Introducing Jo Bates, the driving force behind the remarkable success story of Thumbsie, a business dedicated to helping children break the habit of thumb-sucking. Recently honoured as the Small Business of the Year and Health and Wellbeing Businesswoman of the Year, Jo’s journey from concerned parent to award-winning entrepreneur is both inspiring and insightful. In this interview, Jo shares her experiences, challenges, and the secrets behind her accomplishments, offering valuable advice to aspiring business owners and women in the industry. Join us as we delve into Jo’s remarkable career path and the positive impact Thumbsie has had on countless families.
The below is a concise transcript, we recommend watching the video for all the details.
Can you give a brief outline of your career journey that led to the creation of Thumbsie?
I’ve got three children, three girls. My youngest daughter used to suck a dummy, and then when she was three, we took that away, as we had done with our other children. But she surprisingly started sucking her thumb, which I just wasn’t expecting. She carried on for a couple of years, and it became a real habit, one that she, I don’t think, really half the time knew that she was doing it. She really wanted to stop.
Thumb sucking can cause problems, real problems to the teeth, the formation of the teeth when the adult teeth come through, and even the shape of the palate if it’s prolonged and vigorous. So I was quite keen for her to stop, as it was for her. I researched the UK market, but I really couldn’t find anything that I thought was positive. I suppose that was a nasty-tasting liquid, and she had quite bad eczema at the time, so I didn’t really want to use anything as strong as that. Plasters don’t really seem to stay on.
So I can sew. I wouldn’t call myself a seamstress, but I can sew, and I’m pretty creative. So I made a thumb guard. She helped me choose the material, and unbelievably she kept it on, and it worked. After three weeks, she stopped sucking her thumb during the day and a little longer in the evenings, but by five weeks, we completely stopped. It was kind of like that, like a Eureka moment. It was like, “Okay, this works well.”
So I started introducing it at the school gates, networked a bit around there. Other parents had them for their children, and again, it worked. It helped me refine the product, helped me come up with different sizes, how really what fabrics to use, what children liked. It was a great chance to get to know how the product could work. Soon, I launched a website, and yeah, 10 years later, helping thousands of children all across the world. We’re an approved product of the Oral Health Foundation and have won numerous awards for innovation. So yes, a great journey, really, a good journey, and started with something very simple.
So it was formed 10 years ago, and it’s been your full-time job for 5 years. What challenges and problems have you faced in that time since you started Thumbsie?
I think, like most mums who work, striking a balance between work, having three children, and then starting up a new business, juggling everything and not feeling guilty in any area, is probably what’s difficult.
I think I was lucky enough to have some really good people around me with really good experience. In the early days, I called upon people that I knew in marketing, design, website design. So surrounding myself with really good people who had some good expertise really helped me.
Then leaning back on the marketing and business skills that I gained over the years, a long time of working, helped me grow the business really.
As a finalist and award winner of 19 awards from various organisations, what would you attribute the main reason for your success?
I think it’s a great product, that really helps. It’s a great product that works, helps families, and I believe that my passion for the business and its success comes across in my applications.
It’s so lovely to get great reviews, but I get parents who actually email me and thank me wholeheartedly for helping their child to stop. It was easier than they ever thought it would be, it wasn’t stressful, and they’d gone through years of stress wondering when they should give up and how they give up.
Then all of a sudden, they found me, and my product made it really simple. That is just lovely to hear that you’re making such a difference to people.
I’ve entered quite a few awards, so I just tried to put my passion across and what I feel. I think I’ve succeeded, and having a good product definitely helps.
After 10 years of business, and as an award winner, what advice would you give to someone who’s looking to start their own small business?
If you believe you’ve got a good idea, then it’s worth trying. What I came up with was something fairly simple, but if you do the market research, you do some testing, you get advice, and in my market, it was parents, so I was very lucky to be able to chat to other parents.
