Learning from and about children has turned into a full time business for Becky Cannon and her daughter, Emi Kubota.
Even before the birth of Emi, her first daughter in Japan, Becky was studying and learning about child development and the importance of “play” in early child development. In college she was inspired by specialists such as Piaget, Erik Erikson, Maria Montessori, and educators such as A. S. Neill, and John Dewey. She studied the philosophy of Rudolf Steiner and the Waldorf School, whose philosophy teaches that the first developmental stage in childhood greatly influences speaking and communication skills—the so-called social skills. Play and experiencing nature is of the utmost importance in early formative years, more so than learning the alphabet, numbers or early reading. Creativity needs to be encouraged and nourished at an early age. Now Becky and her daughter run a highly successful company, i play., Inc., which nourishes happy healthy babies with environmentally safe products, while making life easier for parents.
Becky started her company as a mail order business in 1982 that imported and shipped primarily woolen diaper covers, for reusable cloth diapers, held together by Velcro®. At that time the company was very small. She, her former husband Naoki Kubota and daughter Emi, had just moved into the Kenilworth neighborhood of Asheville, after living in Japan, where the role of motherhood is seen as an honorable and revered occupation. Few Japanese children are sent to daycare or a nursery, to allow their mothers to work outside the home. When Becky gave birth to her second child, Mari, she discovered that many items easily found in Japan were missing in the United States. Specifically, there was a need for woolen diaper covers. So she asked her mother-in-law to send them to her from Japan.
Out of this, a business was born. It started with Becky working for herself out of the garage, then grew slightly with a few other items to sell and ship by only a handful of helpers. Today—after 31 years —she has expanded the line into a myriad of child related products. There are two main brands, with the launch of a third one on the way. i play.® is primarily a swimwear and apparel line. You can find adorable bibs, rain and sun hats, warm cuddlesuits, vests, jackets, raincoats, and umbrellas all made in appealing colors and styles. This brand accounts for approximately 60% of the business. The green sprouts® line has practical feeding products, toys and baby care items for health and grooming. Here there are colorful backpacks, lunch bags, toys, sneakers, baby bottles, toothbrushes, plates, and food storage boxes, all carefully designed to ensure safety and practicality. This division, which was launched in 2008, accounts for approximately 40% of the business. Look for the new line of make-your-own fresh baby food ingredients, grow healthy™. Perhaps you have seen the colorful displays of green sprout® items in stores locally, such as Earth Fare or Whole Foods. Obviously keeping up with the details of the production of so many products is an enormous task!
With persistence and a positive attitude Becky has been able to overcome horrific business setbacks. She says, “Over the years she had no choice, but to figure out a solution.” Many times it was a “sink or swim” situation. One of the first crises came some time ago. For no apparent reason sales of cloth diapers all of a sudden dropped incredibly. “They just plummeted.” This emergency caused Becky to create a trustworthy Swim Diaper. She really needed a solution, and a light bulb went off, suggesting this new idea. Another time was after the company had moved into an industrial park and had hired one distributor for all i play.® products. All of a sudden, out of the blue, the distributor needed to close his business (for health reasons). Either Becky takes over that aspect of the business to become her own distributor—package her own items and make the sales herself—or she would have to close the doors. The i play.® name recognition at that time was quite limited. Somehow she scrambled and pulled it all together. “It was very stressful,” but the company got through this crisis too. Another time, five or six years ago, Target, who was a major buyer with perhaps as much as 30% of overall sales, decided to drop the i play.® account. Of course sales plummeted, and again the company had to find a way to pick up the slack. This time they reached out to the smaller stores and boutiques. It was a rough road, but by opening new accounts they have strengthened their sales base. Perhaps it was a blessing in disguise.
The company has grown from approximately $1 million in sales in 1995 to $10 million a year in sales currently. In fact Emi Kubota, Vice President, says she “is projecting over 20% growth over last year” (quite an amazing expectation in today’s economy). There is a team of 55 employees, in a 40,000 square foot facility on Riverside Drive, where they design, market and distribute these baby products. A strong graphic design team with Becky as the head creative director works to create an integrated “look-and-feel” across all their brands. Individual sales representatives promote and sell the line throughout the United States and are offered incentives to reach higher sales goals. The New York City and San Francisco areas are the strongest in terms of brand loyalty for their merchandise with approximately 10% of total sales being international. Their product line can be found in retail boutiques throughout the United States, as well as in many major stores, such as Whole Foods and buybuy Baby Happily for those of us here in the western Carolinas’, last fall i play.,Inc., opened a retail store at 233 South Liberty Street off Chestnut Street in Asheville.
Swimwear is their most popular and best selling category. The patented Ultimate Swim Diaper® technology is well recognized and desired as a product today. Although disposable diapers were widely available in America in 1982, there were no diapers specifically designed for swimming for diaper-age children. This made swimming with a baby incredibly problematic for a parent!! The diaper of this swimsuit is snug-fitting around the legs and waist of the infant and features a waterproof layer to prevent leakage, an extra absorbent layer to absorb wetness and a wick-away liner to draw moisture away from the baby’s skin. This market introduction was welcome news to many, and it allowed company sales to soar. Becky gathered a team of local home sewers to begin manufacturing the patented swim diapers. At one point, the home sewers were able to produce 10,000 swim diapers a week. It has proven to be an extraordinarily popular item even today.
