Sarah Greenwell has been inspired by her children to start two new businesses. Paul Robertson enters her world of pure imagination.
Who would believe the North Pole was actually operated from the centre of Durham? Spend some time with Sarah Greenwell and you will believe anything.
Greenwell is a mum on a mission, inspired to create businesses to delight her own two children, Holly, four, and two-year-old Fin, as well as thousands of other little people. It has proved so successful her other “baby” – a digital marketing communications agency she established 10 years ago – was sold earlier this year so she could put all her efforts into the magical world she has created.
Her company, called Big Little Toys, designs, manufactures, distributes and retails children’s toys, gifts and books. It all began with an Elf for Christmas. “I was sitting at night feeding Fin looking around for something for Holly, who was two at the time – I wanted something cute, loveable and which would appeal to her but I couldn’t find anything,” Greenwell remembers.
“Holly loves anything magical and is great with her imagination. I would write her little notes saying they were coming from fairies. I then came up with the idea of a character for Christmas and realised what started out as something for her could be a product for all children.”
And so the elf was born. Greenwell developed the idea alongside running her agency, Glow Creative, spending every spare minute bringing her creation to life. Elf for Christmas was accompanied by a magical reward kit with certificates, report cards and stickers to encourage good behaviour. Greenwell built a website and e-commerce store, which included an elf name generator so the child could choose what to call him, and launched in time for Christmas 2015.
“I designed the elf and the magical kit, ordering 3,000 units,” she recalls. “When they arrived, the volume was far greater than I imagined. I thought it was enough to last me two Christmases and joked I might end up selling them off at car boot sales.”
She needn’t have worried. In under 10 weeks, the whole lot had been sold. “It was a massive relief and absolute chaos,” she says. “My husband Ian, mam, dad, mother-in-law, everyone was working flat out to fulfill the orders as everything was hand-wrapped.
“I was really surprised that it took off – but the character proved to be loving and endearing. It is all the magical stuff that works, so from a parent’s point of view it is really easy. Once they have bought the kit, they don’t have to put the effort in, they just need to get out the little cards and letters. It engages the whole family.
“We get a lot of feedback from customers about how even the grandparents engage with what the elf’s brought. It is amazing how it works rewarding behaviour and keeps the kids believing in Santa – the magic is alive for that little bit longer.”
Interest from major retailers was swift though Greenwell didn’t have the expertise or resource to go down that route, but a trip to London Toy Fair in January 2016 was to help elf really make its mark. She secured a distributor and further developed the concept, adding a girl elf to the range and wrote a book, “Elf’s First Adventure”. Manufacturing was upped to 30,000 units, securing shelf space at Selfridges, John Lewis, Waterstones, a range of independent toy and gift shops as well continuing to drive sales through the website.
“It just went crazy,” says Greenwell. “Nearly all the units were sold in time for Christmas 2016 – demand was enormous.”
It is all a far cry from the 35 year old’s early career. Having graduated from the University of Central Lancashire, she followed partner – now husband – Ian to Australia after he secured a job with a water company. “I arrived in Sydney without a work permit and did some backpacker jobs, including driving the children’s train in the botanical gardens,” she says. “I then got my first job in marketing with a paper company and was promoted to marketing manager.”
Family circumstances meant a return to Durham in 2007 and Greenwell had gained enough confidence at 25 to start her first business. Glow Creative effectively acted as a marketing department for those small and medium-sized businesses that didn’t have one. The first client was the company she worked for in Australia and it took off from there.
“When I had the children, running the business became more challenging, especially as the elf idea took off,” she says. “I felt I couldn’t run both while doing justice to either the business or being a mum. It was a difficult decision – I loved Glow Creative as it was very much my baby – but I decided to focus full time on the toy sector.”
She has been able to create new accessories for the elf in the run up to this Christmas. There is now a personalised book featuring the child’s name on the front cover, with personal details threaded through the “Christmas Muddle” story. There are advent letters, a little matchbox with 24 letters in, opened in numerical order telling the story of what is happening on that day in the North Pole throughout December. There is a sticker set plus a magical elf door to install in the house – which lights up and is how the elf gets to the North Pole.
