Sprout Baby – Love Your Baby, Love the Planet

Teething baby at Sprout Baby

A Sprout Baby staff member's daughter tries out a teething toy. Photo: Courtesy Sprout Baby

Sprout Baby sells organic and natural products for babies and moms. When Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) interviewed founder Jody Sherman by phone, we learned about the process the company uses to vet products for sale on their site. We also learned that the story behind this baby products company has an unusual — and heart-tugging — twist.

We think you’ll love Sprout Baby’s products — as well as its generous referral program. This is Part Two of two parts. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

BPGL: Do any of the staff at Sprout Baby have babies of their own?

Two infant children of Sprout Baby staff.

Sprout Baby staff have had three newborns in the past year. Photo: Courtesy Sprout Baby

SHERMAN: One of my partners is a mom named Emily. Emily used to be a teacher, but after she had a baby, she decided she wanted to spend more time with her daughter. Emily basically looked like our customer base. She was 26 years old at the time, really focused on having a healthy environment for her baby.

She opened a store in Venice, California, that just sold eco-conscious products and slightly used recycled products. She got involved with Sprout Baby, and she does deep research on products. She represents the customer really well because she is the customer.

My other partners either had a baby or were trying, and since then, in the year we’ve been in business, we’ve had three newborns.

BPGL: So you have a lot of market research capability right in your own staff. Having their own little ones using the organic baby products must be a great motivator for working at Sprout Baby. Is that what gets all of you going to work each morning?

SHERMAN: I don’t have any kids, but I have two young nephews — five and six. I’ve known them, obviously, since they were born. And I think they’re the reason why we’re doing this — for me, anyway. The rest of my team will tell you they’re doing it for their own kids.

There was one other thing that influenced me getting involved in this business that I’ve only talked about recently. In 1988, somebody left a brand-new baby on my front porch. An eight-minute-old infant. Torn umbilical cord. On my porch. Wrapped in a sweatshirt. It was the weirdest experience I’ve ever had in my life.

At the time, it kind of put the hooks in me. I did what you’re supposed to do. I called the paramedics, and I did what the paramedics said, and the baby’s fine. But it really affected me, because I thought, Wow, this kid started out life being dealt the worst deck ever. He was dropped off on the porch of a bachelor who was never home — and just happened to be home on that day. Had I not been home, that baby would have died.

BPGL: That is an amazing story. I’ve never actually heard of that happening to anyone in real life. How did it affect your thinking about starting Sprout Baby?

Toddler in a grown-up chair

Another baby-products researcher on the Sprout Baby team. Photo: Courtesy Sprout Baby

SHERMAN: I just found myself thinking, My parents did such a good job raising me and my brother, even though, if you were to use the same information they had then to make many consumer choices now, you really wouldn’t be a great parent. The information they had then was state of the art, and now that information has been updated by better and more relevant information, in many cases.

For example, you don’t want to leave the kid in the car with the air conditioner running because it’s cooler than bringing them in the store; it’s unsafe for the baby and bad for the environment. You don’t want to feed them white carbs all the time. And you don’t want to put lotions on their skin that contain harmful or extraneous chemicals. You don’t want to paint your house with VOC-laden paints.

They didn’t know these things, but we do. And I feel like, if my company can help move the needle even a little, in teaching people to be conscious consumers — that right choices don’t have to be more expensive, harder choices — we can really have a long-lasting impact.

BPGL: You have an ad for the Sprout Baby Referral Program prominently displayed on your website. Is it connected with finding an adoptive home for your baby, if you don’t want to raise it?

SHERMAN: Absolutely not. No. Our referral program is about word of mouth, or “Word of Mom,” as we like to call it. It’s the reason I got into this business, when I learned how parents were making decisions based on the advice of other parents.

Early on, when we would get a new customer, I would oftentimes get an email from someone saying, “I just was told about this by customer XYZ, and I have a couple questions.” So we did some testing. I went out and started talking to customers. — I still call ten customers every single day, by the way, just to ask them how they’re doing with us as a company if there’s anything they’d like. — And it gave me an opportunity to pick their brains.

