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Innovation Economy

Stars give stroller company a little push

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Scott Kirsner
March 23, 2008

In a 19th-century former shoe factory in Rockland, Bob and Lauren Monahan design a distinctly 21st-century product: the $600 baby stroller, complete with shock absorbers, a sleek aluminum frame, never-flat tires, and a handle that adjusts in height to be equally comfy for both mom and dad.

They started UppaBaby less than three years ago, and already they're positioned squarely in the middle of a fast-growing market: the high-end stroller sector, where design-conscious parents shell out between $500 and $1,000 to buy an all-terrain ride that increasingly resembles a sport utility vehicle for their spawn.

"In the past couple years, the market has really been flooded with higher-quality strollers," says Eli Gurock, cofounder of the Boston area retailer Magic Beans. "Parents are home a lot more with their kids, and they want something that's congruous with all the other stuff they have. If they're driving a nice car, why not have a nice stroller as well?"

The Monahans' success story - UppaBaby's products are now carried by more than 150 outlets such as BuyBuy Baby - hinged on design innovation, some sharp insights into the value of celebrity endorsements, and a bit of lucky timing.

Bob Monahan spent his career working as a product designer for companies like Ford Motor Co., Reebok, and Canton-based Safety 1st. He'd designed baby monitors, cabinet locks, and battery-powered ride-on Corvettes for children before setting off on his own in fall 2005 to try to cultivate an idea he had for a new safety gate. But while visiting a factory in Taiwan, he happened across a stroller body that was being developed and decided to adapt it into a product that would appeal to American parents.

"We wanted to make it attractive - something that complements your lifestyle, not, 'I have to have this ugly stroller because I need it for the baby,' " says Lauren Monahan, who'd previously worked in event marketing at Canton-based Reebok. She and Bob met in the Reebok gym.

The couple funded the company themselves, and with investments from friends and family; they didn't take out any bank loans. "That allowed us to keep the company and the product exactly what we wanted it to be," Lauren says.

Bob blended his own design insights as a parent with evaluations of strollers already on the market. UppaBaby's primary product, the $600 Vista, can be folded without removing the seat, which simplifies getting it into a car's trunk. The storage basket underneath the seat is bigger than most other strollers. "An American consumer likes to go shopping," Lauren says.

It's also taller than most strollers, so it can be pulled right up to a table, eliminating the need for a high chair.

And the large rear wheels, which smooth out bumps, have the feel of mountain bike tires - but they've got foam innards that never need to be pumped up.

The Monahans launched the stroller at a trade show in Las Vegas in fall 2006, subletting booth space from another company. By the end of the show they'd sold about two-thirds of their initial batch of 100 Vista strollers.

They made an even bigger bet in October 2006, hiring a New York public relations firm that works with makers of baby products. The firm included the Vista stroller in a temporary private showroom it set up in a Beverly Hills hotel. The firm invited celebrities to troop through and request the products they liked - which they'd receive free, compliments of the company.

The result was the opportunity to "gift" UppaBaby strollers to actresses like Brooke Shields, Tori Spelling, and Denise Richards. (Ben Affleck and Tom Brady have also received strollers from the company, gratis.)

"We realized it was a big spend on public relations," Lauren says, "but we think you get a lot more bang for the buck from PR than marketing. It can cost $60,000 to put a one-page ad into a parenting magazine for just one month."

Paparazzi photos of celebrity moms using the strollers, it turned out, had even more impact than print advertising.

"If you get a picture of a celebrity pushing your stroller into the tabloids, it's amazing how many people will run out and buy it," says Janet McLaughlin, publisher of the website StrollerQueen.com. "That's like gold."

McLaughlin says that the upscale-ification of the stroller market in the United States began when a Dutch stroller, the Bugaboo, was featured on the HBO series "Sex and the City." Gurock says before that, in the 1990s, "the nicest stroller you could get would be a Peg Perego, and you'd spend almost $400. Bugaboo entered the market at $750."

Gurock opened his Magic Beans shop in the summer of 2004, and found shortly after that high-end strollers were rolling out the door faster than he expected.

The Monahans' timing was close to perfect. They initially priced the Vista at $500, so it seemed like a bargain compared with the higher-priced Bugaboo. (A stroller called the Orbit, made in California, has since surpassed the $1,000 mark; a wilting economy, of course, could make even enthusiastic new parents think twice about that kind of purchase.)

UppaBaby's lighter travel stroller, the G-Lite, sells for $99.

Though nearly all strollers are made in Asia, UppaBaby positioned itself as an American firm. Repairs are handled at the Rockland office, and the company's East Coast warehouse is in Brockton.

"When it's this homegrown thing, it seems like a labor of love," says Susan Scheele, the senior buyer at Isis Maternity in Needham, who says the Vista is one of the chain's top-sellers.

The stroller's breadth also makes it seem American; a "wide load" sign wouldn't be out of place on the back of the stroller, which is 24.5 inches wide and weighs 24.4 pounds.

Bob Monahan says that future editions will be narrower and lighter - the result of tuning in to customers. "We constantly talk to consumers and retailers for feedback," he writes via e-mail. "I don't think that the stroller will ever be 'done.' "

The company, with four employees in Rockland, six commissioned sales reps around the country, and fully outsourced manufacturing, hasn't yet broken into the black. But sales, Bob says, have been growing at about 20 percent a month (the company won't disclose sales numbers), and he expects UppaBaby to hit profitability this year.

Lauren adds that a big priority is to expand the company's geographic reach. "We don't have a sales rep in the D.C.-Philly area yet," she says. "There's a ton of room for growth geographically."

They've been introducing accessories, such as a platform that allows an older child to hitch a ride on the back of the stroller. Now, the question for Rockland's stroller magnates is whether to intensify their focus on the company's existing products, or introduce something new.

"Retailers ask us, 'Are you guys going to do a high chair?' " Bob says. "But we're not going to do it just to do it."

Scott Kirsner can be reached at kirsner@pobox.com.

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