Meet the Mumpreneurs: Miriam Devitt, Actor and Owner of SuperHands Baby Sign Courses
Miriam Devitt is mum to Robin (6) and an actor and founder and director of SuperHands — baby sign language courses for parents and babies. SuperHands also recently launched the first SuperHands Baby Sign App. She currently lives in Dublin with Robin and their cat and dog.
What is Baby Sign?
Baby sign language is a way to communicate with your baby before they can talk. It's a series of simple gestures and signs that babies can do from six or seven months, to aid them to communicate effectively in the early time before speech. They understand meaning from as early as three or four months and yet they don't have good speech until much later, and that is where the frustration comes in. In that year from 6-18 months, their receptive language is really good but their expressive language isn't there yet and that is where the tantrums, frustration and anxiety for both the parents and the baby occurs. So if you give them the means to communicate through sign language, they feel understood, they feel calmer, it's great for parent-child bond and reducing frustration. Baby sign language was originated by a man called Joseph Garcia who was working as an interpreter in the deaf community in the late 1980s and he noticed that his colleagues and friends who were deaf were communicating earlier and more effectively with their babies than he was with their babies. So he decided to try signing with his own hearing children and was amazed that his 10-month-old son began to sign back. He returned to college to do a PHD on signing with hearing children. So baby sign literally came from his observations of the deaf community.
How do the SuperHands courses work?
Over the first course, we learn about 110 signs through songs and poems, so it's really fun. Some are traditional nursery rhymes and some I wrote myself. We always start slowly, introducing one sign to the baby. After a while, signing will focus the baby's attention. A lot of parents report that if the baby is fussing and they sign milk it calms the baby as they then know that milk is coming. Spoken language alone doesn't have the same impact as speaking and signing. It's a multi-sensory approach to learning that involves multiple parts of the brain – and the parents are learning as much as the babies – it is an auditory, a visual and a kinetic approach.
How did your business evolve?
I had read about baby sign when I was pregnant as you do when you are pregnant and reading everything you can get your hands on, and I saw that it was popular in the States and the UK. I had always had an interest in sign language because I thought it was beautiful and as an actor I have an interest in movement and dance. When I was studying drama in Trinity College, I had always meant to study it but never got round to it. When Robin was born, I started signing with her but there were very few classes around Ireland and certainly not around West Clare where I was based. I was doing American sign language (ASL) online but I really wanted to do Irish sign language (ISL), so I spent two years studying ISL in Ennis Community College.
I was teaching Drama classes in Claire and signing at home with Robin, and I decided to try teaching a class with people I know and see how it evolved from there. So I literally set up a class in the spare room of my house, and that was really popular so I decided to see if I could set up as a business. I've always been self-employed as an actor and a teacher, so it kind of made sense to segue into Superhands!
What was the tipping point?
I was doing classes as far as I could drive from Claire to Limerick. Then I published Ireland's first Dictionary of Baby Sign in 2011, with financial backing, and decided to franchise the classes. I felt there was a gap in the market and that this had the potential to go national. I did a business management course with Claire Enterprise Board that came with a lot of mentoring which was excellent. The main obstacle to expanding Superhands was the lack of awareness of baby sign as it is still so niche here. It's the type of thing that sometimes people have to get it. Ireland is catching up and feedback from parents is so positive, a lot of parents tell me that it is the best baby class they've done – the one they still use a couple of years on.
At the moment, I have six franchisees. Currently, they are all mothers with young babies because it is the type of business that they can work around family – I used to bring Robin to class and business meetings! It's not a prerequisite for buying the franchise but it is attractive for young mothers or fathers who may not want to return to full-time work after their first or even second child. It is usually people who have done a course and found it amazing. They are passionate about signing and want to bring it to the people of Ireland. I am always looking to expand the franchise. I am in constant contact with all of them and they basically run their own business in their territory, and we meet up regularly for training sessions and baby fairs. It's a great way to set up your own business without the risk and capital input you would ordinarily need. All the classes are consistent across the country and are of a very high standard.
What are the benefits of working for yourself?
Making your own hours is a huge advantage and I was able to grow the business gradually as Robin grew. Working for myself suits my personality, I sometimes wish it didn't! Also, it is a personal journey, and I never get tired of seeing that first moment when a baby makes a sign for the first time.
And the drawbacks?
Obviously not having a monthly paycheque is a bit of a drawback! There's a huge responsibility even though the franchisees are essentially self-employed they still need quite a bit of management and hand holding at the beginning which is the way it should be. The nature of the business is that it is a personal journey for our clients and I want it to be very customer oriented. I want people to come away with a really good feeling about what they have gained from doing our classes, from having SuperHands in their life. That is the company ideology to be inclusive and open and warm because I believe that's the environment babies and children thrive in.
How do you balance such a busy schedule running your own company and working as an actress?
The business grew with Robin; I would often study and work after she was in bed. It has worked out well and evolved as she has gradually spent more time at school I am working more and more. Also with the acting, it is always a hard one to explain to people, as an actor you tend to spend more time not acting as you do acting! But acting is my passion so it has worked out well to do the acting alongside the business.
What advice would you give to a wannabe entrepreneur?
Get as much help and advice as you can possibly get your hands on, there is a lot out there in terms of finance and training. Ask for help and delegate. One of the best things I did was hire a really good designer, Eileen Dunne of Darling Design. To me, that meant that I meant business! Investing in good design meant that I was investing in a future. Eileen Dunne became so much more than just the designer she really helped to bring the brand on. Surround yourself with good people and use their skills.
What’s next for you?
We just launched the SuperHands app for iPhone and iPad which Eileen and I co-designed. It introduces the first 60 signs, the hints and tips for signing on the go and learning the alphabet and is an amazing tool for learning baby sign.