When you become a parent for the first time, there are some things you just have to come to terms with. You won’t be sleeping much. Hot showers, meals, and coffees will be a luxury, and your house is probably going to have a whole lot of ugly, brightly coloured plastic stuff strewn all over it for a few years. Unless, of course, you decide to found your own company to combat that last problem…
That’s exactly the story behind jnr.life, the baby and toddler interiors label founded by two friends who wanted the function and the form. “In a market saturated by clutter, we felt there was an opportunity to enter the baby and children’s interiors space with a more sophisticated and considered design approach”, they tell us of the brand’s genesis. With backgrounds in retail, luxury goods, design, and marketing, together they had the perfect combination of skills to get their first product – a deceptively simple but incredibly chic playmat – off the ground. Or on it, to be more precise.
Like all startups, jnr.life has had its share of bumps in the road. 2020 was “absolutely crazy for us”, they say. “Living in Victoria, we both have kinder and school-age children which meant that for most of the year they were at home. It required us to be on roller-skates throughout the house from wake up, to bedtime. But the business was our other baby, and it also required our focus and the attention.” Thankfully, silver linings are aplenty. When their offshore supply chain took a major hit in the form of Covid, they saw it as an opportunity to fast-track something they’d been wanting to work into the business: local production. “It was serendipitous timing that we had already started to look at manufacturing locally because it meant that we could complement our (delayed) offshore production with something local. This was a vision that we always had, and it meant that we could support local makers and the local industry, and it really did make even more sense…”
Here, we speak to jnr.life founders Nicole Davis and Ashleigh Pyke about navigating roadblocks, dreaming big, and doing things differently.
Where did the idea for jnr.life come from? What was the problem you were solving in the market?
jnr.life was born in Melbourne, Australia in 2018 from a desire for thoughtful, family-friendly products that complement grown-up interiors. In a market saturated by clutter, we felt there was an opportunity to enter the baby and children’s interiors space with a more sophisticated and considered design approach. We set out to develop our hero product – the boom boom* playmat (*makes any room!) – that not only aesthetically complements grown-up spaces but looks gorgeous on display when guests come to visit and is also packed with features that we know are needed with babies.
Nikki has a 7 year old son, a 4 year old daughter, and is pregnant with her third (due any minute!) and Ashleigh has two daughters – 6 and 3. We were the (grateful) recipients of lots of gifts when we had newborns, but we also felt overwhelmed by accepting and homing so many pieces that we couldn’t actually use. This is why since we have supported St Kilda Mums since our very beginning. We wanted to spread the word about this incredible organisation and the work they do. For every playmat sold, we pass on $2 to St Kilda Mums – a volunteer-lead organisation based in Melbourne, Australia, where pre-loved nursery and children’s goods are recycled and re-homed to support families in need. In the lead up to Christmas, we also run our ‘baby give back’ campaign, where customers are given the opportunity to return their packaging directly to St Kilda Mums filled with good quality unworn/pre-loved baby goods – the postage costs covered by us. We believe in sharing the joy and doing our part to ensure that families in need have a happy, healthy and safe home life.
What did you both do before jnr.life? Talk us through your career paths?
Ashleigh’s career has seen over 15 years in retail and luxury goods. Working in retail at Mimco, while undertaking a double degree in Commerce/Arts at Monash University, Ashleigh was the successful candidate for the L’Oreal Marketing Internship program. This tenure spanned just over six years, moving from an intern into a senior brand management role across luxury brands such as Redken, Pureology and Designer Fragrances (Polo Ralph Lauren, Viktor&Rolf, Stella McCartney and Diesel). After working purely in a marketing role, an opportunity presented at A-ESQUE, a local Melbourne luxury leather-goods start-up with Amanda Briskin-Rettig (of Mimco). This saw Ashleigh take on an operations, retail and business management role. It was a very grass roots and hands on role and was her first foray into small/start-up business.
Nikki’s own 15-year career spanned design, trend and sourcing. Upon completing a design degree, Nikki’s career began at surf mecca Rip Curl in Torquay where she was immersed in surf culture and given the opportunity to regularly travel overseas to develop her skills in the world of sourcing and design. These opportunities led her to London where she hit the fast-fashion high street hard. Nikki has travelled extensively sourcing and developing fabrics and apparel for global brands throughout Asia, Europe and the Middle East as well as finessing her skills in forecasting at global trend authority WGSN.
After having our first children and prioritising family, we developed our interest in combining our skills to create a unique children’s and lifestyle product.
The decision to launch a business is a big one – did it feel daunting?
The decision was quite a natural one for us because we have been friends for some time and really understood each other’s skill sets and experience. Yes, it was and has been daunting at times, but we had each other to hold each other up and instil confidence. We felt that that we had the combined skills, with more than 20 years combined experience, and we were both customers in this market. It was definitely daunting because we had both never done it on our own, but we felt very supported by our husbands, our families and also the network around us that we had been building since we started our careers.
What were the first steps you took, and how long did it take from ideation to launch?
Much longer than we had anticipated. From when we first had the idea, to our site go-live, it was probably closer to two and a half years!