But an elf is not just for Christmas. We are chatting at Newcastle’s Crowne Plaza hotel during the school summer holidays and it just so happens the elves are spending a fortnight in the hotel, pictured on Facebook enjoying a sleep, dinner and even the jacuzzi.
“My kids love the elves and the stories,” says Greenwell. “It is amazing when Holly picks my book up even in the middle of summer. For me it is about making it a tradition with longevity. There is plenty of competition in the marketplace but we have a strong brand that can be handed down through generations and evolve.”
Plans are afoot to launch a non-seasonal character in the first half of next year, promoting the same values of kindness, sharing and good behaviour, such is the demand for the concept. “On Christmas Eve, the elves go back to the North Pole and the children were getting really upset about that,” Greenwell explains. “I am always being asked what the elves are up to. Parents bring them back for birthdays and special occasions. We think the new character will give them another option to keep the elves for the magic of Christmas and give the business stronger all-year round turnover.”
Sales for 2017 are expected to increase significantly with work going on at trade fairs, through the website and agents for the elves to travel to Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. Future targets include Europe – translating the books to suit the audiences – the United Arab Emirates and the United States. Licensing the character could see it move to a whole new level.
“I really love it and can’t believe this is what I do,” she says. “All the feedback has been brilliant and when I hear the effect the elves have on some children I am often in tears.”
Managing the rapid rate of growth is a challenge. Greenwell has thus far taken part in every step of the process to ensure quality and customer service. Having worked with the manufacturer in China for two years and her distributor for one, she is ready to pass on some of the responsibility.
“I am looking to outsource fulfillment as it is a massive drain on time – up to now it has been done on the kitchen table,” she says. “We work around the kids being in bed at night packing the boxes, labelling them and posting to the customer.
“I wanted to physically see each product before it was dispatched to the customer. Last year they were all fine so now I can let that go.
“There is lots of time-consuming work in content and social media – so I draw in help from freelancers. I have accepted, rather than trying to do everything myself, I need specialists to make sure we are the best we can be across the world.”
One thing Greenwell hasn’t made her mind up on is creating an app. “I am not sure how I feel about that,” she explains. “Of course, kids love their iPad and phones but the elf is a screen-free activity and engages the whole family. I am not sure I want to encourage the brand to move away from that.”
The elf and its values are also increasingly used in schools and nurseries throughout the country. Again, the business has reacted to demand by creating worksheets and resources for the classroom.
Greenwell’s passion and energy is infectious, as is her humility. She credits the support of her sales engineer husband Ian, all her family and friends for getting Big Little Toys to where it is today and her old boss in Australia for helping her make the most of her creative talents.
“My former boss held my job open when I had to return to the UK but said if I was staying back home he encouraged me to run my own agency, which I did,” she says. “I am very grateful for his advice and we have remained close friends.
“I have met a lot of entrepreneurs and see people who can do it. A lot of people said when I bought the 3,000 elves that I was crazy and brave but I didn’t feel brave, I just felt I could do it.
“Getting outside your comfort zone is the only way you can move forward – if I had kept Glow Creative, the elves wouldn’t be in international markets. I was constantly told the toy industry is tough, and shelf space is harder than ever to get but because I haven’t experienced anything else I don’t have anything to compare it with.
“I am always saying to Holly if there is only one thing in life to remember it is to be kind – that’s the most important. ‘If you’re kind to others they’ll be kind to you’ is the motto of the books. It is simple – it is not about preaching to be good it is more about traditional values – it is light-hearted so parents can dip into it as much as they want.”
On top of everything else Greenwell is designing a children’s craft activity that is almost ready to go to market, helping a friend develop a new board game and setting up a consultancy to work exclusively in the toy and gift sector. I can’t help feeling I have just met Mrs Claus and that the North Pole is actually in Durham where we all should live happily ever after.