Sharon McBean of Nia Ballerina
A desire to create a musical jewelry box which looked like her daughter has led to Sharon McBean selling thousands of Nia Ballerina boxes across the globe in just eight months.
Entrepreneur Sharon McBean came up with the idea of manufacturing and selling musical jewellery boxes after spending months searching for one that looked like her daughter.
The idea started when her daughter began ballet lessons and her mother bought her a musical jewellery box with a white and pink dancing ballerina.
Sharon loved the idea but thought it would’ve been better if the dancer in the jewellery box looked more like her daughter so she set about looking for another one to buy.
After spending weeks flicking through search engine pages and online stores, she finally found one in the US which had a black character but found out that it had been discontinued years before.
This got Sharon thinking and she quickly realised that she couldn’t be the only person having this issue – so she set about creating one herself.
“My daughter who is now six years old just loves ballet,” she told BQ. “From the age of two and three quarters she was asking to go to ballet lessons.
“She used to watch Angelina Ballerina, a white mouse and would copy her ballet moves. I used to dance as a young child but had no passion for ballet so I don’t know where her passion comes from.
“Myself and her father sent her to dance class as soon as she turned three because she just kept asking constantly. It was always my intention to send her dancing but would not have sent her so young but she was obviously ready.
“She danced her first performance when she was three and my mother bought her a musical jewellery box with a white/pink ballerina figurine. I didn’t understand why she hadn’t bought her a music box that looked like her so I decided to purchase one myself... and so the search began.
“I think I searched for about 18 months on and off for a music boxes with black ballerina figurine. I remember seeing one in the USA but it had been discontinued. I even looked to the African continent but again all the music boxes were of white ballerinas.
“I found the whole process very frustrating and kept thinking of making one myself and my partner told me to do so a few times. However, it wasn’t until I was talking to my cousin about work and how I wasn’t feeling fulfilled and told him about the idea of producing a music box.
“We must have talked for hours and he dared me to produce the box but also offered practical support in terms of searching for manufacturers because the main obstacle for me was how to get the box produced, and I knew it was inevitable that I would have to look to China, which just seemed too daunting.
“When I ended the conversation, I decided to produce the music box. It was that conversation, which was the light bulb moment and I purposefully did not speak to my cousin for about three months. I did so much research and was able to find a manufacturer and graphic designer/illustrator to get things in motion. It was at this point I texted my cousin to inform him how much I had done. He was very proud.”
Prior to launching Nia Ballerina, Sharon worked in sales and marketing for 13 years before spending a decade working as a social worker. She admits, she really enjoyed working in social care and thrived under the good work she was doing for people, but she knew it was time for a change when she came up with the idea to start Nia Ballerina.
“I made the decision to leave my social work position in the March prior to launching in August 2016 to take some time out and get the product into production,” she says. “I really wanted to spend more quality time with my daughter and was looking for ways to work more flexible and this was ideal.”
Sharon was lucky that she was able to self-fund the majority of the business costs herself but was also successful in securing a small grant from Virgin Start-Up. Having initially sought the support of the Birmingham and Solihull Growth Hub, they put her in touch with Virgin Start-Up and she was assigned a business mentor who helped her create a business plan and access funding.
“I was fortunate that I was able to self-fund,” she adds, “most people aren’t in that position. I did however seek support from Birmingham and Solihull Growth Hub who referred me to a business mentor, Glen Watts, who explained Virgin Start-Up offered funding, which also comes with 12 months mentoring support.
“Glen provided mentoring and helped me with my business plan. He gave me a lot of confidence about my product and really encouraged me to pursue things as he felt it was a really good idea. I remember the first meeting with him where he was shocked there was no other music box with a black ballerina in the world and kept repeating it.
“With the product in production, we finished the business plan and I received £1,000 from Virgin Start-Up which was only a very small percentage of the actual start-up costs.”
Having had no experience of starting and running a business, launching the company proved a major challenge for Sharon and was a real test of patience. Everything from designing the product through to selling online and marketing the products proved a challenge.
More challenging however, was the task of managing huge demand from the off. You might be thinking ‘it’s a nice problem to have’, but having such high demand from the word go was a huge test of Sharon’s character.
She explains: “Every part of starting the business was a challenge and continues to be a challenge. Nothing has been easy and everything has been a learning curve. The main obstacle to start was finding a manufacturer and illustrator to design the music boxes.
“I had no experience in graphic design or manufacturing so it was a lot of searching on the internet and asking friends. Obviously, I have learnt a lot and looking back would have done things very different but would not have learnt everything that I have learnt.
“The amount of orders received in the first week of launch was nearly the breaking point for me and I remembered thinking what have I done. I was so scared, stressed, close to tears most days looking back not sure how I got through things.
