When Jakki Liberman was pregnant with her third child, she had a dilemma. Her daughter, Marlee, had sensitive skin and disposable diapers had just started being manufactured with a “stay-dry” waist shield. The problem was, wherever the stay-dry waist shield touched Marlee’s skin, she broke out in a terrible rash. Jakki’s pediatrician suggested that she switch to cloth diapers. It was 1989, and the only option was to use a diaper service. They provided the diapers, pins and plastic covers. One day, as Jakki was adjusting the diaper inside the plastic cover she thought, “if only they sewed the diaper into the cover,” and the first line of Bumkins Finer Baby Products was born.
She created a diaper/cover-in-one, with a soft, absorbent inner core and a waterproof outer shell, fastened with Velcro instead of large pins. With positive responses from other new moms, she thought that perhaps she was onto something big.
A lot of thought and care went into that first design. For the inside layer, Jakki used flannelette instead of cotton, a soft fabric commonly used in her hometown of Winnipeg, Canada. “When I had a baby, my mom would arrive from Canada with a bolt of flannelette, to cut receiving blankets from,” explains Jakki. Then, for the outer shell, Jakki wanted a waterproof fabric that would hold up after 200 washes, not lose its color and remain soft.
Finding that waterproof fabric proved challenging, and Jakki had to learn a lot about the textile industry. She wanted soft, she wanted durable. Having a background in graphic design, she also wanted a fabric that she could print original designs on, without the colors bleeding or fading. She worked with fabric mills to develop SuperBib, the fabric that Bumkins uses today. It is a woven microfiber polyester with a proprietary waterproof coating on the front and back. Once Jakki had the right fabric she hired a local company to cut and sew, and she set up an office in her home so that she could be there for her children.
She was getting the diapers into the market and placing small 1-inch square advertisements in the back of the big parenting magazines at the time. She would receive checks from people and then fulfill the orders. The whole process was extremely labor intensive and she decided to approach the wholesale market. Then someone told her about the “juvenile show,” a trade show for baby and children’s products, in Dallas. Jakki went to Dallas in 1990 and her diapers with their attached covers won Best Product of the Year.
It was at another one of these trade shows where she had an “aha” moment. As she was unpacking her products, she looked around at other vendors and realized that she should make bibs. “All that was available at the time was hard plastic or cotton bibs. We had this soft, waterproof fabric with fun prints and I thought ‘Hmm,’” says Jakki. When she returned from the show, she started producing bibs. They were much easier for her sewers, having fewer steps to assemble than the diaper covers. And they were more mainstream. Not everyone uses cloth diapers, but everyone uses bibs. The bibs proved to be a hit and became the company’s top selling product line. Just this March, Bumkins’ SuperBib won its third Cribsie Award for “Surest Way to Save an Outfit” from users on StrollerTraffic.com and TheBabyGuyGearGuide.com.
As more competition came onto the market, Jakki had to figure out where Bumkins fit in. By now, she was a divorced, single mother with four small children and she needed to get serious about supplementing her income and selling her products.
She was hired by a company to produce lines of bibs with fun sayings on them. She did this for several years, so she could continue to work from home and be with her children. Then WalMart approached the company she was freelancing for and wanted to produce a “knock off” of their bibs. Jakki had to adjust her business to keep up with the new demands of WalMart and learn how to work with big retailers and import products.
Then in 1998, Jakki struck up a conversation with the person sitting next to her on a plane. This gentleman was in the hi-tech industry and gave Jakki the idea to take her design and consulting background, and her design team from Bumkins, and do freelance marketing and design work for the hi-tech world. She managed this new enterprise in addition to Bumkins. She had lots of clients, was working on challenging projects including the Y2K situation and was traveling around the world. There was one problem, she had no life.
She was lamenting to her father one day about her situation; that she had started Bumkins in the first place so that she could be home with her kids, now she was running two companies non-stop. He listened, then gave her some sage advice, “Focus on the business that will still make money when you are not working,” he told her “and, what business can you sell at the end?” That is when she decided the priority was to slow down and shift her focus entirely back to Bumkins.