The initial idea was ‘how can we make a playmat that not only complements our homes but is jam packed with all of the features and utility we are looking for as mums (and that is safe!)’. We drove our factory, and each other, mad. We were looking for the perfect playmat, for ourselves and our envisaged customer base. If only you could see the iterations our playmats went through before our final product. It’s actually an incredible learning experience. An art. We had to nail the product (and pricing!) before we could comfortably start the creative and brand development side of the business. It might be the greatest idea, the best concept and fill a big void in the market – but understanding how your pricing and manufacturing flow works, will be the ultimate success of the initial idea.
We were very fortunate with both our backgrounds that we had access to supply chains both locally and offshore. Finally after about 18 months, we really felt confident that they were able to achieve our vision. It was the right time for us, (and we’d now both had our second children and needed this playmat!) where we could be comfortable and confidently lean-in to what would become jnr.life. It was then another almost 10 months before we were finally able to launch!
What was the initial feedback like?
In all honesty we think that we were the harshest critics of ourselves. We were very lucky that we were able to seed the concept with friends and family before we launched, so we had time to finesse. We had tried and tested our products, and still continue to do so with our families to this day. If our kids don’t enjoy and love it, we could never feel comfortable selling it.
We were very lucky we had great feedback, and of course, some not great feedback. But that’s what happens when you have a business. You become exposed and have to take the good with the bad. It’s what keeps us on our toes and continuing to better our offering. Feedback is the lifeblood of any business. And we’re very good at giving it to each other too! We had to let go of ego. This has also meant that two and a half years down the track we are still here, open-minded and nimble, to keep refining things.
How would you describe the early days of motherhood?
The early days of motherhood are nothing for which anybody could possibly prepare you, despite us both having friends around us that already had babies! It is the most life changing and daunting experience, but gosh there is nothing more rewarding. We know that as much as anyone could have warned us, we are built with a maternal instinct. We can take on motherhood with that naivete because we have the intuition to deal with it.
The other thing that we both learnt is to take on the resources that are around you. It really does take a village and whether that’s a partner, a parent, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends or loved ones – you really can’t do it on your own. Say yes to people that want to visit – but only if they bring food or will help you stack the dishwasher or hold the baby so you can enjoy a longer shower!
Something that we both learnt a bit too late after having first kids is postnatal care. Ladies, we need to look after ourselves! Looking after ourselves is paramount because we as the primary caregivers are the leaders and if we’re not in optimal condition, it makes it very hard for us to lead and feed our babies (figuratively and truly). And this is especially important when you go on to have subsequent kids – without the chief, the crew cannot row properly!
To an expectant mother, how would you describe the importance of a good play mat?
It’s something you don’t realise how much you need until you have a baby! It will become the centre of your play and milestone universe! Not just in the early months of having a newborn, but right into the days of toddling, walking and imaginative junior play. What starts as a perfectly artistic backdrop for baby snaps, a playmat quickly becomes the cushioned base for tummy time, tumbles and playgroup, a rug for playrooms or the meeting spot for junior play dates. It will become the centrepiece of junior life. Hence our namesake!
Play mats are more than just another newborn gift “piece” – they encourage children to develop both gross and fine-motor skills, visual sensory development and hand-eye coordination. Play mats also teach valuable logic and reasoning skills. Plus, they are a fun way to spend parent/child bonding time working on communication and sharing skills.
In December 2020, you released jnr.play - a collection of soft play-shapes – tell us about this new launch?
Jnr.play is a series of minimalist soft-decor ‘play shapes,’ handcrafted in Melbourne (during a pandemic!) by a third-generation upholsterer. Jnr.play is a culmination of our dream to give play dimension to our cult boom boom playmats, while just as significantly, manufacturing part of our collection locally in Australia.
Our early conversations with the upholsterer started in January. And within only a few weeks we found ourselves (like most other businesses) with a compromised off-shore supply-chain and a local economy in strife. The stars aligned and we knew it was time to really mobilise and see our jnr.life local-vision through. We had the opportunity to bring our brand-extension to life, and also to support local manufacturing, and jobs. Now, we find ourselves past that crazy year and exceptionally proud and humbled to have launched jnr.play.
jnr.play is a collection of soft play pieces comprising our play.pod and geometric plays.shapes. Each piece is crafted to exacting standards by hand – and made with love. Oversized and lightly padded, they are perfect for rolling, climbing and gentle flip flops. At multiple sizes, the multi-purpose 3D modular system is ripe for open-ended, imaginative fun. Pushing the bounds of creativity, the collection is joyful recreationally, but with its clean-lined architectural forms, is just as beautiful sitting still in an adult environment. We love everything about open-ended, creative play. It was always a dream to extend our playmats with complementary products that would have the same philosophy – pieces that looked good in your home, but have a multi-purpose and can be used for a very long time. To be honest, they really are the play pieces we had dreamed for our kids to own and play with forever. We’ve now made it happen.
