What do two former JFS boys have in common with a prince and a president? The answer is, a dressing gown.
More specifically, a personalised dressing-gown worn by the prince when he met the then-president of the United States. The gown was created for him by My 1st Years, a personalised baby gift company, founded by JFS alumni Jonny Sitton and Daniel Price.
Prince George and Obama’s meeting last year was a career highlight for Sitton and Price. It changed the whole face of their business and catapulted the 30-year-olds from Elstree into the US market with a £5 million investment deal.
My 1st Years was launched in 2010 when Sitton and Price were hunting for a unique baby gift but couldn’t find anything that suited their needs.
“There was nothing in the baby industry that offered personalisation, next day delivery and not breaking-the-bank prices,” says Sitton. So the friends — who met at JFS and went to Leeds University together — decided to fill the gap in the market.
Since its launch, My 1st Years has hit some significant milestones. These include getting investment from textiles millionaire Sir David Alliance and securing deals with well-known retailers such as Not On The Highstreet, John Lewis and — after three years of persuasion — Selfridges. Price says that finally making the deal with the iconic department store was one of his proudest moments.
The company initially launched online with 30 products and the founders did almost everything themselves, from funding the initial set-up with their savings, acting as their own product buyers — “We looked at brands like Ugg and Converse that mums loved, and wanted to come up with versions for children” — and even did the sewing necessary for the personalisation.
Their first tranche of investment from Sir David Alliance, the largest shareholder in retailer N Brown (which includes Jacamo and Simply Be in its catalogue) came as bit of a surprise to the duo.
“We were never really looking for funding,” says Price, but they employed an intern who happened to be Alliance’s niece. “It started as a chat: ‘Let’s meet a guy in retail to get a bit of mentoring,’” says Sitton, but Alliance was clearly impressed with what the company had to offer and invested £2 million in 2013, allowing My 1st Years to pick up momentum: “We really grew because we had cash.”
Now the company employs 70 people. Head office (marketing, buying, design, finance) is still in Stanmore but production has moved to a warehouse in Northampton, which houses the skilled workers who personalise My 1st Years’ products and the 50 different machines they use to do so.
However, the most recent milestone is probably the most life-changing and has helped transform My 1st Years from a local start-up to an international business.
“We were planning on looking for [more] investment, but as a result of the Obama picture we decided to get funding from US and UK investors — it made us think bigger,” says Sitton of the £5 million investment from venture and growth investor Beringea.
They’re using the investment to prepare for the move into the US market, “refurbishing our production facility to handle the next phase of growth; that’s going to be a big process for the next year or so.”
The dressing gown has since become My 1st Years’ number one selling item but the partners, who both live in Mill Hill, never imagined seeing their products modelled by royalty.
Sitton and Price explain that sending gifts to celebrities — including Beyonce, the Beckhams, Elton John and Danni Minogue — on the birth of their babies has become part of their PR strategy. “Every well-known celebrity that has a baby, we send a gift to them and aim for them to become a customer themselves,” says Price.
The Duke and Duchess of Cam-bridge made it on to that list twice.
“When George was born, we sent him a gift-set and when Charlotte was born, we sent her a gift-set and George another ‘big brother’ gift — that was the robe.
“We had no idea that they liked it or that he would wear it.” By the time David and Samantha Cameron had their fourth child in 2010, Sitton and Price had grown in gift-giving confidence.
“We turned up at Downing Street with a gift hamper and went through the gates,” says Sitton. “They really liked it.”
Since then, it’s no surprise that My 1st Years has grown quickly, turning over £6.5 million pounds since they launched.
Sitton tells me that the average baby in the UK gets 12 gifts when he or she is born. With nearly 700,000 babies born in England and Wales in 2015, gift-givers will be on the hunt for something that makes an impact, rather than landing on the “yet another white onesie” pile.
Which leads us to another aspect of My 1st Years’ strategy: keepsake gift boxes. Every My 1st Years order arrives gift-wrapped and packed in a sturdy turquoise box. “It comes back to those core principles,” says Sitton. “Next day delivery, personalised and unique. That’s what the gift box is all about.”
Along with restructuring the company for growth into the US market, Sitton has recently had a life-changing experience of his own that has fuelled his creativity for the business.
The birth of his first child — Poppy-Rae just over four months ago — was celebrated by My 1st Years with a 50 percent off sale; a canny business move on Sitton’s part as well as a fitting way to mark her arrival.
“It’s been amazing,” says Sitton of fatherhood. “What’s been interesting is running a baby brand for seven years [with no kids], just being a gifter myself, now it’s so weird to be on the receiving end.
And he’s found it fascinating to be on the receiving end, and has also learned a lot from shopping for his daughter. “That’s given me a whole load of ideas and inspiration.”
“The personalised gifts we’ve received have been so handcrafted; things that aren’t scalable. When My 1st Years started, we grew very fast. Now we want to offer more handcrafted things — it’s been inspirational.”
He admits to raiding the My 1st Years’ warehouse for a present of his own: “I had to get [Poppy-Rae] the robe; it’s iconic and they look so cute after they’ve been bathed.”
So with two JFS boys at the helm of a baby-gifting business, can we expect to see Baby’s first Judaica or a personalised gift for a brit milah on offer soon?
“We haven’t gone down the religious route yet,” says Sitton, noting they will “probably stay away” from those kinds of gifts. However, Sitton says he plans to take Poppy-Rae to shul with him and “instil good Jewish principles in her”, while Price has a milestone of his own coming up; he’s getting married this summer and is flying his rabbi to a villa in Florence to perform the ceremony.
For Sitton and Price, everything is about moving into the next stage of growth at the moment, both professionally and personally. The days of baby steps seem to be over.
“For us, the next three years is about becoming the number one personalised baby-and-children gifting company worldwide,” says Price.