Thursday 14 December 2017

How fairy magic opened the door to business success

The Irish Fairy Door Company has captured the imagination of children and adults around the globe

Niamh Sherwin-Barry of the Irish Fairy Door company with a range of their products Photo: David Conachy
Niamh Sherwin-Barry of the Irish Fairy Door company with a range of their products Photo: David Conachy
Joanna Kiernan

Joanna Kiernan

Like many genius business ideas, The Irish Fairy Door Company began with a simple conversation between friends. A year before this life-changing conversation, Niamh Sherwin-Barry, a wedding singer and her best friend Aoife Lawler, who worked in Mental Health, found a curio shop in Upstate New York, while visiting Niamh's brother-in-law.

"It was this random store, where you could buy everything from a gun to a loaf of bread, it was just insane," Niamh said.

"It had this wooden section, with lots of carved, handmade stuff and there was a little thing about two inches tall that looked like a door to us, so we bought one each and had this idea to put them in our houses and the fairies would then live behind the door."

"We brought them home and we set them up with our own children, who are of believing age and it became like having an extra member of the family or a pet, the fairy lived with us and myself and Aoife were constantly going back and forth with each other, seeing what each other's fairies were doing and between the two of us we had this story going."

When Niamh and Aoife's husbands - Oisin and Gavin - witnessed one of these conversations in June 2013, they recognised the business potential behind the magic.

"We were sitting around with our husbands when the idea to make it a business came about," Niamh said. "The two boys are entrepreneurs and always have been; my husband Oisin was in finance and Gavin had his own web design company."

This light-bulb moment couldn't have come at a better time, as both couples were struggling as a result of the economic downturn.

"It was smack bang in the middle of the recession and it was a difficult time for a lot of people, but myself and Oisin, we had actually lost everything," Niamh said.

"The house hadn't gone by then, it went the following year, but literally every other thing went as Oisin worked in mortgages and everything had just stopped.

"So we were in dire straits when that conversation happened, we were very much on the verge of emigration and Gavin and Aoife weren't all that much better.

"She still had her job in the HSE and Gavin's design company was ticking over, but there was very little demand. So it wasn't good."

"We were just having fun with the idea at first and it was a really light-hearted thing in a really horrible time, but then we realised that the conversations we had been having about our fairies could be replicated all over the country; the kids loved it and we loved it. So we decided to see what we could do," Niamh added.

The Irish Fairy Door Company launched at the end of August.

"We had absolutely no money to make the product, we didn't have a spare tenner between us," Niamh said. "But my mam had given up smoking about nine years previously and had saved all of the money that she would have spent on cigarettes; it was €8,500 and she gave it to us.

"It was a double whammy for her I think because we were so close to emigrating and she really wanted us to stay, but she also believed in what we were doing and knew that between the four of us we had a great set of skills that we could harness. I was well able to talk, Aoife could write the magical content, Gavin was sales and Oisin was finance; so we had this little ready-made team."

The four began making the fairy doors in their Aoife and Gavin's kitchen.

"At the time Facebook was completely organic, so you would put something out and whoever followed your page got the information they needed and would like and share it," Niamh said.

"So at first all of our friends and family were buying the doors. I remember the very first order that came in from someone none of us knew and then they just kept coming; it was so exciting and a real realisation that this was something that people wanted. From that point, it snowballed quickly, so much so that Facebook actually contacted us to know what we were we doing."

The Irish Fairy Door Company quickly became an online hit, but they also targeted markets across the country in order to reach out and introduce customers to their product in as many face to face scenarios as they could manage.

"We did every market and Christmas market that we could possibly do," Niamh said. "Then Christmas came and went and it was wonderful, but what happened then was everyone went into school in January saying that they had fairies living in their houses and we actually had a bigger January that year than we had between the previous August to December, purely because of the word of mouth."

Statistically every second child in Ireland now has a fairy door in their home and the Irish Fairy Door Company is now competing strongly in the international toy market.

"We have 20 people working for us now and we have now got distributors in Ireland, the UK, the US, Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, the UAE and Canada and we are getting one this year in Israel too, so it has expanded incredibly fast," Niamh said. "It has been a massive challenge. We very quickly realised that if we wanted to sell our doors in other countries, particularly in the north American market we needed to get the doors made elsewhere, as they wouldn't actually accept them from here. They wanted them from their factories in China, port-to-port, which is a very clean business, all to do with fair labour and regulations."

"So that was a big turning point for us," Niamh added. "It was a big decision, but if we wanted to move into the bigger markets it was what we had to do. We made peace with it because we still have our 20 staff here; we just switched from what was the production line into what we would call 'smart labour' with regard to marketing, the magical content side of things and finance.

"We are still creating everything here, OK the doors are not physically being cut in this country, but everything we sell with the door is and will remain."

Over the last year the Irish Fairy Door Company has made a number of strategic appointments.

"We missed the medium-sized company stage, we went straight from a small company to a big company and as wonderful as that is in some ways it is very challenging in others," Niamh said.

"We are in playing with the big boys, so we have brought in a lot of experts now to help us."

Among these key appointments was Gavin Hatch, who came on board as the Irish Fairy Door Company's Commercial Director at the beginning of the year, having previously worked as a senior buyer for both Easons and Heatons.

"Gavin was working for Easons at the time we launched and our doors were being sold there and he was always saying 'where is your other stuff?' He knew that people wanted more," Niamh said.

"Gavin is the real deal. So we have lots of new products now. We have over 30 types of miniatures now, so you can give your fairy nice things like see-saws, hammocks or wishing wells and they are 'pocket money' prices, so it is all under a tenner.

"Our newest product is the Worry Plaque, which you can put your hand onto and think of your worry, then it will go green to show that the fairy has heard your worry and has taken it away.

"We also have fairy teddies because you can't see your fairy or they will lose a tiny bit of their magic, but you can give your fairy friend teddy a hug at night instead and then your fairy will come out and collect your hug and they will give your fairy friend a hug back that you can collect in the morning.

"This is about imagination and magic, things that have fallen by the wayside in the last number of years," Niamh added, "but we are bringing that back."

Sunday Indo Business

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