Inside Track Q&A: Caroline Barron, Hamilton Bear
‘Working with Arnotts is fantastic . . . It gives me huge credibility that I can be trusted’
Caroline Barron, founder of Hamilton Bear: “There is quite an adventure ahead with the bears and I really want to drive that myself.”
Caroline Barron established Hamilton Bear in 2013 and specialises in handmade “memory” or “keepsake” bears which she designs and manufactures in her studio on Dublin’s Pearse Street from fabric and items of clothing provided by her clients.
Barron has recently also begun making a separate line of specially commissioned bears from Cushendale Irish tweed fabrics which are being sold at Arnotts department store this Christmas.
What sets your business apart from the competition?
There are other brands out there that work from commercial patterns but it was very important for me to develop the patterns myself because I use a wide variety of fabrics that people give me to work with.
A typical bear has a deep pile fabric like fur so it was important for me to develop a style of bear that would still look friendly and warm without the use of fur fabrics. I pride myself on the quality of the bears and their manufacture – no bear goes home without me being 100 per cent satisfied with it.
What was the best piece of business advice you’ve received?
If you don’t know how to do something, surround yourself with people who do. Hiring people to look after your legal affairs or your accountancy is expensive but you need that professional support.
Also, be selective about who you listen to. Everyone has an opinion on how you should run your business and it’s about cherrypicking what you think is relevant or achievable, what you can physically do, what you can afford to do and what you can deliver.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made in business?
I was quite naive at the beginning and didn’t take deposits from people and often waited to be paid by them – not good for cashflow as a start-up. In a small business, you are trying to juggle the running of the business with the production, answering emails, doing social media etc and you will always drop a ball. You can’t afford to bring in the people to do it for you and sometimes you get so bogged down that you can’t see the wood for the trees.
And your major success to date?
Having a store like Arnotts that wants to sell my product and which trusts in my product and believes it is good enough for them to sell is an experience you would bang someone’s door down to get. Associating Hamilton Bear with such an iconic and prestigious brand and being championed by them as a luxury gift item is fabulous and gives me access to budgets and social media that I’d never normally have as a small business.
Who do you most admire in business and why?
Goldsmith Helena Malone is an incredibly innovative designer and is a wonderful support to others in the design and craft industry, especially to newbies. Emma Manley is an exciting designer to watch and I admire that, when many other designers have gone to London, she is choosing to base her business in Ireland.
Based on your experience in the downturn, are the banks in Ireland open for business to SMEs?
I’ve never gone to the bank for finance but have found the AIB Grand Canal Dock to be very supportive.
What one piece of advice would you give the Government to help stimulate the economy?
There’s a lot of documentation that you need a solicitor for and it’s a huge cost as a start-up. If the Design and Crafts Council of Ireland or a similar body could provide assistance with copyright or patent issues, it would be great. Accessing funding can be a full-time job in itself and you never seem to fit into the right criteria. I know there have to be restrictions but there are a lot of boxes to tick and it can be very frustrating.
What’s been the biggest challenge you have had to face?
It’s knowing what to prioritise and how to set aside time to do the finances and the taxes, social media and everything else as well as the design and manufacturing side. It can be a challenge for me not to focus on the design and production side of the business all the time, as it’s a premium product so it has to be perfect.
How do you see the short-term future for your business?
Very exciting. Working with Arnotts is fantastic for Hamilton Bear. It gives me huge credibility that I can be trusted and that Hamilton Bear is not a fly-by-night business. I’ve never done retail before so that’s really exciting. The bears have big ambitions so I hope I can deliver on some of them.
What’s your business worth and would you sell it?
If I think of someone like Jo Malone 30 years ago, pouring candles at her kitchen table, she is what the business became. For me, Hamilton Bear is me and hopefully I will bring it to the point where it is really worth something. There is quite an adventure ahead with the bears and I really want to drive that myself.