MamaBud: Getting to be big in China with a little help from friendly founders

5 Jul 2017

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

Sarah Martin, the Irish founder tackling the tricky Chinese market so others won’t have to, talks starting up and finding support from fellow female founders.

MamaBud is an Irish e-commerce and logistics company selling baby foods sourced in Ireland directly to homes in China. Tackling export services in a vastly different and notoriously tricky trading market with a young company, founder and CEO Sarah Martin has taken on a complex challenge, but MamaBud aims to make it easier for sellers to connect with and grow in the Chinese market.

Inspired by a trip to China to start her own business, Martin’s career journey has also seen stops in Germany, Italy and the Caribbean. Now, she’s focused on building the MamaBud team and gaining investment interest, and she’s grateful to her peer-to-peer support networks for helping her to get this far.

Future Human

Martin spoke to following the first Dell EMC Supper Club, part of a series of events planned for the coming year hosted by Dell EMC in collaboration with GirlCrew. “We wanted to develop a programme for female entrepreneurs in Ireland. By working with GirlCrew, we hope we can support many female entrepreneurs across the country as they continue to develop and grow their ideas,” said Aisling Keegan, vice-president and general manager for Dell EMC Ireland.

‘The Chinese market is exceptionally competitive so it can be hard and expensive to get noticed. Culturally, we have a different way of approaching business’

Inspirefest 2017

What’s MamaBud’s elevator pitch?

We help companies sell direct to Chinese consumers quickly and cost-effectively.

And what is the technology and infrastructure behind it?

Our Chinese consumer interface happens almost exclusively within the WeChat ecosystem. That is where the consumer is online and we believe in meeting them there. WeChat boasts 768m daily users, half of whom use the platform for at least 90 minutes a day. It’s a powerful super-app where users can do everything from pay their electricity bill and order a taxi, to buy groceries and write a restaurant review – all without ever leaving.

Our business interface is still quite manual but the ambition is to build a full bells-and-whistles online marketplace, where companies can complete all required sign-up documentation and brand identity automatically. Right now, we build all digital assets with our suppliers and when they go live, they are roughly 80pc ready for Chinese market. We test all aspects of their marketing mix from value proposition to pricing, and use consumer behaviour data to perfect their in-market offering. This helps our customers build a sustainable value proposition for the second-largest and, arguably, the most complex market in the world, without ever getting on a plane.

Customers can choose from our vetted supplier list for everything operational, including logistics, warehousing, pick-and-pack, customer service and so forth. This makes trading in China, in some cases, easier than other traditional export markets.

Was there a ‘eureka moment’ that inspired the idea or was it more of a gradual development?

In 2011, I returned after nine years abroad to complete an MBA at Smurfit Graduate Business School. Doing business in emerging markets was one of the modules and, as a class, we travelled to China where we met professors, industry experts and organisations, all of whom talked about the demand for foreign imported brands and products that are made to high standards of quality control. I left China inspired to build a solution and I have been working on that ever since. The solution has changed dramatically since then, but it has always focused on bringing the Chinese consumer safe and trusted products.

Having developed a range of products for China, a regulatory change was announced that meant our products would not be allowed to be sold there. A huge problem, which could have ended my journey, but it was in that moment I learned first-hand just how difficult it is for companies to launch in China. So you have consumers in China with insatiable demand for foreign products and foreign companies that are unable to sell to Chinese consumers. That is when I decided to find a way to make it easier for both sides of the equation.

MamaBud website


Being an Irish business in China, have you faced any unique challenges?

Every day, I face challenges. I could write a book!

Some of the regulatory changes over the past two years have played a huge role in the strategic direction of the company. The market is exceptionally competitive so it can be hard and expensive to get noticed. Culturally, we have a different way of approaching business. For example, we in the West like to take our time and be quite strategic, but often painfully slow. I find the Chinese like to move fast, which can sometimes feel short-term. I have come to love this about China but it has been difficult in the past.

What’s the best feedback you’ve had from an investor?

I have one investor to date: NDRC, which is an early-stage investment firm in Dublin. My investor leader there is Dermot Casey, who is a never-ending fountain of wisdom. The greatest advice he gives me is: “Don’t give up”, or, “Nothing worth doing is ever easy”. And it has been hard. A start-up is a challenge at the best of times, and then export or internationalisation is another challenge for any company. China is also renowned to be a difficult trading environment so I have a trilogy of complexity. There can be days where motivation can start to wane. Dermot is always there to help me refocus and remember that the end definitely justifies the means.

And what was the worst?