The Australian lifestyle has also always been paramount – it was (and is) really important for us to create products that can live both indoors and out. The fabrics for jnr.play are also sourced from a premium local fabric supplier who has been in the business for over 50 years. They are textured for an added sensory-experience for children, oeko-tex certified and robust enough to withstand sticky fingers, spills and UV. The launch palette is bold, summery and complementary to our boom boom playmats. Our collections are designed to work back together. Function is just as important as form. At the end of the day, they can simply be spot-cleaned or thrown in the machine. As mothers ourselves, we know how to make Australian family life easy!
Tell us about your playmats and what textiles you use?
Our playmats are durable enough to withstand spills and sticky fingers, comfortable, with soft quilting for little ones and uncomplicated and stylish to be aesthetically pleasing for adults. Jnr.life playmats are composed of junior-friendly, non-toxic materials – the outer is a quilted canvas, resistant to water, stains and UV, while the inner has a cushioned memory-foam for padded exploration, making them the ideal play-mate for both inside and outside. The boom boom arrives in a reusable cotton tote for adventures beyond the home and is currently available in a bold palette of colours.
The boom boom playmat is designed in Melbourne and manufactured in an oeko-tex certified facility. Boom boom is available in two unique sizes – an oval (2m x 1.2m) and round (135cm) – shapes not previously offered in this category. It was important to us to create a product that was bigger than the average playmat size so its purpose would exist beyond the fleeting newborn days.
Do you have different roles in the business? What are they?
It’s really interesting when you talk about roles in a business because ultimately, we both do a lot of EVERYTHING! Based on our professional experience, Nikki leads in a creative role which sees her managing the creative direction of the business from content, to new product development and branding direction. Ashleigh has a strategic marketing role and oversees operations. But truly we still have a lot of cross-over, we are super hands-on and work full time.
We have recently made a first internal hire for extra arms and legs within the business!
It has always been really important to us to surround ourselves with people who can help us do the best job that we can, and to put the best product and customer experience to market. It’s really been about surrounding ourselves with people who can do things that we can’t or do things better that we can, whether that is digital experts, production managers or creatives.
We also love surrounding ourselves with like-minded women, mums and brands. You may have noticed we love a good collaboration – and you’ll see more of this year. We believe in being “better together”.
Running your own business can be all-consuming – how do you divide your time?
We use the word flow a lot, that’s our ultimate state of mind! We are a pretty dynamic and efficient duo. We talk a million times a day, and although we have an office/warehouse space we have always worked part of our time remotely so that we have flexibility, so that we can do school drop-off, pickups and all the extra-curricular bits in between. We are both fastidious planners and try to be as organised at home as possible. We’ve also learnt that we both need our own down-time – yoga, gym, walks with friends – to ensure we can be the best.
Mondays and Tuesdays are our power days! They set the tone for the rest of the week. We both have help with our kids on these days. And we find that getting these first two days right means we hit our flow for the rest of the week (or are more organised for any breaks in that flow that always arise).
Having a small business, and young families, it’s very hard to actually ever switch off, and it does require focus and attention. We find the flow through running WIPs and a gazillion lists. But as our kids get older, their needs are growing. We really do try to work during business hours and then at the end of the day have the time with our children doing homework, organising our homes, our kids and husbands. And then we usually log back on after the kids are in bed (including over the weekend). Having our own business and being accountable to ourselves and each other is definitely a juggle, but we are navigating our way through it – and recalibrating all the time. We hold each other’s crowns up!
How would you sum up 2020?
A head spin and productive! We are not going to lie, that 2020 took us all by surprise! It was absolutely crazy for us because, living in Victoria, we both have kinder and school-age children which meant that for most of the year they were at home. It required us to be on roller-skates throughout the house from wake up, to bedtime. But the business was our other baby, and it also required our focus and the attention. I think that we got through it as best we could! Our comms level skyrocketed in those few months, but somehow, we mastered the art of knowing how to manage work priorities (whilst losing part of our sanity like every other parent).
And like every other business that manufactures offshore we found ourselves in a position early on in 2020 where we had delays with stock that we had forecasted to sell and build our digital and marketing plans around. We really spent a lot of those first few months pivoting but we were very, very lucky. We made our mission to ensure that we could continue to supply our customers with what they needed. It was also serendipitous timing that we had already started to look at manufacturing locally because it meant that we could complement our (delayed) offshore production with something local. This was a vision of that we always had, and it meant that we could support local makers and the local industry, and it really did make even more sense, when being from Melbourne.
And what excites you about 2021?
Everything! After a year mostly in lockdown for Vic, we hope that the only way is up!
We honestly feel really motivated and energised because we both love what we’ve created. We really feel like we have found an opportunity to offer products in the creative, open-ended playspace that really does what it says it’s going to do.
We love that we’ve created a community of jnr.mums which we want to keep developing further, and we’ve had the most incredible authentic response to our new jnr.play range. We have a lot of plans in the works to grow this new category this year.
We also can’t wait to welcome our new jnr. life baby (Nikki’s soon to be newest arrival). We have a very positive outlook, and so much going on for the business that we just can’t wait to see rolled out. Watch this space as jnr.life takes on the world…