Sprout Baby Logo

I asked them if they would be comfortable sharing what they know about us with other people, if we’d done a good job for them. And overwhelmingly, the answer was, “Yes!” So, I started talking with them about what would incentivize them to do that. Because, as much as I’d like them to be advocating for me, they’ve got other things to do, like raising a family and paying the bills and working at their job. We created this referral program based on those discussions.

When you become a customer, as soon as you get your first order, you get a card that has your referral code on it. You also get an email with your referral code. You can give that code to any of your friends, or anyone you know, and they will get 15 percent off their first order. And if it’s a new customer for us, we send you $10. There’s no limit to the number of customers you can refer to us.

We’re still running that program, and it’s been quite successful. Our customer acquisition cost has not gone up. What we’re paying as a referral fee is in line with allowing us to build our company in a way where we can responsibly grow and be around long term. Most moms know 10 people. If you tell 10 people, you can make $100, and you can do that fairly often. We send checks every week.

BPGL: What are some of the other products that you sell, besides baby food?

Nature BabyCare diapers

Sprout Baby sells Nature BabyCare diapers as well as several other top-quality brands. Photo: Courtesy Sprout Baby

SHERMAN: We just launched diapers, and we did very extensive research on a lot of different diapering companies in order to pick a variety of diapers that met with our standards and our promise to Sprout Baby customers.

One of the brands we offer, Nature Baby Care, is even disposable — a choice a lot of parents make for convenience.

After doing massive amounts of research on every brand of disposable that was out there, including all of the “eco brands,” we liked Nature BabyCare because there is no polyurethane anywhere near this product. Urethane is one of the chemicals that we’ve sworn off.

Another thing is that it completely biodegrades. You can take this diaper when it’s done and throw it in the garbage. And when it goes into a landfill, it completely breaks down, back into nothing. And that’s the only diaper we’ve found that does that. Diapers take 500 years to disintegrate if they have plastic in them. It could be even be longer than that. Just think about that for a minute.

For cloth diapers, we’ve brought in Kissaluvs, Baby Bee Hinds and Play All Day. They’re wool, hemp, and cotton blends. The reason we went with them was that they are made of all-natural fibers from renewable resources.

We really like wool because not only is it a water repellent, but it stays dry, and it’s naturally cleaning. For example, when it gets wet, you can air dry it, and wool cleans itself. Every once in a while, you just re-lanolize it by putting lanolizing formula on it, and the wool diaper cover cleans itself again. It’s much, much lower impact on the environment.

BPGL: Have you noticed any issues with children being allergic to the wool in the diaper coverings?

SHERMAN: The wool is an outer cover for these diapers. We haven’t had any issues with that at all so far. The inner parts of the diapers are all either organic cotton or cotton hemp.

BPGL: What are some of the products you have for moms?

Two containers of Episencial

These Episencial products pamper babies and kids at an economical price. Photo: Courtesy Sprout Baby

SHERMAN: We’ve just brought on a bunch of great lines of skincare products. There’s one in particular that we just introduced. It’s the line by Episencial. It’s a spinoff from Epicuren, which is an amazing high-end skincare line. Epicuren is an extremely well-regarded, boutique-only line that is super, super high quality. No bad ingredients. Everything is natural.

Kim Walls, the woman whose family started Epicuren, worked there for 15 years before starting her own company. Episencial is an all-new skincare line: sunscreens, lotions, etc., that are fruit-based, all-natural, and very reasonably priced.

BPGL: Have you vetted those skincare products on Environmental Working Group’s Skin Deep Cosmetic Database?

SHERMAN: Yes we do. We check every single product that we evaluate. We also have a partnership with Healthy Child Healthy World — in fact, we give 1 percent of all of our sales to Healthy Child Healthy World to help support their organization. Anything anybody buys from us helps support them. When we look at products, one of the first things we do is look at it against their criteria. That is our minimum screen for how we would consider whether or not a product works for us.

If it meets Healthy Child’s criteria, we then look at all of the ingredients and everything else on our own. We look at the product’s ingredients against the ingredient list Healthy Child says to avoid, and then we go a step deeper and use Skin Deep to check the toxicity in the ingredients.

