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Jazz Shapers

Shaper: Ian Harkin

Transcript

Elliot Moss
Welcome to the Jazz Shapers podcast from Mishcon de Reya. What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however music has been cut or shortened due to rights issues.

Welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliott Moss. It is where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues. My guest today is Ian Harkin. He is the Co-founder and CEO of Lottie Dolls, a diverse range of dolls designed to look like kids rather than adults. Ian was working as an accountant before following in his toy shop owning grandmother’s footsteps. He Co-founded what was then called Arklu, his business name, in 2010 and the company’s first dolls were inspired by Kate Middleton and Prince William, all a huge success. Lottie Dolls has emerged from there. They saw there was a niche for a more wholesome alternative to the dolls that were currently on the market. Retailers told Ian that Lottie would never work because dolls need to be pink and glittery to sell. ‘We completely ignored their advice’ he said and Lottie Dolls was launched in 2012 challenging the toy industry in body image, gender stereotypes, diversity and ability and ethnicity. Lottie has been promoting STEM subjects that’s Size, Technology, Engineering and Mass just in case you didn’t know, in particular to girls who are under-represented in the STEM fields and a partnership with the European Space Agency no less saw the company send their stargazer doll to the international space station alongside astronaut Tim Peake. We will be talking to Ian in a few minutes about the inspiration for his dolls, plans for a Lottie animated cartoon and Lottie’s motto – be bold, be brave, be you – it’s a great motto for a Saturday morning. We have also got brilliant music from, amongst others, David Sanborn, Bill Withers and Jimmy Smith. That’s today’s Jazz Shapers ladies and gentlemen and here is Horace Silver and Senor Blues.

That was Horace Silver with Senor Blues. I am talking to Ian Harkin, he is the Founder of Lottie Dolls, Co-founder actually, back in 2012 you are hearing and I have to say straight away before I even say hello, I wish my daughter was here with you. She will be listening and she will be going ‘Daddy I want to meet the man behind Lottie Dolls’, she and probably millions of other small children. Lovely to meet you.

Ian Harkin
Thank you very much yeah. I should be thanking your daughter because I believe she is the one that prompted me to be invited on.

Elliot Moss
This is completely true and I am sitting in front of two beautiful dolls, Robot Girl and Pandora’s Box, that you have brought in but yes Iris, aged 6, has been a fan for many years. What makes kids love these?

Ian Harkin
They’re relatable I guess. One of the things that we did whenever we started looking at the doll category was you know the doll, fashion dolls, have been on the market for about 70 years and then they first came out the average age of the user was actually 12 years of age and a 12 year old aspires to be an adult where as the average age now is actually 6 and a 6 year old aspires to be a 9 year old. So one of the first moves that we made was that we sculpted Lottie on the average proportions of a 9 year old child. We spent 18 months researching it in total and we looked at how kids were missing out on their childhood and growing up too soon and all of the content that they were consuming, whether it was from music videos or clothing or magazines. It was all you know overly sexualised and it was you know kids were just missing out on their childhood; they were trying to be adults too soon and that single move that we made on basing our character on a 9 year old child and focussing on childhood was probably you know almost accidental in a way but it was able to address all of those issues that we discovered in our research.

Elliot Moss
And your own background, you are an accountant, you are a numbers guy originally…

Ian Harkin
Yeah, yeah.

Elliot Moss
…but you don’t look much like one, not that an accountant looks a certain way I have plenty of friends who are accountants so they are now saying ‘well that’s very nice, you’ve just offended me’. But you… that business background from your perspective must be critical every day that you are running this business. How many people now work in the business?

Ian Harkin
Yeah well we can have up to 20 people at any point in time. My background yeah is in finance. I think when I was in school my favourite subjects were more on the creative side and art and in sports but it took, you know I suppose I realised that it would be difficult to get a career in those options so I decided to focus on finance and I was actually travelling in Australia – I took a year out – and when I was there I met a guy from London who was a product designer and when I originally came back to London he contacted me and I was helping him with his business that he had set up which was a product design business and he came up with a couple of concepts for a novelty gift business so I helped him do business plans and we did some fundraising and the investors when we presented it to them they asked if I would give up my day job in finance and join him in business. So we started up a novelty gift business here in the UK in London and we grew that over about 5 years and I then had a bit of a personal tragedy. I had been engaged to a girl here in London and she sadly passed away from cancer so I sold up my shares in that business and I started again fresh. A friend of mine, Lucy, who was living here in London and still is living here in London, she had been working with doing search engine optimisation and she had been doing a couple of different websites with Cheryl Cole, and I had approached her about doing potentially a doll with Cheryl Cole and within a couple of weeks Cheryl unfortunately got dropped by X-Factor in America so that idea went out the window but within a couple of weeks William and Kate got engaged and both of us almost called each other at the same time and said ‘that’s the idea. Lets…’. You know we knew we wanted to do a doll, when knew we also had started researching the doll market at that stage but we needed something to give us that little bit of boost to just get onto the market, get the business started and we decided that we would go first with Kate and William and we launched a Kate doll in Hamleys, not too far from this studio here, the week before the Royal Wedding and over the period of a week we had about 13 TV interviews in Hamleys toy store. That led us to doing a double pack then with Kate and William which we launched about in August of that year, August 2010, and all the while we were doing that we were researching the toy industry and one of the first pieces of research Lucy came across was an article by a lady by the name of Dr Margaret Ashwell. She was head of the British Nutrition Foundation and she had done research, it was a controlled group where certain kids were playing with certain brands of fashion dolls – I’ll not say which ones but – and others were playing with other brands and she discovered that those playing with those fashion dolls were developing body image issues and since then there has been another 3 or 4 pieces of academic research that discovered how certain brands of fashion dolls leave you with body image issues later in life.

