Start-up of the week: MamaBud

24 Oct 2016

Pictured is Sarah Martin, founder and CEO of MamaBud. Image: Luke Maxwell

Our start-up of the week is MamaBud: an Irish e-commerce and logistics company selling Irish-sourced baby foods directly to homes in China.

“Tainted by scandals, an informal grey market worth €1.5bn has developed in China, which will become illegal in January 2018,” explained Sarah Martin, founder and CEO of MamaBud, previously known as Creva Club.

“MamaBud is a legitimised, encrypted version of this grey market, delivering premium products direct to Chinese mothers, and perfectly poised to scoop up that value.

‘While in China, every expert and professor I met spoke about the problems with toxins in the food chain there, in particular with baby food. I left there motivated to be part of the solution’

Future Human

“MamaBud is the only end-to-end encrypted e-commerce and logistics solution selling Irish-sourced baby foods direct to China’s homes, monthly.

“We guarantee safe Irish-sourced infant milk formula, delivered direct to the homes of the world’s largest and growing upper middle class.”

The market

Martin explained that the Chinese infant milk formula market, valued at €17bn, has had many food safety episodes over recent years.

“As a result, the Chinese mother does not trust the product she buys in the supermarket, for fear of contamination or counterfeits. This is due to a very long and complex route to market for food, with many chances for interference.

“The current solution to this trust issue is a grey market. This is an informal network of Chinese expats that send €1.5bn worth of infant milk formula home to China via the postal system, for profit. This will become illegal on January 2018.”

The founder

Martin worked for almost 10 years at Unilever in its global ice cream category – including four years in Rome.

“I also worked almost three years at Digicel as commercial director for the eastern Caribbean and fibre acquisitions.

“I returned to Ireland after nine years and completed my MBA at the Smurfit School of Business, with which I travelled to China for the emerging markets module.

“While in China, every expert and professor I met spoke about the problems with toxins in the food chain there, in particular with baby food. I left there motivated to be part of the solution.”

The technology

Using the MamaBud platform, the Chinese mother orders over mobile and receives the trusted Irish product safely to her door.

“We use technology to encrypt the process. We trace each product from the farm via Kerry Food Group, to the end consumer in China. We use no middlemen and hold no inventory in China.

“We have counterfeit-free technology on the parcel, so our Chinese mother knows the product she receives is the product she ordered.”

MamaBud is also a subscription service that delivers the required amount of product to the home each month, guaranteed.

“MamaBud integrates a number of different elements of technology: payment, logistic KPIs, customs pre-clearance procedures, counterfeit-proofing, traceability, subscription, WeChat, CRM etc.

“The seamless experience of the customer is delivered via the build of a unique platform that integrates all of these elements.”

Martin added that the IP behind the platform is owned by MamaBud and was built with Chinese-Irish technology company ACTTAO.

China in her hands

“Our goal is to bring the Chinese mother peace of mind – one less thing to worry about,” Martin said.

“We start with infant formula, our hero product, and we will add additional products to the portfolio over time.”

MamaBud has so far raised €150,000 and has been part of the NDRC’s Catalyser programme since February this year.

“Right now we are in test launch mode, where we are taking payment for product and testing the entire process: payment, order processing, customs clearing, sales, marketing and so forth.

“We have shipped to seven cities across China and will have 100 parcels sent by the end of October.

“Our commercial launch will be at the end of November, when I will tour five Tier 2 cities, promoting our service and product range.

“In order to maximise the opportunity quickly and establish a foothold before the January 2018 regulation change, I need investment. I am seeking €750,000 in investment.”

 Tenacity and drive

Martin said that the journey so far has not been without its fair share of challenges.

“I always say nothing that is easy is worth doing, and that is definitely the case here.

“I knew going in that taking on a start-up targeting China would be a rocky road and I have not been disappointed.

“The bureaucracy and regulatory environment in China is understandably complex and the ‘start-ups always take twice as long as you think’ cliché that we always hear is doubled for this particular market.

“I have, however, attracted really great Chinese talent to the team in Ireland, they understand instinctively the problem we are trying to solve and [are] very motivated to be part of it.”

The start-up bug

This is Martin’s second start-up. “The first one really never got off the ground, it was a sustainable building solution for domestic housing – twice as fast to build for half the price.

“That failed for a number of reasons, including the lack of supports for start-ups targeting the domestic market. It was hard to walk away from that, heartbreaking almost, but I caught the bug. I got well and truly hooked.

“With MamaBud, I have experienced the very best of the Irish start-up ecosystem. The NDRC has been exceptional. They believed in me and the company very early.

“Enterprise Ireland both here in Ireland and in China have been an incredible support also – we are a bit spoiled with the level of support they give.

“Yes, the process can be onerous but seriously, it is an incredible machine that drives us all forward. I am literally on my way back now from Tel Aviv, the home of Start-up Nation, and after a week there, I would like to say our own scene is as strong as theirs. We might be smaller but there’s a strength in that too.”

Martin said the best advice anyone thinking of getting started can get is to prove the problem exists, understand who the problem affects and ensure that it is annoying enough to motivate action.

“If you can do that, you can succeed. This mindset means I have a unique e-commerce system that sells safe food direct to China’s family homes, I can focus on the customers’ experience and not just filling factories.”

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years