Once a product passes those criteria, whether it’s a skin product or a feeding item, or whatever, we then start looking at it from the perspective of usability, practicality, and cost. Because, for us, that balance has got to be there. If a product costs the same as its non-eco counterpart, but it’s hard to live with, that’s not a good product.

We want to bring products to the market that are effective in doing what they’re supposed to, that don’t have any harmful ingredients of any kind, that are comparable in cost to their non-eco counterpart, and that are easy to use. We use them all ourselves. We’ve got enough babies and toddlers around the company where we can test everything.

BPGL: Do you typically warehouse everything and send it out yourselves?

SHERMAN: I sit in a room full of baby food and other products every day.

BPGL: So, if you get hungry, you have something good to snack on.

SHERMAN: I actually do. [He laughs.] In fact, yesterday, I didn’t get a chance to eat lunch, so I opened a package of roasted bananas and brown rice. It’s like dessert!

BPGL: I assume you avoid ingredients like high fructose corn syrup.

SHERMAN: There’s nothing like that in Sprout Foods. In fact, if you were to look at the ingredients in something like Summer Squash, Yukon Gold Potatoes, and Parmesan, the ingredients in it are summer squash, Yukon gold potatoes, and parmesan. They don’t put anything that doesn’t belong in the food in it.

Sprout Food variety pack

Sprout Baby sells Sprout Foods organic baby foods. Photo: Courtesy Sprout Baby

Sprout Foods is an amazing line of food. It tastes really good. When you open the package, the smell that you get from this food versus the smell that you get from other brands that are popular — it’s like night and day. The texture is better. It doesn’t have any of that watery consistency that you see with most bottled brands.

And besides being convenient, the pouches are shelf stable, so you don’t have to refrigerate them before opening. You tear off the top, and if you don’t use the whole package, you can reseal it with the built-in zip lock. And if you’re away from home, you can just throw the packages in your diaper bag or purse.

Basically, we’ve taken the same approach with our entire product assortment. Every product is easy to live with. Also, for every single product we sell, you’ll see a manufacturer’s description and our own description of why we like it, which is the real-world reasons why we chose this product.

BPGL: I wish Sprout Baby had been around when my children were born.

SHERMAN: When I was doing the initial research with moms, that was what I heard over and over again: Where were you a year ago? Where were you five years ago? I wish I’d had you when I had my babies.

End of Part Two

Promo Code

Sprout Baby has provided Blue Planet Green Living readers the following discount code for 15% off your first order: BPGL15 The code is good through JANUARY 15, 2010.

Follow Sprout Baby

Website: SproutBaby.com
Twitter: SproutBabyClub
Facebook: SproutBaby.com

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living

Part One: Sprout Baby – Spreading by “Word of Mom”

Part Two: Sprout Baby – Love Your Baby, Love the Planet (Top of Page)

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Sprout Baby – Spreading by “Word of Mom”

Sprout Baby spreads "by word of mom," says founder Jody Sherman. Photo: © Olga Sapegina - Fotolia.com

Sprout Baby spreads "by word of mom," says founder Jody Sherman. Photo: © Olga Sapegina - Fotolia.com

With the economy struggling to get back on its feet, you might think a fledgling eco-friendly baby products company wouldn’t stand much of a chance at survival. But California-based Sprout Baby celebrated its first anniversary last week, and the company is going strong.

What’s the secret of their success? And what makes Sprout Baby’s products so good that word-of-mouth advertising is their main — and highly effective — marketing strategy?

Blue Planet Green Living (BPGL) interviewed founder and CEO Jody Sherman by phone from his Los Angeles office to find out. We think the insights he shared can help any company succeed, no matter what they’re selling. This is Part One of two parts. — Julia Wasson, Publisher

BPGL: What’s the story behind how you, an ex-Navy man, got started selling baby products?

SHERMAN: It’s a fairly long story, actually. I didn’t start out selling baby products.

I’ve been an entrepreneur since I got out of the Navy in 1988. When the Internet started, I got involved because I was in Northern California, and I was enamored with the idea of being in a new industry as it was growing. I had been involved in several e-commerce companies and, over time, had some successes and some exits, and my investors have made some money along the way. I also had some fun, and made enough money to take time off for a while.