If you can afford it, starting really well at the beginning really helps. There are things like Etsy, which are helpful for people who are making products and help if you haven’t got the money to launch a website. But for me, launching my own brand and my own website really early on was what helped set the business off straight away. It’s about investing, but investing for a return.
The reason you’re here today is because you recently won two of our Business Awards UK awards: Small Business of the Year and Health and Wellbeing Businesswoman of the Year. You were additionally a finalist for Retail and Ecommerce Businesswoman of the Year. Why did you choose to enter our awards specifically?
To be honest, it wasn’t just your award that I entered this year. Having celebrated 10 years, I felt really proud. Many businesses fall by the wayside within the first three years, so reaching 10 years was a real milestone for me.
I decided to concentrate on entering quite a lot of awards this year. I appreciate the importance of winning awards when I’ve got my marketing hat on. So I decided to really concentrate and entered quite a few awards. I’ve actually won five to date this year, which is brilliant. I’ve also reached the finals of the Great British Entrepreneur Awards, which is being held in London in November.
For me, it was looking at what awards there were, whether the titles were what I was wanting. Specifically, the Health and Well-being Businesswoman of the Year was a really good one to win, a title that I wanted to win because Thumbsie is all about helping children to stop thumb sucking and therefore the health of their teeth and their mouth. But looking at well-being, being kind and positive, is really important as well. So it was looking at what awards there were and what titles, and then obviously doing my best to put some good applications in.
Since you started winning awards, how has that affected your business?
I think it’s pretty difficult to say that it’s completely down to awards. I don’t analyse figures probably as much as I should. There are tools and things with Google Analytics where you can look at conversion rates and everything else. I don’t look at it as much as I should, so I would find it difficult to say it’s because of an award that sales have increased.
But I’m convinced that awards give you credibility to any buyer who’s looking. For Thumbsie and the product, it’s much more of a combination of good things. It’s a combination of having a great story, good reviews from parents, being approved by the Oral Health Foundation, and then winning awards for innovation and health and well-being. I’ve also won awards in the dental industry, which again gives great credibility to the product.
So it’s a combination of good things and looking professional that’s helped.
Would you recommend Business Awards UK to other businesses, and if so, why?
Yes, I would recommend entering the awards. It’s pretty easy to enter, and you don’t have to wait too long for the results. Even if you don’t actually win and become a finalist, that’s still good recognition. It’s good recognition from business people, which is great for your own business, good for PR, and great for social media. It’s another reason to write another blog, which is good for content on the website. So yes, I would recommend definitely entering the awards.
What’s the next step for Thumbsie? Do you have big plans for the rest of this year or 2024?
No, not really. I’m really happy just running a successful business that celebrated 10 years in business and is helping families. It’s helping families across the world to stop thumb sucking, hopefully giving them fewer problems and less stress in their lives. I’ve got my three children. One’s just gone to University, one’s a police officer, and one’s doing GCSEs. I’ve got enough on my plate with my family to carry on just running a successful business. If I see an opportunity and something crops up, then I’ll go for it.
Finally, is there any additional advice you’d offer to up-and-coming women in your industry or in business generally?
I think always be looking for the next idea. Simple ideas are often the best. Being a mom really helped because my product is appealing to other moms and parents. If something helps you, then it’s bound to help other people.
Just always be aware of opportunities. To give an example, I launched children’s face masks right at the beginning of the pandemic, using the success of the fabrics that I’d gained with the thumb guards. I felt I really knew the market, knew what worked well, and designed children’s face masks available in different sizes with an adjustable strap. No other retailers were doing that, and I launched them early.
It paid off, and I got to number one on Google and was featured in many national magazines. It was really just seeing that opportunity again, doing some testing on local children, and launching quickly. So yes, just being aware of opportunities, I suppose.
Thank you so much, Jo. If people want to find you or Thumbsie on social media or the website, where can they find you?
You can find us on the website at Thumbsie.com, and all the social media links are on there, so it should be easy to find.