When Kate Compton Barr met a bunch of friends in Sedona, Arizona seven years ago, she had no idea that she would be co-founding a company after a weekend vacation.
Yet she was six months pregnant with her first child, listening to her friend Amber Crocker describe how she designed and built an American version of the Finnish cardboard baby box.
“Somehow four days later I was co-founding a company and we were planning startups and I was up to my waist in patents and technology transfer and trademarks,” said Barr, who has served the Center for Academic Innovation since January. as a behavioral researcher.
“It’s one of those situations where it’s really great that I didn’t know what it took at first. It was me, Amber and our friend Lauren (Hughy) and we just went for it. I naively went for it.”
Pip & Grow was a product of that weekend and Crocker’s initial work. While none of the original co-founders are actively involved in day-to-day operations, the business continues its mission under new management to produce and sell durable, environmentally friendly cardboard baby boxes to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome.
Given the humble beginnings, the rudimentary look of the prototype, and the general lack of business experience of its co-founders, Pip & Grow is a phenomenon.
Barr said Crocker, a child safety specialist, has been working on the project for a year or two alongside her full-time job at UM as co-founder of University of Michigan Medical Partners. Kroeker received a grant from UM to develop a baby box that had been popular in Finland since the 1930s.
The prototype Crocker showed her friends in Sedona was uninspiring.
“It’s like any prototype,” Barr said. “It looked a bit clumsy, but it looked extremely strong and passed all the tests. But she didn’t know what to do with it.”
None of them did at the time, but Barr recounted her experience as a member of the Behavioral Research Group at UM’s Center for Health Communications Research from 2009-14.
At Barr’s suggestion, they posted three rules for safely placing a baby in a box at the head of the bed: place the baby on its back, keep the box away from any loose toys or blankets, and make sure the baby is alone in the box. .
The original name of the company was to be Safe Baby Company, but Barr learned that it was already trademarked. They came up with Pip & Grow after brainstorming over the weekend.
“Peeping is what chicks do when they hatch,” she said. “So we thought about the nest concept, and this box is like a nest for your baby, so you pull it out and the box grows with you.
“A child can sleep in it for some time in different conditions. In my family, it turned into a rocket ship when my son got a little older, and it became my daughter’s reading space, because what kid doesn’t love a box?”
While they learned on the fly to some extent, many other decisions were deliberate, including where the box, mattresses and sheets were made.
“Part of our business philosophy was that we talked about people, planet and profit,” Barr said. “The human part was to make the boxes and all the components in the communities where the work would benefit the most. Our sole purpose was to help support healthy children, and healthy children are raised in safe, stable, thriving families, and that means work.”
The boxes were made in Flint, Michigan. The sheets came from a company in Barr’s home state of North Carolina, and the mattresses came from a company outside of Atlanta. Originally, Pip & Grow was intended to be a direct-to-consumer company with a wholesale component, but Barr and her partners quickly realized that wholesale was their primary customer.
In the first year, they sold 500-600 boxes. By the time Barr stepped down as CEO in 2021, the company was selling several thousand a year.
“It took a while,” she said. “We didn’t know what we were doing. It didn’t take long to figure out how to reach our audience. But once we found an audience, we found ourselves very busy.”
The boxes are the same size and are intended for a child under 4-6 months of age. They are 31 inches long, 19 inches wide at the base, and 21 inches wide at the top for easy stacking.
Although it’s been less than a year since she left Pip & Grow, Barr looks back fondly on her experience and how it helped shape her professional level.
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“These years shaped me in many ways,” she said. “I sat in I can’t tell you how many rooms with people who made me very nervous. CEOs of huge companies, politicians or investors, and at some point I just had to overcome myself. I had to learn to speak in public, learn to speak in front of the media, feel comfortable and confident in presenting myself.”
One of her last decisions as CEO before leaving was to offer the entire organization a paid vacation in August 2021. This gesture, although expensive, was met with understanding by the partners of Pip & Grow and was included in an article in Forbes magazine.
After the Forbes revelations, Barr said she was inundated with more than 100 job applications at Pip & Grow. Leaving the company she helped develop was not an easy decision, but she has no regrets.
“Over the years, I’ve crystallized who I am, where I’m ready to go and where I’m going to hold the border,” 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 take us, and it was time to turn it around.” .
The company is now run by former Pip & Grow CMO Sarah Nau, and Barr is back at UM working on the Center for Academic Innovation’s educational technology tools, such as eCoach and Tandem.
In September, Barr and her friends will gather in Charleston, South Carolina, for another party. It is not known what will come of it.