When I went back to work, I found I was just doing the same thing I had been doing before, which was solving a problem nobody had.

BPGL: What do you mean by that?

Sprout Baby founder, Jody Sherman, a "few" years ago. Photo: Courtesy Jody Sherman

Sprout Baby founder, Jody Sherman, a "few" years ago. Photo: Courtesy Jody Sherman

SHERMAN: When I got into the Internet business, I worked for one of the first search engines, a company called Lycos. There were five search engines at the time, but Internet users didn’t need five search engines. We probably could have gotten along with one or two.

Then I sold software that you could download over the Internet. And, although it was convenient, people didn’t really need that at the time, either. Next I helped a company that made an email product, but there were plenty of email products.

These were all companies that were interesting and innovative, but they didn’t really solve big problems that the online world was uniquely positioned to do.

Then I started a company with a friend who was in the private jet business. We had seen that there was a real problem with the way people bought and sold time on private planes. I helped build that solution, and we sold it to Virgin.

BPGL: So you were financially successful when you finally solved a real problem for people.

SHERMAN: We were financially successful in most of these companies, at least from the perspective of our investors, who all made nice returns. But the best part of working with Virgin was, while I was there, I got to see what I really wanted to do with my life. What I liked about Virgin was, here’s a guy who owns several hundred companies, and in every case, even though the company is designed to make money, there is an aspect of giving back, taking care of the planet on which we live.

Richard Branson basically committed to taking 100 percent of the profits from his aviation businesses — which are gross polluters — and pouring that into environmental resources, investing in companies that would create solutions to environmental problems and things like that.

I was inspired to build a company that was going to address an environmental issue. So I went looking for a problem and, as it turned out, the problem found me.

BPGL: We should all be so lucky. What happened?

SHERMAN: I was walking around a grocery store one day. What I saw was moms talking to moms. Constantly. Or I’d see a pregnant lady walking down an aisle and somebody would intercept her and talk to her. Or, I’d see two pregnant women talking. I just kept seeing that over and over again, and I thought, There’s something to this.

So I started listening to the conversations a little bit. What they were talking about was, “When are you due?” “What’s your baby’s name?” “Who’s your doctor?” “Oh my god, you should try this food.” “I’m in this Mommy and Me group.” “I just read this book…” They were doing in the real world what we do on line. They were social networking. And what they were talking about were all of the things they deal with on a daily basis as moms.

I started watching a little closer, and I saw that it didn’t matter if you were a new mom, or if you were like my mom, who hadn’t had a kid in 38 years; you’re in it forever. It’s a sisterhood. Without actually writing down, “We agree to do this,” they’ve all agreed to support each other in some way. And I thought, Wow, there’s something powerful in that.

Sherman started talking with moms in grocery stores to ask about their concerns. Photo: © BlueOrange Studio - Fotolia.com

Sherman started talking with moms in grocery stores to ask about their concerns. Photo: © BlueOrange Studio - Fotolia.com

So, then I started talking to moms. I started asking them questions, and picking through their grocery carts, and asking why they made the decisions they made and how they made the decisions they made. Then I started asking them what they were concerned about.

BPGL: What were the moms’ biggest concerns?

SHERMAN: For some new moms, I kept hearing over and over again that their biggest concerns were centered around feeding and chemicals and things they were going to put in, on, and around their babies. They’re being bombarded with information about how damaging chemicals are to babies’ skin and to their health. And they’re worried about hormones in foods and such.

For second-time parents, I heard that being repeated, but I also heard things more around money — the concern about how expensive it is to raise a baby. I just started talking to some of my friends about, What if we could start a company that would help moms find eco-conscious, responsible products that are also top-notch, healthy choices for their children?

I had a couple of friends who thought that was an interesting idea. So I started traveling around the country and having the same discussions with moms everywhere. I went to 28 different cities, and I asked moms in little cities in Arizona, and big cities like Miami. I went up to Idaho. I went all over the place, and I kept hearing the same things.

BPGL: What did moms think about your idea of selling eco-conscious products?