I cannot say I have received bad advice. As a solo founder, all advice is welcomed. I love to be challenged and pushed to think of things I hadn’t previously considered. What I don’t like is the investor that tells you that they are very interested and excited to be part of the journey but then go to radio silence. Please be honest, people.

How is MamaBud is currently performing and what are your 2017 goals?

I am behind on some and ahead on others. I had hoped to have raised a small investment round, hired a core team around me and onboarded at least five clients. The onboarding of clients is going according to plan, but the team is still a struggle. I have identified great talent but so far have failed to attract them to the uncertain world of start-up. So far, I am very lucky to have built a team of versatile and hard-working individuals that are not afraid to try things far outside their comfort zone.

How would you describe your career journey so far?

My first job out of college was with Unilever in frozen foods and then ice-cream here in Ireland. One day, a tall German came to the Dublin office and plucked me from Dublin and brought me to Hamburg and then Rome. I was European marketing manager for a portfolio of products and loved every minute of it.

Soon after that, I went to Digicel in the Caribbean, where I started as global marketing manager and ended up as commercial director for the Eastern Caribbean and fibre acquisitions. The speed of innovation and change at Digicel certainly gave me the appetite for entrepreneurship. I returned in 2014 to do the MBA in Smurfit and never looked back. I do, however, miss the sun, sea and sand sometimes!

What have been some of the essential supports that have helped you on this journey?

I joined a programme early on called Acorns, run by Paula Fitzsimons. It’s a programme for supporting rural-based entrepreneurs and, at the time, I was still back in Meath camping out with my mother and sister. I learned there the importance and richness of peer-to-peer support. The simple knowledge that you are not going crazy but that others feel and think the same as you do at times is, in itself, so comforting. We help each other to ‘lean in’ to our challenges, and not fear failure but to embrace it.

‘The NDRC female founders WhatsApp group is possibly the single best source of information I have. Pop in a question and invariably, those super-smart ladies have 10 solutions in seconds’

I was really lucky to gain a place on the NDRC Catalyser programme very early on. Those guys in there took a chance on me and have rolled with the endless pivots, and supported me and challenged me every step of the way, while giving me the freedom to do what is needed for the company. Within NDRC, we have a female founders WhatsApp group, which is possibly the single best source of information I have. Pop in a question and invariably, those super-smart ladies have 10 solutions in seconds.

The GirlCrew Entrepreneurs group is also a fantastic source of information and support. We share content we find that is relevant to running or building your own company, and cheer each other on along the way. The events they throw are really unique as it gives us the chance to chat openly together in a safe environment, and get inspiration from those who have gone before us or are particularly good at something essential to new business, such as social media. I am delighted to know these will continue, especially now with the support from Dell EMC. Those girls are killing it.

Have you come up against any discrimination as a female founder?

I am not sure if I have, thankfully. I have benefited greatly from the discrimination as so much support is now out there for me just because I am a woman – especially Acorns, female founders and GirlCrew.

I have heard horror stories. One girl I sat with at dinner a couple of weeks ago told me that one investor told her she’d never raise because she is a woman. A super-smart individual with a proven tech that she developed with a partner – to be told that is a great insult. Makes my blood boil.

Myself, personally, the messaging about the male bias against women in business can tempt me to not try, as failure is inevitable. I do always try – sometimes with a time delay – but I have to remind myself continuously.

What would be your advice to other female founders out there, who may be feeling in the minority?

Join GirlCrew Entrepreneurs, meet your female founder counterparts, join a peer-to-peer mentoring programme, find some mentors and don’t worry – people do love to help. You are not alone! Try get on an accelerator and build a network of people who can help and challenge you.

If you have an idea, validate it with your target customer. If you have proof that the problem you are addressing is real, and motivating enough for someone to pay to resolve it, you have a business. You have a start-up if you can prove that the opportunity is large and you can gain competitive advantage. If you have this and you can prove it, no investor will care if you’re man, woman or alien.

I am always happy to chat with other founders. I know the value of the help I receive every day, so please, reach out if you want. I won’t have all the answers, but sometimes all you need is the right questions.

The Dell EMC Supper Club series was developed to support female entrepreneurs as they work to grow their businesses and their networks. The events are designed to help female founders meet fellow entrepreneurs and share stories while also having the opportunity to speak with experts from Dell EMC on a range of topics including sales, management, logistics, legal advice, marketing and business development. The date for the next Dell EMC Supper Club with GirlCrew will be announced later this month. Entrepreneurs looking to take part will receive more information through the Dell EMC social channels as well as through GirlCrew.