Picking on the overly tech-reliant parent is a favorite media trope — and has been for a long time. The current incarnation is the overly fussy millennial mom who has custom-color-change bath beads to test the baby’s water — or the urban lumberjack dad with smart-fabric kids’ clothes that allow him to monitor his toddler’s core temperature while they take their daily walk in the park together.
They are usually the setup for a more normally dressed person to inform them that dipping their elbow in the bathtub or dressing their baby in a well-insulated jacket would solve most of their self-inflicted parenting woes.
And while that joke setup can be varying levels of amusing depending on originally it is carried off (and how ridiculous the technological innovation the new parent is using), it tends to obscure a reality. Parenting has always been a technologically enhanced activity — and one always in search of better hardware for the purpose of keeping one’s offspring alive, healthy and well on their way to that dual Nobel Prize in Peace and Medicine.
Direct technological advancements have since faded into the background of normal operating equipment for parents — car seats, baby monitors and disposal diapers, three things that were only for the most dogged early adopters when most baby boomers were children.
And that doesn’t even count all the advances to parenting made by technology not specifically geared to parents — like washing machines, dishwashers, vacuum cleaners and, of course, television.
“Parenting is a hard job,” a 4Moms employee told us in a recent conversation.” And I think the thing we hear most from parents through a lot of feedback channels is that time quickly becomes the most valuable commodity in their lives.”
4Moms can be hard company to pin down because their high-tech baby products are just not an area that really existed until very recently — for a very good reason: The components were just too expensive to include to make them really a value-add for new parents.
“This is the sort of rush to make everything smart you are seeing right now: Let’s embed a sensor in it and make it an electronic. And some of that is novelty as I’m not going to really need a smart toothbrush — I’m never going to log my oral care routine that closely. It’s neat, I guess, but so what.”
4Moms, he noted, certainly wants to build neat stuff — as neat stuff is eye-catching, and part of the excitement of introducing robotics to baby products comes from being able to do things that just haven’t been done before.
Because the reality when 4Moms entered the market in 2006 was that there was a lot of hardware for babies and children, and many were looking at getting “high-tech.”
But 4Moms was looking to go deeper and integrate the types of robotics that had previously been seen “in the types of machines being used to provide health care for patients” into actual innovations that could help parents function better.
The point, according to 4Moms, is for the firm to remain focused on what actual pain points for mom (and dads) are — and find ways to integrate technology that makes sense.
“There is probably no group of people shopping in America right now who are less interested in cool for its own sake than new parents or the parents of a young child. Parents are looking to save time, be safe and spend as much of their day possible with two hands free. If you aren’t giving them that, it really doesn’t matter what the product does because it isn’t meeting those essential needs.”
That focus has translated into 4Moms’ most famous products: the high-tech infant seat programmed to move in a way that mimics a parent’s natural motion, the origami stroller that folds and unfolds, and the bathtub that filters and controls the temperature of an infant’s bath water.
Those products, after years of building a big buzz online, are now available in some very mainstream places, like Target, Bed Bath and Beyond, and Toys“R”Us (as well as on their own site and those of various e-tailers), and they are carried largely by the early word of mouth and consumer demand that put it there, the employee noted. It wasn’t always easy.
“Hardware — real-deal computers controlling machines — can deliver phenomenal benefits to the consumer, and we’ve seen that over the last 10 years over and over. But complex robotic hardware is hard to build and harder to get to market because we’ve learned early on that things often take longer than we liked — or our investors liked.”
And complex robotic hardware isn’t always easy to get right — at least on the first time out — a lesson 4Moms recently learned when it voluntarily pulled some of its new and award-winning self-installing car seats. The car seat was hailed as an important safety innovation since it would do correctly for parents what the National Transportation Safety Board says 75 percent of parents fail to do correctly for themselves: properly install the car seat.
It’s also a big business opportunity for 4Moms to crack the almost-$2-billion-dollar-a-year babysit market. The recall doesn’t affect the entire line, just models made between July 1 and October 31, 2016. Customers who return theirs can get a more recent model.
What’s next for 4Moms remains to be seen. The firm has raised $84 million in funding and is reportedly under some pressure, especially in wake of the recent recall, to start turning a profit.
But for now, the firm remains mostly focused on doing what it has done for the last 10 years — and finding ways to do it better. That is, figuring out how parents can do it faster, smoother and better aided by robots.