SHERMAN: One of the things I heard was that people felt like being eco or being green was hard, elusive, and expensive. I personally found that to be a concern. We are all stewards of the planet. We all have a vested interest in making it last and leaving the next generation something better than we found. If taking better care of the planet either costs more money or feels like it does, those two things are at cross purposes.

BPGL: What was your next step, after interviewing moms across the country?

 Sprout Baby Logo

SHERMAN: We decided we would try to start a company that would source products that were authentically good to put around your kids, in your kids, on your kids and in your home. We would do deep research about those products, so that we could say with some confidence, “These are products that we have tested ourselves. This is the methodology we go through to evaluate products. We feel that these are products that we would use in our own families, and guess what — they’re also affordable.”

That’s not to say I didn’t have people sending me samples of $200 organic cotton receiving blankets.  I mean, I would just laugh. I couldn’t even imagine selling something like that to a broad audience. So we went out and started looking for products.

BPGL: How did you come across the baby food that you sell at Sprout Baby?

SHERMAN: While I was searching for products, one of my friends was helping launch a new company. He was a consultant helping a new baby food company get started. There were some things about that baby food that made it interesting. For one, Sprout Foods was started by a celebrity chef, Tyler Florence, who has been on the Food Network for years. He’s a chef and a dad — he has a little one at home. It made sense that a chef would make baby food. And the baby food was really good. It was organic. It came in environmentally friendly pouches instead of glass or plastic jars, and there was no-BPA in the packaging.

Physically, it took up a smaller footprint, and it was lighter weight. You could ship 17 or 18 shipping containers worth of this food in the space of one shipping container of glass or plastic. It was also a perfect product to sell on line, since it was lighter weight than glass or plastic jars.  Most importantly though, it was simply a great product. It’s good for growing babies, and it tastes amazing. It really is an authentically better option.

If I was going to start a store on line, and then start adding some other features, it seemed like a good idea to start with a product that would get some distribution in the real world and that already had some notoriety in the form of a chef who has three TV shows.

Sprout Baby products are tested and reviewed by real children whose parents work at the company.

Sprout Baby products are tested by real children and reviewed by their parents, who work at the company. Photo: Courtesy Sprout Baby

BPGL: Is Sprout Baby a part of the Sprout Foods company — or the other way around?

SHERMAN: No, we’re not. And I want to make that very clear. Sprout Foods is the company that we partnered with when we started. They make the baby food. But Sprout Baby sells a whole lot more than the food. We have launched into diapers, toys, bottles — practically everything you need for your baby — and many products for moms. All of our products are tested to the same high standard we started out with Sprout Foods.

BPGL: That sounds like a good bargain for parents and makes a lot of sense from a business standpoint. You had a running start just by selling Tyler Florence’s baby food. So, what were your challenges in getting started?

SHERMAN: If you know anything about building an Internet company, building the site is the easy part. The problem is getting people to use it; if you build a mall in the middle of the desert and have no roads to it, you won’t make any sales. So, we thought, What if we could create a relationship with Sprout Foods that would allow us to sell their food online as the first product we’d introduce people to?

It’s a low-cost product to introduce someone to. And it’s food, so if your baby likes that food, you keep feeding it to your baby. It was a good entry point that would allow us to create what we hoped would become a trusted relationship with our customers. We sent them food, and their credit cards were charged. They didn’t experience fraud, and they got what they expected. And if they had a customer service interaction with us, they had a very positive experience. They were happy, and they came back to us again and again.

We would use that as a way to then start introducing them to other products in other categories. We focused first on other consumable products, because those are the products that get used the most. Then we started to look at adding more hard goods. There’s a whole lot more to Sprout Baby than baby food.

End of Part One

Promo Code

Sprout Baby has provided Blue Planet Green Living readers the following discount code for 15% off your first order: BPGL15 The code is good through JANUARY 15, 2010.

Follow Sprout Baby

Website: SproutBaby.com
Twitter: SproutBabyClub
Facebook: SproutBaby.com

Julia Wasson

Blue Planet Green Living

Part One: Sprout Baby – Spreading by “Word of Mom” (Top of Page)

Part Two: Sprout Baby – Love Your Baby, Love the Planet