Thursday 18 July 2019

Magical idea opens up global success for fairy door firm

Sean Gallagher meets the owners of small and medium-sized businesses and shares the lessons they’ve learnt in building their companies

Niamh Sherwin Barry, Sean Gallagher, and Aoife Lawler. Photo: Douglas O’Connor
Niamh Sherwin Barry, Sean Gallagher, and Aoife Lawler. Photo: Douglas O’Connor
Sean Gallagher

Sean Gallagher

Parents of young children in particular, will be familiar with the Irish Fairy Door Company. Set up in 2013, by two couples - Niamh Sherwin Barry and Oisin Barry and Aoife and Gavin Lawler - the company employs 15 staff and has an annual turnover of more than €3m.

"Perfect for children between three and 11, our fairy doors come complete with all manner of accessories including a magic key in a bottle, stepping stones and the family / fairy lease agreement which includes the rules for looking after your fairies - everything a family needs to help settle your fairy into their new human home," says Niamh.

"Once you register your fairy's name on our website, you and your child will be able to enjoy a magical interactive journey with stories and play ideas delivered on a weekly basis. And one of the fairy's most important jobs is to protect children from bad dreams, something parents find extremely helpful," she adds.

While the whole idea behind the Irish Fairy Door Company is captivating, so too is the story behind how the business got started.

Niamh, who is originally from Clondalkin, has been friends with Aoife and Aoife's husband, Gavin, since they were in primary school together. She had gone on to become a qualified montessori teacher as well as a professional wedding singer. Her husband Oisin, from Oldtown, in North Co Dublin, is a qualified financial adviser and having worked initially for Irish Permanent, had set up his own mortgage and life assurance business in Drogheda.

Theirs had been a typical Celtic Tiger lifestyle until the downturn in the economy when work dried up for Niamh and Oisin was forced to wind down his business.

"Things were so bad at the time that our home was just about to be repossessed," says Niamh. "We were actually on the brink of emigrating with our family because we simply couldn't see a future here."

Aoife has a degree in social care and had worked in mental health services with the HSE for 16 years while Gavin ran his own web design company. They had also felt the effects of the recession and struggling to make ends meet, they too were considering emigrating at the time.

"One day in June 2013, while we were all sitting around our kitchen table chatting about some fairy doors we'd previously bought in New York, the idea for our new business suddenly began to emerge," says Niamh.

"We were discussing how much fun our children were having with their fairies and how much joy it brought us. We began to wonder if there was a way to add further magic beyond simply installing these small wooden doors in a home. What if, somehow, the doors really did give families access to the world of fairies? From there, the idea of making our own range of fairy doors and accessories began to unfold," adds Aoife.

Their combined skills soon came into effect. Niamh and Aoife, who loved to explore imagination in play, got to work on designing the fairy doors and creating the stories behind them while Oisin and Gavin focused their efforts on sales and finance.

"We found a local carpenter who could make the doors while we painted them ourselves. But while we were excited, organised and ready to go, it soon dawned on us that we didn't have the necessary finance to pay for such things as stock or marketing," says Niamh.

At that point, her mother stepped in to offer them a lifeline.

"She had quit smoking a few years earlier and had saved up all the money she would have spent on cigarettes, which amounted to around €9,500 and gave it to us to help get us started. What has happened since then still has our heads spinning," she adds.

To generate sales, they did the usual things startups do. They took a stand at markets such as Marley Park, Dun Laoghaire and the IFSC as well as attending Christmas fairs and GAA events all across the country. Word of their fairy doors spread quickly. Through their website and company Facebook page, they also began to receive orders from all over the world including many retailers who asked if they could stock their products. Exposure on the Late Late Toy Show also helped.

"Being selected as one of the top 10 toys at the New York Toy Fair in 2016 and the follow up coverage we received on CNBC and NBC channels saw our export sales rocket. As did the snapchat message and photograph sent to millions of her followers by Kourtney Kardashian in December of that year, of the fairy door she had given to her son for his birthday," says Aoife.

Today, their products are stocked by a wide range of independent outlets throughout Ireland as well as in Smyths, Art & Hobby, Easons, Dunnes and Arnotts. In the UK, they can be found in Smyths, Toys 'R' Us, Hamleys, Tesco and Argos online with further exports coming from places as diverse as Mexico, Australia, Canada and the US.

"It has been a rollercoaster of a journey for us. In just four years, we have sold more than 500,000 doors in 150 different countries worldwide," says Niamh.

To keep up with growing demand and to meet the exacting product standards of global retailers, the company were forced to move production to China. Since then, they have also added as many as 70 new products and accessories to their range, from fairy clothing and wall art to their most popular worry plaque which helps children give their worries away to the fairies.

But the four new entrepreneurs have had their own share of worries - among them getting access to capital.

"We have ideas coming out of our ears but trying to secure funding to make these happen is and always has been a challenge," says Niamh. "With no resources of our own, we have relied on bank overdrafts and loans as well as support from the South Dublin LEO, Enterprise Ireland and Link to Finance. We also recently took in private investment to help with scaling the business," she adds.

Related: Use our calculator to estimate your small business loan repayments

As they prepare to take part in this year's EY Entrepreneur of The Year awards, Niamh, Oisin, Aoife and Gavin have come a long way. But they are not finished yet. Their plans now include taking their fairy experience into the digital age with virtual reality products as well as an animation and TV series. There is definitely something magical about the Irish Fairy Door Company.

Sunday Indo Business

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