Dee Featherstone wasn’t planning on becoming a small business owner. A mum-of-one on maternity leave with her son Alfie, it was a visit to her local Baby Sensory group, combined with her experiences of postnatal anxiety and depression, that sparked the idea to find more ways to create sensory play activities at home.
However, after struggling to find what she needed, the former RAF Policewoman set about filling a gap in the market. She sourced the best sensory toys for each stage of baby’s development and launched her subscription boxes in 2019, and to say they’ve been a success is an understatement. Two years later, she has been shortlisted for awards, gone on to launch an online store packed with sensory toys and books, and grown a huge social media following of mums, including a few famous faces.
We caught up with Dee to learn more about why she launched her business, the challenges she had along the way, and her exciting plans for the future.
I was inspired to start my business because… When I gave birth to Alfie, I was an overwhelmed new mum who had no idea how to play with my baby.
I’d had very little experience with babies before having one of my own, so when Alfie was born, I honestly had no idea if he even needed toys, or if I was supposed to be playing with him at all (I mean, I thought he looked pretty underwhelmed with my attempts at waving a rattle in front of him!).
When Alfie was 11 weeks old, I took him to our local Baby Sensory class. He was instantly mesmerised, and I absolutely loved watching him take it all in. It felt like a special bit of time each week that strengthened our bond, and it began to teach me how to play with him in a way that supported his development. But unfortunately, I was also struggling with postnatal anxiety and depression, which meant there were days when I just didn’t feel up to leaving the house and going to a baby class.
Feeling inspired to recreate sensory-play experiences for us at home, I started researching online, looking for guidance on activities and some age-appropriate sensory toys and resources I could buy. But the sheer volume of information out there quickly became overwhelming. A lot of it was clearly aimed at early-years professionals and written in what I call ‘science speak’. What’s more, none of the toys I found were affordable for a new mum on maternity pay!
The final straw came for me after Alfie’s first Christmas, when I suddenly couldn’t move for loud and flashy toys that, I soon realised, only kept him entertained for about a minute. Deep down, I knew these toys weren’t stimulating his mind or nurturing his development, and I had this niggling feeling that I should be able to create valuable playtime for him without drowning in battery-operated toys, spending a fortune or obtaining a qualification in teaching!
I also knew that if I was feeling this frustrated, there must be other new parents out there feeling the same way. I could see the need for a service that demystifies sensory play and makes sensory toys and resources affordable and accessible. And so, the idea for The Little Sensory Box began to take shape!
For the next year or so, I made it my mission to educate myself about sensory play by wading through all the information out there and – of course – spending lots of time playing with Alfie!
And the most important thing I learned? When it comes to sensory play with babies, less is most definitely more!
Playing with your baby in a way that benefits their developing brain really can be simple, straightforward and fun – for you both!
The term ‘sensory play’ applies to any activity that stimulates one or more of your baby’s senses; sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. It can be something as easy as tickling your baby’s toes with a colourful scarf or shaking a sound bottle for them (if only I could go back in time and tell 2018 me that she was doing a great job with Alfie’s rattle!).
I launched the business in 2019 with a range of sensory boxes for babies and toddlers. Soon after, I began selling our Baby’s First Year subscription boxes, which are designed to take the guesswork out of sensory play by delivering all the toys and activities you need for your baby’s first twelve months straight to your door, exactly when you need them.
Basically, this is the subscription I wish had been around when I was a new mum!
As well as our subscription boxes, we also offer a carefully curated selection of sensory toys for children from birth to three years, all sourced from some of the best early-years brands in the business. We only choose open-ended pieces that complement one another and are built to last – in terms of both quality and play potential.
A typical day for me… As it’s just me running this business most of my day is spent packing orders, inbetween this I will also do any admin that I need to like stock takes, stock ordering, answering emails and messages, researching new products, updating the website, running social media (and anything else that a business owner needs to do). Then I also have a house to run and a child to look after around this (although Alfie goes to nursery through the week).
My proudest achievement so far… I’m incredibly proud that my sensory-play subscription boxes have been shortlisted in the 2020/21 Junior Design Awards, and that they were featured in The Independent as one of the 12 best baby and parenting subscription boxes. But nothing makes me happier than hearing from parents who say it has been a total game changer for them, because that’s exactly what I set out to do!
My biggest challenge has been… Last year when the pandemic first started and also Brexit has been the biggest hurdles so far. Not knowing if I would have to close, not being able to get stock and huge delays with absolutely everything was so stressful… these are still issues that are impacting now too.
The best thing about having my own business is… just knowing that I can be home everyday (as this was something that was never guaranteed in the military).
Before launching my business I… served in the Royal Air Force as a Police Woman for 9 years.
Before starting a business I wish I’d known … How hard it really is! I knew it was going to be hard as such but maybe I was a bit naive to it. Things grew pretty quickly that I really wasn’t prepared for it and burnt myself out on more than one occasion.
My top piece of advice for fellow mums hoping to start a business is… Don’t be afraid to take that jump – you may think that you can’t do it and yes it will be hardwork, but, if you have a dream and are prepared to work for it, then you can achieve absolutely anything. Sometimes we just need to make that jump first.
The next thing I’m working on is… I will be increasing the age for the Baby’s First Year Subscription Boxes from 0-12 months to 0-24 months.
My dream for the future is… To be brave enough to move out of my garage and into a bigger space, taking on some help and then product development to produce my own range of sensory related toys.
Have you launched your own business or is there an entrepreneur you’d love us to feature? Contact us with your suggestions.