Irene Breen: ‘From electric cars to a device for nursing mums, it’s been quite a journey’
Irene Breen, the inventor of an innovative breastfeeding pillow, tells Lisa Smyth how the economic crash put her on the path to her business and gives advice to other women entrepreneurs
There is a saying that necessity is the mother of invention. That is certainly the case for the BellaMoon pregnancy, breastfeeding and infant support pillow.
Designed particularly for mums who like to lie on their side for breastfeeding, it was created by Irene Breen as a result of her own experience after the arrival of her first child in 2015.
Like many mums, Irene (37) was overwhelmed by the challenges of breastfeeding her daughter Bella, who turns four next month, prompting her to design and create a pillow that would help her on her journey.
"The whole story began when Bella was born and I was breastfeeding her and she was very typical in that she was feeding on demand every two hours, day and night," says Irene.
"I was quite shocked because I was a first-time mum and I didn't know that's what it was going to be like, no-one warned me.
"I was totally exhausted, so I did some research to find out how other mums coped and discovered the side-lying position.
"I tried it and it was great as it allowed me to try and get some rest while I was feeding Bella, but after a while I started to get pain in my neck, shoulder, back and hips.
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"I started to look for something that could support me but couldn't find anything so I got a sheet and asked my husband to draw around me and Bella, so I could try and make something myself."
To begin with, the pillow was for Irene's own personal use, before she then passed it on to her sister to use when she became a mum.
However, a combination of the recession and a burning desire to start up her own business prompted Irene to create a pillow she could sell to mums around the world.
It is a far cry from her original career path as an architect. Having graduated from Queen's University, she subsequently set up an architecture firm alongside her husband, Conor.
However, when the recession hit, the construction industry was decimated and so too was the demand for architects, so the couple were forced to diversify in order to make a living.
Fortunately, Irene has always been interested in sustainability and a job soon came along as a result.
In fact, she was instrumental in bringing to Northern Ireland the infrastructure for electric cars simply as a result of her passion for green energy.
"I got the job because I had been proactive in trying to get investment in Northern Ireland," she explains.
"I was doing a voluntary programme at the time and became aware that there was several million pounds available for the different regions across the UK and I couldn't understand why nothing was being done here.
"I approached various different companies and asked why no-one was doing anything here and they said I should go for it, so I did."
Irene was successful in her bid and managed to secure £850,000 for Northern Ireland, which was matched by an ecar consortium.
It was little wonder, therefore, that she was offered a job.
However, it was while she was on maternity leave from this role as head of ECar NI, that she spotted a gap in the market for a pregnancy and breastfeeding pillow.
At the same time, she was studying for a Masters in Business, which involved writing a business plan.
"I decided to do it for my pillow and I'm not sure if that hadn't happened whether BellaMoon would be here today," she says.
While Irene was not a newcomer to the world of business, product development was a completely alien area for her, so she turned to experts for help.
"I worked with Belfast Met to develop the first prototype," she says. "It took about three months from start to finish.
"It was so important to create something that was safe for mummy and baby to use.
"I wanted to create something that creates awareness of the baby so that there is a wedge between mum and baby and you can't roll onto the baby and the baby doesn't roll either.
"The very first prototype was made from paper mache and foam.
"It was very much trying out different things to see what worked and it was actually good fun. The first prototype was actually very successful as I used it for breastfeeding Bella until she was 20 months and then I gave it to my sister and she used it as well.
"We worked on the design because it was very much made to fit to my body.
"We actually worked with a specialist sleep clinic, who recruited mums and dads and babies and they tried out the cushion and we made some changes following on from that.
"We were always considering the safety side of it.
"Then, later on, I sourced a manufacturer in Estonia and that process was quite difficult because people are very secretive about their manufacturer.
"They seem to be of the opinion that it is their manufacturer and they don't want to give the names away.
"I ended up looking at another baby product, looking up their export records for the US and finding who they used. They didn't have any contact details so I had to set up a LinkedIn profile and getting in touch with them that way.
"Finally someone came back to me and they have been brilliant, they are very professional and very impressive."
Throughout development, testing the product and ensuring it meets the needs of the customer has been vital to Irene.
It was a lengthy process but Irene's patience has played an important part in the success of the business to date.
She explains: "I will never forget when I made my first sale.
"I was in Pizza Express and we had launched the website and it had been up about two days.
"We hadn't had any sales and I was really starting to lose my nerve.
"I was sitting there and the next thing my phone went and it was a text to say we'd had a sale and I nearly danced around the restaurant.
"We haven't had any investment up until now, so we have done everything with hundreds of pounds, not thousands of pounds.
"I got my website for free, I am constantly entering competitions to try and get money.
"I decided that I would focus on the UK and Irish market and I would give myself six months to see if anyone was buying and if not I was just going to have to try and let it go.
"Everything we sell is done from the website and the first month was really slow but I had put my heart and soul into it.
"We sold 100 products in the first six months, which might not seem a lot, it's not groundbreaking, but with the amount of money that I had for marketing, I was happy.
"It was very much a case of growing with help from friends and family.
"After the first six months, I decided to start looking for investment, which was also hard work.
"We approached lots of different investment companies and they all said I had done well to get the product to the point that I had, especially because of the amount of money I had spent.
"I demonstrated the sales we'd had at that stage and they all said that if I hadn't waited and been able to show sales, none of the investors would have been interested.
"We spoke to some big firms, but they were only about the money and it was never about that for me, I wanted to get the right person.
"They had to believe in the vision, but a lot of the bigger investors were only interested in the exit strategy."
Irene finally managed to secure investment as she was preparing to welcome her second baby, Darcy, into the world six weeks ago.
"The funds transferred the week she was born," says Irene.
"We had our first board meeting on Friday and we've made some decisions on what we're going to do.
"I had never done anything like this before so I had no expectations beforehand, but I don't regret setting up my own business.
"I have enjoyed it all so much, it is more like a hobby or passion to me than work."
So, what would Irene say to other hopeful entrepreneurs?
"Don't wait until the product is launched to get feedback," she says.
"You have to do it throughout the process so you can make changes along the way.
"It also means that people have bought into your idea.
"You also have to hold your nerve, you have to keep pushing and that is really hard. I left my job about six weeks before Darcy was due because I made the decision that I am going to concentrate on BellaMoon. I really wanted to get the investment over the line.
"I was 39-and-a-half-weeks pregnant with Darcy when I was closing the finance deal and at one stage I thought it wasn't going to happen. I was so keen to get it done before Darcy arrived because I knew it would never happen afterwards because of the frequency of feeding and things like that.
"I thought everything was going to fall apart but I managed it and I'm thankful that I held my nerve. My husband was very supportive throughout and he kept me going, so I would also say that you shouldn't quit. If you have a strong vision, even if you have bad days, don't quit."