When Narda Simpson, president of OYACO Products Inc. of Calgary, sewed together her first baby sleep sac over 10 years ago, she had no idea that she was about to turn her world as a high-school teacher on its head. The zip-up infant sleeping bag, which would soon be named Snugbag, was given as a unique, purposeful baby shower gift and was received with such enthusiasm that she was soon bombarded with requests to create more.
“I had become aware of these sensible sleep sacs through a family friend who is from Holland who used them. There, it seemed everyone used them because they were so practical,” she explains. “I knew we didn’t have anything like it in Canada. I just didn’t realize what a phenomena it would start. Nor where it would eventually lead me.”
Simpson did not yet have any children of her own, but recognized that a sleep sac solved so many issues: from tossed blankets in the middle of the night to tangles and even reduced incidence of SIDS, the zip front sleep sacs which keep arms free but legs and body securely covered, had been used for decades throughout Europe to keep babies snug, warm and comfortable through the night.
Soon, as friends and some local media attention spread the word, Simpson was sewing hundreds of sleep sacs a month and stressing to keep up. It had become a fulltime business. That’s when serendipity brought Grobag and Simpson together.
Grobag was one of the European manufacturers of the infant sleep bags that had sparked the whole idea. Once the two companies were introduced to each other, it didn’t take Simpson long to realize that joining forces with Grobag made good sense.
“So, I suspended the manufacturing of Snugbag and started to distribute Grobag Baby Sleeping Bags in Canada,” said Simpson. In no time, Simpson had added other infant products from various manufacturers to her product line. As her distribution across the country solidified, other international manufacturers came knocking.
At the same time, Simpson’s interactions with retailers and customers in Canada was making it apparent that there was a real need in Canada for innovative, quality maternity, baby and children’s products in Canada. “It came to the point where it was a bit of no-brainer,” explains Simpson. “The demand was there. The supply was there. And OYACO was born.”
Officially christened OYACO in 2004 (the name comes from the marriage of two Japanese words "oya" meaning "parent" and a modified version of the word "ko" which translates to "child"), the company has grown to be one of the larger distributors of infant and baby products in Canada. With 26 product lines and over 750 SKU’s shipping from two warehouses, the company’s products can be found in over 600 retail outlets across Canada.
A big part of the success today is due to Simpson’s ongoing nose for great products that solve real parenting problems, believes the company’s General Manager. “That was how the Snugbag idea was born, and that continues to be what guides OYACO’s product choices today.”
Well, perhaps a nose for good products and a whole lot of good business acumen. Today, the selection of new brands or products is a diligent and strategic process. First, Simpson and colleagues personally scour the world for those one-of-a-kind, never-before-seen products, attending manufacturer trade shows and visiting factories as far away as South Africa (where the popular BUMBO seat comes from). They also sift through the hundred or so product e-mails and calls they receive every year, only admitting a fortunate few to their coveted short list. Any product under consideration is put through the rigors of first-hand testing – often by Simpson’s own children – and is ensured to meet all Canadian safety standards and governmental regulations.
If a new product makes it through these initial turnstiles, it must still pass the ultimate test: hands-on evaluation by a panel of discerning, educated, uncompromising peers and moms; in other words a perfect cross-section of OYACO’s ideal customer tells OYACO whether they’ve got a home run or a dud.
“Remarkably, nine times out of 10 our instincts are confirmed,” says Simpson. “But, that one time in 10 we end up closing the door on a product at this final stage. When the customer speaks you have to listen,” she adds.
So far the “follow-your-nose-and-listen-to-your-customer” system has been working remarkably well for OYACO. The Bumbo baby seat, Bella Band, and the Travel Friends Head Support (the company’s newest “next great thing”) are only a few of the products that OYACO has introduced to Canada and which have gone on to win national and international consumer awards. Not to mention the kudos of more than one grateful Canadian parent.