Citron: Squeezing Innovation into Kids' Products, One Lunchbox at a Time

Citron: Squeezing Innovation into Kids' Products, One Lunchbox at a Time 

Sara Chemmaa, founder of kid products brand Citron, explains how she turned mommy know-how into a global brand.

Sara Chemmaa, a McKinsey alum and former MBC Group Strategy and Investment Senior Manager, had spent more than ten years building a flourishing corporate career in the GCC when she decided to launch her venture – Citron, a premium brand of lifestyle and kids’ products “Made by Mums, Inspired by Kids.” She explains how she built an international business in record time.

How did you go from investment to kid products?

I was in the corporate world just following my passion for strategy. About seven years ago, I had my first son and he basically gave me a challenge: he didn’t want his food to mix and, for him to eat at the nursery, I had to send many boxes. So, I designed this lunchbox that became super popular quickly because a lot of moms were struggling with the same issue. It started very small as a side fun project out of necessity.

From there, I realised that we had tapped into something very interesting – “Made by mums” was extremely well recognised and seen. What makes us special is that we really look at the end users, kids between six months to eight years old, and we try to solve their problems. We launched officially in 2020 when I left MBC to do this full-time.

How does your whole production chain work today?

We have about 300 SKUs – around 50 products in different colours. The design is done in Dubai. The manufacturing happens in China, where we have a central warehouse. Distributors in 50 countries connect to the Chinese warehouse to see the stocks live and pre-order; they then put us in key retail spaces in countries around the world, from France to Lebanon, Hong Kong, and New Zealand.

We sell online and offline, including in all the major retail stores and on our own platform.

How did your funding journey go?

At the beginning, an angel investor invested in the stock and, for about two years, we were bootstrapping. Once I left MBC, we did one pre-Series A with Arzan Venture Capital. Then, last year, we did a small round just for the new people who wanted to enter. 

Right now, we get facilities from banks, short-term where they pay the factories and we pay them back later, and long-term which we can use to invest in new products, open stores, etc. The first bank to give us financing was the hardest and we just got half a million dirhams, while today, our combined facilities are more than $2 million. Our short-term loans are arriving at maturity, and different banks are already calling us offering to top up. What banks care about the most is how much cash you have in your account every month, and we are cashflow positive. Some were worried seeing our numbers double year on year – they don’t like that because, in their algorithm, if you grow too fast, you collapse too fast. They wanted the five to 10% growth that they assume for a solid business. So there was a learning curve for the banks as well. 

Why did you choose not to continue with equity financing?

We’re not a VC kind of play. We’re not a tech startup and VCs are not interested in e-commerce or products that have inventory. As for the family offices, their expectations of how much they should own from the business, some clauses that they were pushing for were too greedy. 

My VC told me that if we’re able to keep the growth with minimal equity dilution, we’ll end up with a good exit; that’s ideal for everybody.

How did you drive such fast growth in only four years?

Early on, after studying other brands, we realised that going global would help us negotiate better production rates and that the best way to do that at a low cost was to appoint distributors. 

We cherry-pick the distributors that understand the premium segment. The idea is that they need to come on board with a clear vision of how they will build the brand in their market, the type of marketing support they will put in place, and which retailers they will go after. Every year, we renew the contract if the numbers are satisfactory.

What other challenges did you face? 

In the beginning, we had a very small budget and we couldn’t hire the right people. Many things were not done the right way. 

After that, when we decided to expand, going into retail was extremely hard because I don’t come from the industry; I don’t have all the network I have today. It was very hard for retailers to trust our value proposition because we were an unknown, local brand priced higher than international brands. It didn’t match in their mind.

How does being a woman and a mother make a difference in your business? 

I think that, at some point, consumers had enough of being fooled into buying a product because the person who designed it was supposed to understand them, while the truth is that about 80% of products for kids are designed by men who are often single or don’t even have a kid. 

We came with that value proposition that we are moms, we understand the struggle, and we’re designing from that perspective. We started with the lunchbox and then we had the first insulated water bottles and lunchboxes with hot and cold compartments. Every time we brought something new, there was a value added that helped us become popular in the region.

A lot of times, we get feedback that we’re pushing the thinking way too much. And yes, we’re paying attention to the smallest possible design detail that can solve many issues. We genuinely care about not only selling but making a difference in someone’s life.

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