Becky has always been mindful of materials that might harm the little ones. The cheery fabrics and fanciful designs in the line are carefully tested to be sure the fiber or material used will not harm the delicate skin of a child. Design details can make a large difference to the safety of a developing baby. For instance, there are baby sunglasses to protect their fresh young eyes, as small babies can absorb more harmful solar radiation than adults; the toothbrushes have silicone bristles and a mouth guard; many of the plastic storage boxes are packable, stackable and reusable—all very convenient for parents; and they sell a wonderful pair of scissors to chop up table food that also has a special tip for mashing the food. It is obvious that Becky and her talented designers have considered the health and safety of the child in their designs, as well as the parents’ wishes and needs.
Product integrity, the health of the baby, and safety are of utmost importance in their designs. The company works with internationally recognized laboratories to ensure their products are as safe and healthy as possible. In 2003 the company discovered the dangers of PVC and removed it from all their products. In 2006 they discontinued BPA from all feeding items. Their packaging is printed on 100% recycled paper with vegetable based inks. The bath toys, yoga mats and summer sneakers are all formamide-free. Formamide, which is added to soften vinyl in products, such as puzzle mats and flip flops, has been assessed as a potential risk by many national authorities in Europe. Although it is not banned in the United States, i play.,Inc., has eliminated it from their EVA foam products.
The Next Generation
In 2008 Emi Kubota decided to join her mother’s company, Early on as young children, Emi and her sister both helped pack orders in the family garage in Kenilworth and helped out when needed. Emi left for college to pursue her dream of international development while Mari, in contrast, followed in their father’s footsteps and became an acupuncturist. Emi graduated from Middlebury College in Vermont in 2002 with a degree in economics and international studies.
As she has always been interested in helping small businesses grow and develop, she volunteered in Kenya and later Cambodia, working with microfinance and microenterprise Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs). Later she worked with social venture capital fund managers that invest and provide jobs for growth in the Balkans, Peru, Bolivia, Nicaragua, East Africa, Vietnam, and other countries. With these experiences under her belt, she decided to go for graduate degrees at Columbia University. There she received dual Masters Degrees from the School of International & Public Affairs and the Business School in 2008..
Emi’s close friend from graduate school helped her to see the light that joining i play.,Inc., her mother’s company, might be a great career and business fit. She would have an amazing opportunity to contribute and be effective. She would be working in a growing, thriving company. She has worn many hats over the years, including leading different departments, such as marketing, supply chain. sales, and now finance. She has been the Vice President for just over one year and is now a co-owner alongside Becky. As a newcomer to each department she has worked in, Emi has experienced a steep learning curve, having to work long hours to meet the every-changing needs of the business. Fortunately she “loves the challenge. There is always something that needs to get done.”
Currently most of i play.,Inc., production comes from China. Over the years the company has had many contractors everywhere—Tennessee, Alabama, Texas, Georgia, South Carolina, Mexico, Guatemala, Thailand, India, Taiwan and Vietnam. Becky says, “We went to China because of their infrastructure, and because they are organized. We have a fabulous China Officer Manager, in Shanghai, whom we talk to on Skype every day. He has an MBA from the University of Georgia and has great values.” The testing of their products in China is done by a U.S.-based testing company. The CPSC is the Consumer Product Safety Commission, a government agency that regulates product safety, and the testing of their products is done by a U.S.-based testing company. Emi adds, “It is always the responsibility of the brand to ensure that its products are safe, free of harmful substances and produced in a responsible way. We are always working to improve this for our customers and the long-term health of our company. I believe that building international partnerships through trade promotes long-term economic growth on both sides.”
The Next Chapter
After over thirty years of focusing on the best natural care for babies, Becky Cannon has been working on a book, gathering together information from all the experiences she has gleaned over the years about natural care for babies. She plans to share it with readers soon in: grow healthy, grow happy: Whole Baby Care Guide. The book is organized into five parts: Whole Love, Whole Baby, Whole Foods, Whole Cooking and Whole Living. It lays a foundation for the healthy development of the child’s first three years—in body, mind, and spirit.
Becky started the company as a Mom wanting the best for her babies and for babies everywhere. It has been quite a journey with many twists and turns. Her talent and creativity permeates the company, and her “can do” attitude is an inspiration. She has learned a lot from trial and error, as well as from listening to her customers. In 2012 i play.,Inc., was ranked as one of the nation’s fastest growing private companies by Inc. magazine. It joined Spirit Airlines, television maker Vizio and Honest Tea among the prominent brands on the list. The 2012 the Cribsie Award was awarded to i play.®’s Ultimate Swim Diaper for the Cutest Swim Diaper in the fashion category, and to green sprouts® Baby Food Storage Cubes for Most Convenient Way to Store Baby Food. The Cribsie Awards are the definitive awards for the parenting industry— the equivalent of an Oscar for a baby brand product—with the winners voted by the general public. In 2012 Becky won the Aya Award, which recognizes an independent successful outstanding woman in business through the Asheville Chamber of Commerce. Her company has committed itself to “focusing on doing the best thing, the right thing, for babies—from the inside to the outside.”
There is no doubt that this mother-daughter team, Becky Cannon and Emi Kubota, have a solid future. They continue to work together feverishly to create innovative plans to spur growth and prosperity for i play.,Inc., as they provide health and happiness for babies worldwide.
Written by: Dasha Morgan | Photography by: Linda Cluxton