CLAIRE Finnan and Jennifer Shaw made TV history in 2009 when they became the first entrepreneurs to secure funding from all five Dragons on RTE's 'Dragons' Den'. Fast-forward five years and the thirtysomethings' Pregnancy and Baby Fair has become a roaring success, allowing them to launch a sister company selling nursery furniture. Claire spoke to Sarah McCabe about their experience.
"When Jen was planning her wedding in 2009 she went to loads of wedding fairs and really sussed out the market. Naturally, once it was over she and her husband started discussing kids, but found it very difficult to find a comprehensive source of information about everything they'd need and, crucially, the cost. She realised there was a gap in the market for a baby fair.
"We have known each other for about six years – we worked together in communications at St Vincent's Hospital – and both have experience in event management. I wanted to start my own business so we decided to do it together.
"We went on 'Dragons' Den' really early, about six weeks after we had registered the company. It was a great decision. We secured €5,000 from each of the Dragons, the first time in the show's history that all of them had committed to a project. But more importantly, it gave us huge publicity. Exhibitions rely heavily on advertising and publicity, so going on the show really helped to drum up interest.
"We bought the Dragons out within six months and they doubled their money. Still, the €25,000 they invested didn't quite cover the cost of running the exhibition – you're talking about €250,000 for each one. We sourced finance from anywhere and everywhere. We got a loan from Bank of Ireland, who were fantastic, and our friends and family helped too. Luckily the first exhibition was very popular so we weren't waiting long for money to start coming in.
"After the first one, in the RDS in Dublin, we decided to branch out. We now have one show a year in Cork too. It's been fantastic. Our first three alone brought in about €1.5m in revenue.
"The exhibitions cover absolutely everything to do with babies, from pregnancy to pre-school. They really are huge, every big nursery retailer is there, and all the major European product suppliers. One of the key attractions is that consumers can get big discounts. Lots of people ignore Christmas and wait for our shows to buy everything they need because they know they'll get 30 or 40pc off. Our exhibitors are also very loyal, we have an 85pc return rate.
"Feedback from retailers and visitors at the fairs inspired us to set up Huggie Bloom, a nursery furniture line we launched last year. It supplies high quality, Irish-made nursery furniture, sold to retailers like Bella Baby and Tony Kealys.
"Looking back, the biggest challenge has been time management. We both worked full-time when we started the business and it was chaotic. But when you are passionate about something, you just make it work."