Monday 21 August 2017

From finance to children's fashion: the daydream that became a reality

Maria Ryan worked in finance for a decade before starting her unique, Irish made children's clothing company

Maria Ryan founder of Lollipops & Daydreams children’s clothing label. Picture: Mark Condren
Maria Ryan founder of Lollipops & Daydreams children’s clothing label. Picture: Mark Condren
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

In 2012, Maria Ryan had just made a big change in her life. A decade after 'falling into' a career in finance, she and her husband moved back to his home place of Tullow in Co Carlow.

"My husband is a chef and he works really long hours, so we said that we'd move to the countryside and 'live the good life' when my daughter was born," Maria laughs. "Lollipops & Daydreams started with me making things for the children's bedrooms; people would see these and comment on them, so from there I set up an Etsy shop online."

Through Etsy, a global online marketplace which features hundreds of thousands of creative entrepreneurs, Maria soon discovered a strong demand for her products.

"It has been a very organic thing, I didn't set out with a business plan at the start of all of this," Maria explains. "I always did creative things, but I never realised I could make a living at it, so that's why I ended up in finance after college. I had done history and sociology in college and then it was 'get a job time' and I had always loved maths, so I fell into finance."

"Once I began to focus on my more creative side, I was like my own apprentice for the first couple of years, I was learning all of the time," Maria says.

"I was focusing on the craft at first and at a certain point it turned into a business then as well, but Etsy is a hard market too."

Eventually, Maria sought advice from the Local Enterprise Board in order to bring her business to the next level.

"Early on I didn't over think it, but later people started telling me about the Local Enterprise Board and I went into them and got advice," Maria says. "At that start they basically said 'you don't really have a business,' and that was a good kick for me because I had to really think about it all and where I wanted to go with it," Maria laughs.

The vital lesson that Maria took from this experience was that she had been drastically undervaluing her time, effort, expertise and products. "I realised that it doesn't make sense to sell something for €5 if the fabric is costing you €4; that isn't a business," Maria says. "So I did a bookkeeping course with the Local Enterprise Board and then a 'start your own business course' and I wrote up a business plan and got a mentor through them as well.

"For the first year, I had just made soft furnishings, cushions and bunting and then in November 2013, I sold my first dress," Maria adds.

Moving into children's clothing was to prove a hugely advantageous move. Over the last three years Lollipops & Daydreams has become synonymous with quirky, whimsical and comfortable children's clothing and social media has played a major role in getting the brand recognition it enjoys.

"I have done a number of fairs and things, but the business has really grown mainly online," Maria says. "Social media has played a huge part in growing the business, especially Facebook. I would say 90pc of my customers now are coming through Facebook or Instagram."

The fact that Lollipops & Daydreams is an Irish brand, which is designed and made in Ireland, has also added to its appeal.

"My clothes are inspired by vintage fabrics and illustrations or stories, and people like that because they want to dress their children like children, not mini adults," Maria explains. "A lot of the collections in many shops are mini-versions of adult clothes, so there is a gap there for children's clothes, which are designed specifically for children and are bright and colourful and fun."

Lollipops & Daydreams is stocked in the George and Milly gift shop in Castledermot, Co Kildare, KID in Dublin's Powerscourt shopping centre and online through Moon & Back Children's Clothing and Maria's own website, www.lollipopsdaydreams.com.

"I am keeping the scale small at the moment because the online customers come first really because they are the ones who have got me to where I am so far," Maria says. "I made a decision at the end of last year that I wouldn't do any fairs this year because I did a lot of them last year and I wanted to give myself a chance this year to focus more on the creative side of things and branch out into the boys clothes and create new collections."

Lollipops & Daydreams now creates clothing for both boys and girls from zero to 10 years.

"I have three children so everything I design is with them in mind," Maria says. "Children's books play a great part in what I do too and I love including that imagination. I love if there is a fabric they can tell a story through, so I have a lot of stuff with unicorns and rainbows on it, for example. I think it is so important that children's clothes are bright, colourful and fun, and that they are something they can enjoy."

Maria has recently employed two seamstresses and hopes to be in a position to take on more staff in the near future.

"I have help now, thank God. I have two ladies now who are helping me and hopefully I can get a few more people in. I have just started wholesaling, so the more I do of that, the more people I can bring on-board," Maria says. "I have been contacted by so many different people, who have previously worked in factories in Ireland and those factories are all closed down, so it would be wonderful to be able to take more people on; there is a huge amount of knowledge and talent there."

"For the first couple of years, I was just ploughing everything I made back into the business. I got a little help from the Enterprise Board at the start with the machine too," Maria adds.

"I am very against 'fast fashion.' It is very important for me to make sure that the clothes keep being made here. I could get some things made abroad cheaper, but I would feel like I was selling my soul in a way. There is this mentality out there sometimes that in order to wholesale, you have to have your mark up at a certain percentage, but it is very hard to do that without having a price that I am unhappy with; I am not selling a dress at €150 because you just cannot do that to people. So I keep my pricing competitive, but it is very difficult to remain competitive with some of the stuff that is made abroad."

Sticking to her principles has, however, earned Maria loyal customer base and this coupled with the fact that Lollipops & Daydreams is an Irish brand, which is made in Ireland, using quality and quirky fabrics has enabled it to stand out from the crowd in the often saturated children's clothing market.

"Often people will buy a skirt from me or a dress and they will see the quality and they'll come back then and buy more," Maria says. "They are not buying a dress that is one of a thousand, they are buying maybe one of 20 and I even do small runs of ten of one dress."

"I want my clothes to last for years," Maria adds. "I know that if you buy a cheap dress somewhere it will go all bally and lose its colour and shape after a couple of washes, whereas the fabrics that I use won't do that and they are very kind to skin. One woman I know calls my clothes the 'hand-me-down clothes' meaning they will still exist in 50 years' time; they are the kind of clothes you can take out of a suitcase and pass on to your grand-kids."

www.lollipopsdaydreams.com

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