Follow your heart, baby carrier inventor urges

WAILUKU – ERGObaby Carrier founder Karin Frost urged people Wednesday to follow their intuition, whether in business or in life.

“I think it’s really important to follow your heart and intuition,” Frost told about three dozen people attending a Maui Economic Development Board “Innovation Series” event at Iao Theater. “A big part of what I learned to do very quickly was make decisions. And the way that I did that was to tune into my intuition. And I believe strongly that each and every one of us has an intuition.”

People need to ask the right questions, and “our inner knowing knows the answer,” she told Grant Chun, A&B Properties vice president and an MEDB board member, who interviewed Frost during the event.

Now a multimillionaire because of her design of the wildly successful baby-carrier product, she said people should understand their own strengths and not lose sight of their goal.

As a new mom in 2001, Frost wasn’t satisfied with the baby-carrying products available. So she went to her sewing machine and designed her own, aiming to create a comfortable carrier that kept child and parent as close as possible while keeping the baby’s weight easily positioned on the hips. In 2010, Compass Diversified Holdings paid $91 million to acquire the Maui resident’s company.

While the creation of the first ERGObaby product came from Frost’s personal need as a mom, it also came with a philosophical underpinning.

While she was pregnant in 2001, Frost read the “Continuum Concept” by Jean Leidloff, a researcher who spent two years studying tribes in the Amazon River basin, particularly how tribal members raised their children. The book emphasized the importance of a parent being in close physical contact with a baby until it could crawl.

Frost said she was inspired by the concept of “attachment parenting.”

Coined by pediatrician William Sears, attachment parenting refers to a child forming a close emotional bond with his or her parents that helps a child form healthy socio-emotional development and well-being.

Frost said her son, Keala, was carried in the ERGObaby carrier until he was 5, and sometimes when he was 6 years old. She described him as being a “great kid,” “calm” and “very bright.”

“Our baby didn’t cry for, I don’t know, the first couple of months,” she said.

Babies are accustomed to a mother’s movement in the womb, she said, and when that movement continues after birth with a caregiver’s carrying, that brings psychological and other benefits to children.

Those include better balance, improved language skills and a happier child, Frost said.

When being carried, movement helps stimulate nerve endings and connections in the brain, she said. When a parent is nearby and acutely aware of a baby’s needs, the child feels secure and doesn’t worry when a parent isn’t nearby.

Close skin-to-skin contact helps develop feelings of caring, compassion and calm, she said.

Frost said she paid close attention to parents who tested product designs, and she used the Internet early on to promote the product. She received unsolicited photos and comments from customers and began putting ERGObaby business cards in carrier pockets to help customers who’d often get asked about where to get the product.

“It went viral,” she said, mostly because of “word of mouth.” Emails from moms have reported that the carrier has saved their jobs and marriages, she said.

Frost’s business success hasn’t been without challenges. Although the ERGObaby carrier is patented and trademarked, those protections haven’t slowed down attempts by competitors to produce “knockoffs” of the product, especially in foreign countries.

The first ERGObaby carrier, called the “Classic,” was produced in China, but a European distributor made a deal with the Chinese factory to make a few minor alterations and start producing another baby carrier with Frost’s basic design. That led to her finding a different manufacturer in China.

Frost graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1984 with a bachelor’s degree in French and Danish. She traveled to France and Germany, and with a plan to design clothes she returned to the University of Minnesota and obtained a master’s degree in design in 1988. She visited Maui and eventually decided to settle here in 1997.

Frost made the first ERGO-baby carrier for herself, allowing her to carry her son while still being able to do housework, nurse, garden and shop. Then, she hand-sewed carriers for friends, and her parents provided $15,000 for the first commercial order of 200 carriers. Sales of those financed another 200, followed by 500 and 700 and went up from there.

With the help of Jeffrey Henderson of Hot Sails Maui, Frost found a manufacturer in China that led to a boom in sales through a network of worldwide distributors. Later, her company started a line of carriers made of organic materials, and Frost found a company with established ties in India to handle production.

In May 2007, Parenting Magazine’s 20th anniversary issue named ERGObaby carrier as one of the top 20 products in the last 20 years. That recognition led to more interest in the product and skyrocketing sales.

Frost said she didn’t set out to make a fortune.

“I’ve always been an entrepreneur,” she said. “My intention was to have a little bit of income and share something I felt strongly about. I had no idea whatsoever that it would turn into what it has. It wasn’t a goal. It wasn’t a business plan.”

Long before she was a mom and head of a multimillion-dollar company, she was watching a starlit night sky in Spreckelsville and wondered what she was meant to do, she recalled.

“I heard a voice in my head,” she said.

It said: “You’re supposed to be working with children.”

Frost said she was perplexed because she had done very little with children. Now, because of her parent-oriented products and extensive testing, she often works with children.

“I have one child but many children,” she said.

* Brian Perry can be reached at bperry@mauinews.com.