Why you should care
Because in the social media age, copycats are easier to catch.
Just before close of business on Jan. 7, Shannon McLaughlin, founder and owner of Ubuntu Baba (total staff: 12), posted a 2,000-word blog explaining how she felt South African retail giant Woolworths (2018 revenue: $5.5 billion) had copied the name, color scheme and design of her company’s signature baby carriers, and was selling them at a third of the price (Ubuntu Baba carriers are handmade from organic hemp in South Africa versus the copycat carriers mass produced in China and made out of polyester).
While the social-media-savvy McLaughlin “knew” the post would go viral, she was not expecting the media storm. Radio host Bruce Whitfield called at 6 am the next morning, and her phone didn’t stop ringing for days. Total stranger Marnus Broodryk, one of the “sharks” on Shark Tank South Africa, parked his flashy SUV outside one of Woolworths’ flagship stores with the words STOP KILLING SME’S painted on the rear windshield, a reference to small- and medium-sized enterprises.
Just like that, the 36-year-old sent a shock wave through big retail in South Africa and showed small businesses around the country that big checkbooks and expensive lawyers can be beaten.
The carriers were pulled from Woolworths’ shelves almost immediately, but the situation was only resolved a month later, when Woolworths promised not to keep any profits from the sale of the carriers, give Ubuntu an undisclosed payout, donate a “large portion” of the proceeds to support small business and implement intellectual property training across the company.
We had a real business before this all happened. There’s a reason Woolies copied us.
McLaughlin refused “to go near” a nondisclosure agreement because “what they did was wrong, and I deserve to be able to talk about it.” Accusations of ripoffs in the fashion world are common, but restitution? Not so much — particularly in the United States, where fashion is not protected under copyright law. Anthropologie and parent company Urban Outfitters have been forced to apologize for swiping jewelry and ceramic designs in recent years, but victories for small operators are rare.
McLaughlin’s willingness to stick it to the man surprised many — but not those who know her well. “What you see is what you get,” says Ubuntu Baba’s boutique manager Megan Eadie. “If Shannon doesn’t agree with something, she will stand up and fight.”
Evidently, she’s always been this way. At age 15, it dawned on her that “surfing was way cooler than school,” so she persuaded her dad to let her complete high school by correspondence. After matriculating she had another go at formal education but dropped out of design school after a year and went freelance. For a while, she had to supplement her income by working in surf shops, but within a few years, she was earning a living as a full-time web designer with a steady stream of startups as clients.
By the time motherhood loomed, her business was booming and she had “such a nice set of clients” that she planned to take two months’ maternity leave and get straight back to work. “I had this dream of sitting in my lounge and picking Leo up every three hours to breastfeed.” Leo had other ideas. “He wanted to be held all the time … and I couldn’t get any work done with no hands.”
(Related disclosure: As a work-from-home dad, I’m typing this while my youngest sleeps in an Ubuntu Baba carrier, borrowed from a relative.)
McLaughlin discovered babywearing out of “pure desperation” when she turned to the unopened stretchy wrap a friend had gifted her a few weeks earlier. While still a huge fan of wraps, she soon discovered their limitations and decided to move to a buckled carrier. After trying six different carriers (some ordered from Europe at great expense) she was still unable to replicate the feeling of intense closeness that you get from a stretchy wrap.
So she called her dad who owned a small backpack factory (they’ve since merged their businesses). Three months and eight prototypes later she had a carrier she was happy with. At which point her “entrepreneurial side kicked in.” After a couple of years of organic online growth, McLaughlin got her first big break when leading South African women’s magazine Fair Lady ran a feature on her and her business in December 2016.
The article was read by loads of moms, but it also coincided with the factory’s annual holiday shutdown. Their stock sold out in days and — faced with scores of moms who wanted their carriers now — McLaughlin went into crisis mode, putting a note on her website to manage expectations and training up new machinists as soon as the factory reopened. This was the moment Ubuntu Baba “became a real business,” says McLaughlin, who had been doing web design on the side until then.
Fast forward two Christmases to the moment Ubuntu Baba became a household name. McLaughlin first got wind of what Woolworths had been up to in mid-December when a colleague forwarded her a link to the item’s online listing. “At first I thought they’d copied our name and colors,” says McLaughlin, but once she went to a store and bought one, her disbelief soared. The waistband and shoulder straps were “exactly the same” as the Ubuntu Baba product, while the body pattern was similar but simpler. Why? “To make it easier to mass produce in China,” she guesses.
Instead of pouring her heart out immediately, she found herself a lawyer and even went through a mock court case. Only then, after several revisions (“Your first breakup letter is always rubbish.”), did she post the blog. Within weeks — and a nationally broadcast ultimatum to the company CEO — she won the apology and settlement.
While it’s not the first time Woolworths has come under scrutiny (and promised to mend its ways, this 2012 case being the most famous example), it is a stunning — and globally relevant — case study in the power of social media in the court of public opinion. “If this had happened 10 years ago, Shannon wouldn’t have got a thing,” says Broodryk, the SME-loving shark. Since the incident, several other companies have come forward accusing Woolies of doing the same to their brands, but Broodryk is reluctant to jump on that bandwagon, explaining that all big retailers are entitled to follow global trends. While he believes that what happened with the baby carriers was the work of “a few individuals” rather than a company-wide tactic, and that Woolworths is not unique among South African retailers, Broodryk is glad it happened: “The whole of South Africa was listening … including the people who work at the big guys.”
Woolworths spokeswoman Kirsten Hewett, in addition to apologizing, says the company is “intensifying and strengthening the training of our people, our suppliers and partners on our values-based approach to the design and sourcing process.”
McLaughlin says she was never intimidated, and she didn’t even contemplate asking Woolies to stock her carriers. (“I’d never work with someone I can’t trust.”) She’s also the first to admit that her business has benefited from the saga, with sales of the $100 carriers continuing to grow and her brand becoming “a household name.” But it “really pisses [her] off” when people tell her she’s lucky Woolies chose her brand. “We had a real business before this all happened. There’s a reason Woolies copied us.”
Now she’s frequently invited to speak about intellectual property — ironic given her scant understanding of the concept before now — but her main focus is on growing her business and helping moms deal with postnatal depression in the process (she says babywearing saved her).
To that end, McLaughlin reveals that she’s already in talks with a couple of international brands. However, she won’t sign anything until she’s run it by her lawyers.
Read more: Meet the 22-year-old breaking the blood bank crisis in Cameroon.