Business & Real Estate

Mountain View mom takes design skill from kitchen table to factory floor with baby bowl

Photos courtesy of Brooke Boak
The Nummy Bowl is the work of Mountain View mom and product developer Brooke Boak. Boak’s daughters were heavily involved in the testing phase.

After having two daughters, Mountain View resident Brooke Boak had an experience familiar to all parents – scoop oatmeal into a glass bowl, microwave, transfer it to a less fragile vessel for the sloppy circus of baby self-feeding, then face a sink full of dishes. But she also brought a product design focus to her experience in the family kitchen.

“I’ve been in China and seen how the plastics are made. Even if they say they are BPA-free, I wouldn’t trust it,” she noted. “Everything in our house is glass, steel or silicone.”

Boak watched her kids, and friends’ kids, upend a variety of tactical baby dishes – the kind that promise to suction to high chairs but are swiftly MacGyvered by toddlers’ innate talent for messy mayhem. She thought she might be able to do better.

A Stanford University graduate with a major in product design who worked in product development, most recently at CBS Interactive in San Francisco, Boak started her own business in 2012. Her first products, a scuba diving-themed water bottle and rum label, targeted adults. After having two babies, the products in Boak’s life skewed a lot younger and she hatched the plan for a better baby bowl.

She debuted the Nummy Bowl on Amazon this fall, with a suggested retail price of $21.99 (it was available last week for $18.95, one example of how sellers have to experiment as they optimize within the Amazon sales machine). Boak has tested the bowl on her daughters Leah, 11 months, and Stella, 2 and 1/2, everywhere from the home dinner table to State Street’s Fiesta Vallarta restaurant.

“My kids use it for every meal,” she said. “They like it and our friends have liked it.”

Launching the product through Amazon has enabled her to test the waters with a relatively small and direct-to-consumer sales process. She wanted to confirm that consumers love what she’s done before developing the packaging and relationships for a push into major brick-and-mortar retail.

Design for messy eaters

The Nummy Bowl touts two major attributes drawn from Boak’s background in materials and design: a food-grade, recyclable silicone that is better for humans and the environment, and a contoured shape, secured by hidden suction cup, that facilitates frustration-free self-feeding for young children.

The 1.5-inch-high walls on the bowl are low enough for even a little baby to see over in the high chair (it is designed for children 6 months and older), but high enough to keep oatmeal or yogurt in place. Young eaters have to learn to grab and mash food against the edges of a dish to get it into their hands or onto a utensil – but also have to be able to get hands easily in and out of the dish. Boak researched existing products and different alignments before settling on a two-compartment, side-by-side design that keeps the food as close to the eater as possible.

Baby dishes are made from a variety of materials, ranging from plastics to bamboo, and concern about which chemicals transfer to food has heightened consumer attention to these details. Boak independently tested each batch of food-grade silicone used to make the bowls she has already produced, and plans to continue the practice – a detail she touts on the product’s Amazon page.

The Nummy Bowl looks like a geometric pairing of two circles until you pause, squint and see the puppy’s face smiling up at you. The design is subtle, but still aimed at the toddler set.

“I wanted it to look modern for adults because I know that parents are the ones buying it, but I wanted it to be fun for the kids, so it looks like a dog – the eyes and nose and tongue are really simple shapes,” Boak said.

From 3-D model to factory floor

After working with a San Francisco-based designer to develop a complete 3-D model of the bowl, Boak searched for a silicone-producing factory in the U.S. and discovered that none had equipment that could make a product of her bowl’s size and complexity – only Chinese companies had the relevant technology.

“My mind was blown by that,” said Boak, who got recommendations from other kid brands she knew, vetted a half-dozen factories and ultimately found a good fit.

She traveled to China to interview in person when picking a factory for her adult water bottle product – she hasn’t done that yet for the Nummy Bowl, but she said meeting the production-line workers in person and observing their workday gave her a sober insight into the labor behind the finished product.

“I wish that everyone here in the U.S. could go and see them. It’s something we don’t think about on a regular basis. Sitting here in the Bay Area and getting on my computer to email them at night, you don’t make the connection,” Boak said, between the final product and the human work behind the smallest knot, hang tag or painted feature.

As she first planned the bowl Boak liked all of the properties of silicone, which she said is more environmentally friendly than plastic and can go in the microwave and dishwasher.

“There’s no other material that checks all the boxes,” she added. “With plastics, you don’t know what happens when they go through the microwave or the dishwasher, or even when you put hot food on a plastic plate.”

Boak started with materials she knew were safe and recyclable, talked with factory officials about where they sourced their materials and conducted two rounds of testing, some from a prototype batch and some from a production batch. She ran tests for nine different things, from BPA to phthalate and flammability.

“I wanted to make sure that everything was what it said it was,” she said.

Amazon’s algorithms

The Nummy Bowl’s Amazon page has the glossy photos of a product powered by a corporate marketing machine, but if you take a closer look, you’ll spot Stella and Leah – the family shot product photos themselves, they just did it extremely carefully. Boak has been getting a crash course in product ranking on Amazon and how to get your invention in front of consumer eyes. She can log in to the seller site and see how many people visit her page, what they buy and which keywords brought them there. She’s been learning – often with generous input from other product developers – how photos sell a product, and why reviews matter.

“As a buyer, I want something that has a hundred or a thousand reviews,” she said. “I’m really, really trying to get reviews. It’s only been for sale for a few weeks – I think I have 40 (reviews) now. We took good photos and annotated them – you want to make it as simple as possible. I feel like I’m changing things on our page every day, trying to make it better.”

Her daughters aren’t the only key contributors to Boak’s company. Her husband, who also works in design, created a logo and website. And her dad, Los Altos resident Brad Bishop, used his business background to provide marketing.

Boak had already learned about factory selection, logistics and warehousing from her previous products. Moving into the baby field has been exciting, she said, because so much of the product development process includes her family. Being a parent has given her an applied expertise in future enterprises, too.

“I’m already trying to figure out what products would work next. I think potentially a water bottle for kids, since I’ve worked in the stainless-steel area for adults,” she said. “We’ve gone through so many (kid water bottles) that it is just crazy.”

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