Age-appropriate doll that doesn’t wear make-up, high heels or jewellery

Small Business/Inside Track Q&A:Ian Harkin, managing director, Lottie Dolls

Lottie Dolls have struck a chord with parents all over the world because they look and dress like little girls rather aping the curves and fashion tastes of adult women. What is special about your business? Two main things: Lottie is an age-appropriate fashion doll modelled on a real child as opposed to an adult. Lottie doesn't wear make-up, high heels or jewellery.

Secondly, we have successfully tapped in to the skills base of rural Ireland. We're based in Letterkenny, Co Donegal, where we employ eight people and sell to over 30 countries and 4,000 retail stores around the world.

What sets your business apart in your sector? We spent 18 months researching our category, building specific values into our brand before launch. Too many brands try to force kids to grow up too quickly and they miss out on their childhoods. Lottie and our boy doll, Finn, are about retaining childhood. We want to create a set of characters that are representative of our world and good role models but still full of fun and adventure.

What has been your biggest challenge? Getting our first sale and our first piece of press coverage. The big companies speak directly to children through television advertising and affiliated cartoons. We work entirely on social media and word of mouth.


What has been your biggest success? The fact that Lottie has received 26 industry and consumer awards in categories such as innovation, design and play value. We're also delighted to have partnered the European Space Agency to create our Stargazer space-themed doll.

What advice would you give someone starting a business? Never be afraid to ask for help. Learn from other people's mistakes.

Whom do you admire most in business? Anyone who starts from scratch with their own money and a good idea. Specific people I admire are Cathal Gaffney of Brown Bag films and Paul Young of Cartoon Saloon. Both have built international businesses competing with the best the world has to offer in 3D animation. Also the Smyth brothers for what they have achieved in toy retailing and digital media entrepreneur, Dylan Collins, creator of Super Awesome, a child-safe digital marketing platform.

What two things could the Government do to help an SME like yours? Set up funded apprenticeships in skills like design, marketing and social media. Start-ups with limited funds can't afford experienced people nor can you afford to pay a full salary while you're training them. JobBridge has been extremely beneficial. We've employed everyone on a full-time basis following their placement.

One of the most inspiring things that happened here in the last few years is the Web Summit. Something similar focused on bringing animation, gaming, licensing and brand- building together in one place would be hugely beneficial.

In your experience, are the banks lending to SMEs? From a trade perspective such as import loans and invoice discounting, banks are more than willing to provide facilities. As for capital funding a business or acquisition – I'm not even sure they should be. Funding capital should be linked to capital growth and that sort of risk is not what banks should be about, in my opinion.

What's the biggest mistake you've made in business? The jury is still out. We passed on an opportunity to do a huge deal with McDonald's and only time will tell if it was our biggest mistake. We were in New York at a trade fair and were approached by an agent who wanted to introduce one of her clients. The client turned out to be McDonald's.

They were interested in a partnership to put a miniature Lottie toy in happy meals in over 14,000 outlets across America. It was an opportunity to get into almost every home right across the States at no financial cost. However, we felt it didn’t fit with our values and declined the offer within two minutes.

What is the most frustrating part of running a small business? The constant feeling of not committing enough time to all areas. Our business is a bit like spinning plates as we have design, manufacturing (the dolls are made in China), compliance, logistics, sales, marketing, brand building, customer service, PR/social media and finance to juggle.

What's your business worth and would you sell it? Our business is only worth what someone is prepared to pay and to date we haven't been approached. However, we are getting to the size now where those sorts of questions will get asked.

Our market is undergoing enormous change. There is a huge amount of innovation and investment going into to trying to capture the market share that Barbie is rapidly losing.

The market is over $4 billion in size so we see a lot of potential for growth. In addition, we are expanding into publishing with a series of Lottie chapter books launching in spring next year. We are also speaking with licensing partners in apps and animation that will rapidly increase our profile. Would I sell? I think it’s way too early. In conversation with Olive Keogh