The toy industry is generally fairly robust in times of economic downturn, and perhaps for that reason, many of the suppliers within it are longstanding, established firms. The creativity and openness of the industry, however, can also lend itself well to innovative, entrepreneurial, emerging companies.
There are currently many new firms offering toys to the retailers, as can be seen at many trade fairs, particularly in the Greenhouse area at Toy Fair, which allows smaller, younger companies to meet with buyers and build their contacts.
And meeting buyers can be one of the biggest challenges when cracking the market. Terry Howe is the founder of Blackbird Games, a two year-old firm, which offers themed party games. He explains: “One of the main challenges is [obtaining] the names and contact details of retail buyers – they are more secretive than MI5.”
So it seems persistence is necessary for start-ups. David Sinclair came up with the idea for Globee, balls with illustrated 2D maps on them, in 2008. He tells ToyNews: “Our first retail stockist was John Lewis. I literally kept on phoning and phoning and phoning. Eventually the buyer said he would give me 15 minutes on such and such a date. In the end, I was with him for nearly an hour.”
Once contact has been made with a buyer, many new firms come up against the minefield that is buying/selling etiquette, formalities and hidden rules.
Kym Yorke recently launched a knotted, one-metre tall doll called Notalie. She says: “The main challenges have been finance, IP protection and finding a production facility you can trust.”
Clare Reid, who thought up Scoobits scooter accessories three years ago, came up against similar obstacles: “The main challenge is getting to know how purchasing is done, understanding pricing models and timings of orders. I still don’t really understand when products are bought, chosen, published and launched with the bigger players.”
Like in Reid’s case, a large number of start-ups are founded by parents, which can mean a difficult task of striking a work/life balance. Inma Garcia runs Qatch, a travel toy firm. She offers: “The real challenge is juggling work life with being a mother to my children.”
However, this can also be the plus side. Reid enthuses: “The benefits of working in toys is I get to work with my own children. They get involved in designing, reviewing and testing the product. We have a lot of fun coming up with ideas.”
And there are many other benefits. Hajni Hayler, founder of Kiddiebikes, offers: “It’s reassuring to know that the UK toy industry is one of the most resilient, even in difficult times.”
Howe adds: “It’s a great feeling to know that it is still possible to create, design and produce products in the UK. We love the variety and vibrancy of the industry. We also love meeting like minds who feel as we do that social play is important without being too precious about it.”
Now these firms have broken into the industry, a key objective will be to raise their profile. When finances are restricted though, marketing needs to be looked at a little more creatively.
Penny Parry, who runs Peekaboo Pets, supplier of ‘sock dolls’, tells ToyNews: “I was given advice once that if you only have £10 left in your back pocket, you should spend it on marketing and advertising. I use blogs, social media, magazines and newspapers to market my brand. I also try to exhibit at lots of different trade and retail fairs.”
So what would be their top tips?
Garcia’s advice: “Believe in your product and carry out market research to identify a need.”
Yorke offers: “Don’t give up. It is very tough and it takes lots of time to get things going, so my best bit of advice would be to take time to carefully select your team and make sure the supply chain is in place.”
Howe says: “Be realistic about the timescale it will take before you can draw an income from the business. Keep your overheads as low as possible without cutting corners.”
Hayler: “Provide a great service to customers, be persistent and enjoy every small success.”
Sinclair’s words of wisdom: “Keep knocking on the door of retailers to let you show them your products.”
Parry: “You have to believe in what you are selling and understand how children play and how their minds work.” Finally Reid offers: “Talk to lots of people and take their advice.”