So she, and her design team, turned their creativity back to where they had begun, and what they knew best: Creating unique patterns (there are 56 to date) on their own distinctive fabric and providing quality, eco-friendly products, working with the retailers that they had been developing relationships with for decades.
Then in 2005, things changed yet again. One day Jakki was told that Dr. Seuss was on the phone. Her first thought was, “Why is the orthodontist from Scottsdale calling me? Since when do orthodontists make sales calls?” it turns out it wasn’t the orthodontist, but the other Dr. Seuss. Someone had tried, and really liked, Bumkins products and wanted to know if Jakki would like to license with them to produce products featuring Dr. Seuss characters.
Once Jakki entered the world of licensing, there was no holding back. They produced products featuring the recognizable characters from the pages of Dr. Seuss on everything from bibs to T-shirts. After getting her feet wet in the world of licensed products, Jakki knew who she wanted to approach next, but her timing needed to be perfect. Luckily, it was. She approached Disney at a time when they were looking into re-branding their Disney Baby line, so Bumkins was able to co-brand with them, capturing new fans of the Magic Kingdom from birth.
The next licensing agreement came from DC Comics. Jakki was amazed that the items featuring Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman became some of the most popular. New parents can have these superhero prints along with Dr. Seuss, Minnie and Mickey on coordinated diapers, bibs, snack bags, wet/dry bags, placemats, plates and bowls.
“Batman is really its own thing,” says Jakki incredulously. Bumkins makes a silicone teether shaped like the batman logo that they cannot keep on the shelves. It was one of several Bumkins teethers to receive Cribsie awards as Academy Stars in the New Arrivals 2015 product category, scoring high marks for innovation, style/design, marketability and utility.
In 2010, Jakki opened Zoolikins in downtown Scottsdale. Zoolikins is a retail store that sells “40% of our own product, and the rest being complementary products,” Jakki explains. She needed someone to run the store because she was too busy in the day-to-day dealings of Bumkins. She decided to reach out to her sister, Shira, who had made aliyah years earlier. With all of her children having left Israel, Shira was ready for a change. Jakki proposed that she come back to the Valley and manage Zoolikins.
Shira helps soon-to-be-parents select items before the baby’s arrival and many return for cloth diapering classes and to learn the latest in baby-wearing techniques. Zoolikins is one of the few places that carries a variety of baby-wearing wraps and carriers, and gives instruction on how to use them correctly. Shira is also known to give tips on the best way to fold a cloth diaper for maximum absorption. “We help them get prepped for baby care,” Jakki explains. It’s also a place where new parents can find support. Zoolikins provides a community, because “people are not raising their kids where they grew up.”
Having family lend a helping hand is the theme around Bumkins. “My parents were amazingly helpful, since I was raising my four kids alone.” Jakki explains. “My mom was brave enough to handle my kids during the summer, which included a Jewish sleepover camp outside of Winnipeg, Camp B’nai Brith. My kids learned canoeing and camping, and all the Jewish prayers and traditions, back in the ‘old Country’ – for us, in Canada.”
Jakki’s children are also involved in the business. From fulfilling orders to traveling to Europe to work trade shows, they have been there. Currently three of them work with her: Adam, 30, is the warehouse manager; Marlee, 29, assists with tradeshows, marketing and video shoots (and she’s a nurse); and Chloe, 25, handles the e-commerce and logistics. Ali, 27, doesn’t work in the company, but recently graduated with a degree in sustainability and global studies.
In addition to the retail location in Scottsdale, they recently opened a Zoolikins store adjacent to the Bumkins warehouse in Phoenix. Add that to the 500 active retailers and 200 internet retailers that carry their products, not to mention the 12 trade shows a year they attend worldwide, and you have a very busy, booming, baby business.
But the heart of Bumkins is still Jakki. The same woman who started the business trying to make things easier for moms. She is still doing that. Fulfilling not only a physical need with the products, but an emotional one for new mommies who are far away from their own moms and have found support within the Bumkins community.