After taking redundancy, dad Derrick Bell just hitched his wagon to a star idea
Between Brexit and cash flow concerns, it's been a bumpy but satisfying, road for Toby Wagons' boss, writes Aine O'Connor
Like many people, Derrick Bell always wanted to work for himself and when he saw the first web-based businesses appear in the early 2000s he saw potential. However at the time setting up and running a website required both knowledge of computer coding and a lot of money. He still did not have a concrete idea of what kind of business he wanted to run, but the idea formed very shortly after he had taken redundancy from software company Sage a few years later.
He was working with his wife Julie in her shop in Blessington, Co Wicklow, and looking after his young son, Conan, when his mother prompted his light-bulb moment. "The grandkids were very small and my mother wanted to bring them on an Easter egg hunt. I thought it would be handy to have a wagon so I looked for one, but nobody in Ireland or the UK was selling them, you'd have to ship one from America." This small, pull-along metal wagon is a mainstay in the US but the concept had not crossed the Atlantic. This was something Derrick planned to remedy.
He designed the wagon he wanted and found a company in China to build a prototype. After a few modifications and CE testing he decided to go ahead and place an order for what he had decided to call Toby Wagons. "All I knew was the prototype I had looked well and I thought it was a goer so I went with it. Part time it took about a year to get all of that done. It was expensive and I was funding it with my redundancy but the biggest thing was that I had to pay in advance for a container-load of wagons."
While the wagons were being built Derrick began to set up the online element of the business. "I went to a basic class in HTML, the rest I taught myself from YouTube. I wasn't technical, I'm not technical but I set up my website and there was a local Polish guy who I paid to do the stuff I couldn't do."
Two hundred Toby Wagons arrived in Dublin Port in early 2012. Derrick set about selling them any way he could think of, mostly through online trading resources like eBay and Done Deal. "I was just pushing them anyway I could see. It was very slow but they were selling so I decided to go hell for leather, I threw in the last of my redundancy and ordered more in preparation for Christmas." Once more he took the DIY approach. "I used to traipse around town and places like Dundrum shopping centre with my son in the wagon so people would see it." He also got a list of journalists and publications from Wikipedia to whom he sent out a press release. It bore fruit in the shape of a phone call from the Ian Dempsey radio show who wanted to feature his product. "I have a container of wagons arriving and I just got national coverage on the radio and I thought this is going to be the best Christmas of all time. An hour after I finished the interview I got an email from the supplier in China saying there was a delay and the shipment wouldn't arrive until January 10."
It was early December 2012, the coverage generated business, but there was no stock. "Those sales would have meant me out of the red and the company on a firm footing. It was heartbreaking at the time. I was almost ready to throw in the towel and a friend of mine said 'Do you know what that is? That's called business'. I realised when you're working for yourself it is never going to be easy but if you can't roll with the punches you may as well give up."
It was a hard but vital lesson - there have been others - and his advice to anyone else in a business with long shipping times is to allow as much time as possible. He also suggests businesses weigh up delivery costs versus amount of product. "I got a half a container first but that was a mistake because strange as it sounds, you pay more to deliver half a container than a full one."
Beginning 2013 with a tough lesson and a lot of stock, Toby Wagons decided to launch in the UK. Another steep learning curve began. Initially he assumed that with a population 20 times the size of Ireland's sales would be 20 times greater. This was not the case.
"They're more considered buyers for a start and the SEO is different. It's much harder to get on the first page of Google. I have to educate the market in a way, people don't necessarily know they're looking for a wagon so if they search for 'toy' I might be on page eight."
With a view to educating his market about the existence of his product, he once again targeted media outlets, gaining traction with parents of children too big for buggies but too young for a day out, owners of pets too elderly to walk, sports clubs for equipment, schools and festival-goers.
"Everything was tipping along and I was starting to make inroads then in early 2014 I got a cease-and-desist letter from a large American wagon company. They said I was infringing on their copyright and was not allowed to call my product a wagon."
He wrote back, "I said a red wagon is as generic as a burger so it's like McDonald's trying to stop anyone using the word 'burger'. I said I have nothing to lose, but I'll fight you for it!" He never heard from them again.
By 2015 the UK market took off and was accounting for 50pc of sales. The biggest obstacle was around shipping, as there was an issue with goods being damaged in transit.
He tried four different companies before settling on one. That sorted, along came Brexit. "Brexit has hit hard. Everybody is talking about it coming down the line, but what they don't realise is it's happening right now. UK buyers have seen their currency devalued by 20pc, that is the equivalent of a recession. My price is fixed so I take a hit of 20pc on profit margin. On top of that sales are down because people aren't spending like they used to, the uncertainty about what is going to happen means less frivolous spending."
What actual Brexit will mean nobody knows so in order to minimise the impact, Toby Wagons has expanded its target market into Germany which, a year in, accounts for some 20pc of sales. The SEO issues are the same as in the UK so Derrick's plan for 2018 is to work on getting his website closer to page one of Google searches. Having sold her own business, his wife Julie has come on board with Toby Wagons. He says "2018 is Germany, Germany, Germany and then the rest of Europe and as far away as Australia because we've been getting enquiries from there". He is not looking to expand his range of products. "What I want to do is have one great product that is sold throughout the world."
So was the dream of working for himself all he had hoped? "I'm not a gambler as such, but as far as this goes I threw all my redundancy at it. I still have headaches with cash flow, it is a battle of nerves this business, but hopefully I'll get to the point where I can relax.
"I do like working for myself but it can be a bit insulated, there's no one to bounce ideas off." He has had mentoring from Wicklow Local Enterprise Office but would like to see a national mentor network.
"Someone I could ask specifically about expanding into Germany, or someone who has taken a business from my level to the next and then I could offer that to someone who is starting out." Among the tips he would pass on is, "don't forget to enjoy the benefits of working for yourself. Because if you don't enjoy it there is no point in doing it."
Sunday Indo Business