The child-friendly space provides an area for small children to play with each other and with the toys the shop sells.
“We want parents to be comfortable looking and not worrying about the kids,” Joy said.
“It is awesome to be able to come in and look at the diapers,” said Jennifer Bergh of Duluth during a visit to the store on Thursday. “I can look at the products and see how to use them.”
Bergh, who lives a mile away, had shopped Little Neetchers online. But she said it’s easier to come to the store than sit at the computer at home and look at the products.
“It gets a little hectic at home,” she said.
She used reusable diapers for 20 months with her first child and is using them with her new 3-month-old baby. She figures she has saved about $1,200 so far.
Besides the diapers and fleece liners she uses, she has purchased detergent and diaper spray from Little Neetchers. And on this day she couldn’t resist a cute sun hat for her baby.
Besides a variety of reusable diapers and liners that range in price from about $12 to $22 and diaper accessories, the store’s offerings include carrier bags, swaddles, baby swimwear, toys and organic detergents, lotions and salves. Beaded necklaces safe for babies to chew on are especially popular with grandmothers, while rice comfort packs ease pain for nursing moms.
Today’s diapers different
Part of the Herberts’ challenge all along has been overcoming the old image of smelly cloth diapers, soaking pails, plastic baby pants and metal pins.
Today’s cloth diapers are very different.
They come in various, colorful styles with absorbent cotton or hemp fleece linings. Covers are waterproof but not plastic. Some are washed separately, while others come in one washable unit. Soaking isn’t necessary. The pins are gone. Some have expandable snap closings that accommodate babies as they grow. Some have Velcro-style closings.
Media coverage of Little Neetchers early on — including a TV spot in the Twin Cities — helped the Herberts quadruple their business orders in a matter of months. Growth continued for another year. Joy’s outreach efforts to get the word out have included in-home Tupperware-style shows around the region, explaining the washing regimen to moms and moms-to-be.
“We rode that wave for a while,” Joy said.
Nikki Sauter of Duluth found switching to cloth diapers for her children easier when she could get advice right from Joy, who has used cloth diapers with all three of her children.
“I wanted help from somebody who knew about them and who could answer my questions,” Sauter said. “I had tried doing cloth diapers before. But it made it a lot easier to have someone to answer questions.”
Last year — after the birth of the Herberts’ third child — Joy reached a limit on how much she could do with the business as a stay-at-home mom, watching three small children. With her husband working full time at another job, the brunt of running the business fell on her.
“I didn’t have the energy to push it forward,” she said. “I could keep up with the orders. But there’s a lot of work that goes into expanding product line, marketing and getting more customers. I was pretty much just doing orders and not able to think ahead and plan better.”
They were stuck.
The answer was opening a store so customers could see their products first-hand and learn how to use them. So Joshua quit his full-time job to focus on the business and on raising their children.
“It wasn’t a tough decision to quit my job,” he said. “I’m married to a woman with an entrepreneurial spirit, and it’s evident she’s really good at this. So being a stay-at-home dad and working part time at the store is a no-brainer.”
Moving all their inventory to the store, where they also fill online orders, opened up welcome space at their West Duluth home.
“Our basement was full, and our desk was down there,” Joy said. “Now we get to go down there and have all this room.”
So far, the storefront on busy Grand Avenue is working. Some of their online customers are stopping in, as well as new patrons. And the West Duluth business community has been welcoming.
They plan to start free Cloth Diapering 101 classes at the store. Pre-natal yoga and baby nutrition classes for a fee also are in the works.
The couple take turns working at the store and staying home with the children — Silas, 6, Meren, 4, and Esmee, 15 months.
“My husband and I fight about who gets to go to the store and who gets to stay with the kids,” Joy said. “It’s more fun at the store.”