“I had to put products out of stock to catch up with getting orders out, and family and friends were really supported even my daughter was part of the production line. Plus the amount of enquiries that were coming via email and social media was just too much to cope with.
“It got to the point where I was thinking there was no light at the tunnel, then customers started to receive the boxes. I recall one night after midnight seeing a video someone had posted of their little girl opening one of the music boxes (this was the first video posted).
“The girl was so excited and screaming and dancing that the ballerina looked like her. I was just crying and it still brings tears to my eyes now. This was the moment that I knew I could do this and really develop the product and expand things!
“As I said there are still challenges and nothing in this process is easy, everything is hard work, but I just accept that's the way things are and if it was easy everyone would be doing it so no longer feel daunted by anything.”
Sharon started off selling her musical boxes online and was overwhelmed with how they were received. Within a few weeks, she had sold thousands of her musical boxes to customers across the globe and like she says, the feedback was surreal.
At this point, she knew it wasn’t going to be a case of just getting her products shipped into her at home and sending them back out again, she would have to scale up operations to keep up with the demand. This led her to the Department of International trade in the West Midlands.
Sharon says: “After launching and selling my first product overseas, which was on the first day of launch, I contacted DIT advisor Cheryl Boxall. I met Cheryl the year before at an event, and she showed a real interest in my product and told me to contact her once I had sold my first product overseas.
“When I contacted Cheryl, which was in a few weeks of launching I had sold about 1,000 music boxes with the majority being sold to the USA. Cheryl became my adviser and I have received a lot of support from the DIT. I have attended a number of training courses and seminars where there are experts providing free one to one advice.
“I have had one to one meetings with Cheryl and other members of the DIT Team in relation to a range of aspects such as intellectual property, advice on my website, legal advice and they have also provided free PR. I have also been able to build contacts in Asia, USA and Africa to help with my business as well as networking with other UK businesses.”
It has now been eight months since Sharon launched the business, and with 4,000 boxes sold across the globe, Sharon has appointed a company in the US to manage her distribution in North America and is planning for the future.
Not only is she looking to build on the 10 markets she has already penetrated, but she is also looking to increase her product offering, write a series of books, and provide support to local people that are looking to get into business.
She says: “The business has grown so much in such a short space of time. Initially I bought in 2,000 boxes (1,000 of each design, which was the minimum order). I knew I would be able to sell the 2,000 eventually but never thought it would be as quick as it proved. I thought it would take me around two years and thought it would take a few more years for me to expand into international markets.
“We have now sold over 4,000 music boxes to over 10 countries with the biggest market being the USA. I receive orders from the USA every day and now have a fulfilment house there who receive and hold my stock direct from China and ship orders direct to the USA and Canada, both to consumers and independent retailers.
“I have also been able to collaborate with Brown Girls Do Ballet in the USA, and I have been able to meet one of the dancers from Alvin Ailey and also gave him some of the boxes. These are things I never thought I would be doing as both of these companies are just so well known within the ballet/dance world and the top ballerinas in the world know these organisations.”
The reason Sharon received so much exposure for her musical boxes overseas from the off was because of social media. Although she admits she wasn’t too familiar with Facebook and Twitter, especially in terms of using them for business, she was able to attract people from across the globe to buy into the business.
“My friends and family shared some video footage I had done,” she recalls. “When I received the samples, I was so excited so I made a video of the boxes with the ballerina turning to the tune. This was shared on Facebook and following the launch we started receiving hundreds of orders per day.
“I was not experienced with social media and certainly did not understand how vital it was to a business. I think every business needs a social media presence now although businesses will use social media in different ways. For me, I can use social media to raise brand awareness, create interest and obtain sales from social media.
“Without social media, there is no way I would have gained as much exposure to my product both within the UK and international. There are webinars teaching people how to use Facebook more effectively, and Facebook do give businesses the opportunity to speak with one of their experts free of charge who will talk you through how to run paid adverts to make sure you are targeting in the most cost effective way. I have also had to learn how to use Instagram to build my followers, and again you can run sponsored campaigns in Instagram to target audience.”
So, what does the future hold for Nia Balerina after a stellar first eight months? Sharon concludes: “I now have an illustrator who I work with on a regular basis and have just engaged the services of a marketing person and a graphic designer.
“I have also created the Nia Ballerina character, which is being released on the anniversary of Nia Ballerina and a doll and dance bag will be added to the product range for Christmas 2017. I am also working on a series of books which I hope will be released in 2018.
“I am so pleased with myself that I have been able to produce this product for my daughter and am now planning to develop the business further. This business has given me the flexibility to spend quality time with my daughter and I couldn’t be happier with how it has gone!”
Sharon’s top tips for entrepreneurs?