Elliot Moss
The bravery behind you setting this thing up and ignoring people saying ‘this ain’t gonna sell’ – where does that come from Ian?

Ian Harkin
I think we got a lot of courage I suppose from the first doll we brought to market, the Kate Middleton doll. When we were doing that we realised you know, we had a couple of really good customers in Hamleys and Harrods. We also sold them in Toys R Us in Times Square and FAO Schwartz and Toys R Us in Australia as well but a large proportion of our sales were also done online and there was a big learning in how that whole thing operates you know, e-Commerce, how to optimise your sales and you know the importance of customer service and everything. You know we learnt an awful lot from that process and we knew that retail is and was at that stage changing rapidly. E-Commerce, you know Amazon was a monster back then and it’s even bigger now and you know if you compare to how much market share Amazon has in America and you compare it to here you know there is still a lot of growth going to happen over the comings years so we knew that yes you know what retailers had to say was important but it didn’t you know the voice that we needed to listen to most was actually what kids were saying to us and yeah.

Elliot Moss
And it strikes me and I am just looking at these two little Lotties and they are very sweet, and obviously I’m quite familiar with Lotties as already mentioned because of Iris, but they are incredibly dinky, they are incredibly accessible in the way that probably the dolls that you know people of my generation grew up with which just they were this glitzy beautiful world, this is a much more down to earth, well this is the world that we inhabit and the world that probably young girls can go ‘I wanna be that, I wanna be an astronaut, I wanna be a scientist’ or whatever else it might be. The product design strikes me as a critical part of this. So part 1 was working out that you could make them like the proportions of a 9 year old child rather than a 12 year old or a 15 year old. Part 2 this, you talk about the voice of the consumer, the voice of children, how do you ensure that the next doll is indeed accessible and something that they are going to go ‘oh yeah I can relate to that’?

Ian Harkin
A lot of the ideas that we do develop into products are coming to us from kids. In our second year I discovered a video on YouTube by a little girl called Allie Webber. At the time she was only 6 years of age and she made this robot out of cardboard boxes and her mum videoed her and she entered it into a local maker fair in America and Allie ended up winning first place and the enthusiasm that she had in her video I just knew there was something different about Allie and I contacted her mum and we developed this robot girl doll together with her and it comes there is a little accessory pack as well with his little robot. I don’t have it with me today but…

Elliot Moss
That’s very disappointing.

Ian Harkin
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
There is nothing I like more than Lottie and robot alongside so next time we meet you can bring the robot.

Ian Harkin
Yeah. Yeah so Allie 6 years later she won a global inventive challenge. She was a finalist in this 3M Young Scientist of the Year, she is now a presenter on Myth Busters Junior and she is an incredible kid and an incredible ambassador as well for STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths and when that was announced 2 years ago that she was voted 21 of the most influential kids under the age of 21 by Teen Vogue we actually had 3 kids on that list that we have developed dolls with. Taylor Richardson was another one and there is a little girl from Flint in Michigan called Mari Copeny and we have developed a little kid activist doll with Mari.

Elliot Moss
I love it, I love it. Stay with me for much more. We are going to find out just about how this story has developed and the kind of growth as well I want to talk a little bit. Ian Harkin is going to be back with me in a few more minutes but before that some words of advice from our programme partners at Mishcon de Reya for your business.

There are many ways for you to enjoy all our former Jazz Shapers and indeed to hear this programme again. You can ask Alexa to play Jazz Shapers and there you can hear many of the recent programmes or if you pop Jazz Shapers into your preferred Podcast platform – that’s always my favourite thing to say by the way, preferred Podcast platform. Mine is iTunes but I believe that you can get them on Spotify, Deeza and all sorts of other places and right there you can find the full archive. But back to today, I promised you he would be here, he still is, he is right in front of me, it’s Ian Harkin, Co-founder and CEO of Lottie Dolls – they are a diverse range of dolls based on kids as opposed to adults. I am reading that bit but actually I know that they are living and breathing people who sit and live and breathe in my own house and in my in-laws’ house and all sorts of other places wherever my daughter might happen to be. We were talking earlier about the kids having a big voice in this and about them being role models as one sort of activist for the environment or whatever it might be or changes to society generally whether it’s about becoming a scientist and so on. I imagine you will never run out of ideas.

Ian Harkin
No, I suppose there is a lot of things that we want to do as well in the development of the dolls, you know diversity and ethnicity and diversity and ability is a key area that we wanted to look at. A couple of years ago we partnered up with a UK based organisation called Toy Like Me and they made a call out to all of the different toy companies and they were asking for more diversity in the toy products that were on the market. I think we were the first and I think maybe the only at the moment that has answered their call. We developed a doll with a cochlear implant and what we do with our doll is we don’t actually say it on the packaging that this is a doll for people with cochlear implants, it’s a beautiful doll, my other wildlife photographer and after you purchase it you then discover of she’s got something on her ear and what it is and we have got a little leaflet inside where we talk about why it’s there and the importance of kids having a diverse toy box. One of the things that dolls are able to do, probably more so than say cartoons or reading, is that its tactile and it gets kids to actually start conversations about social situations and it normalises certain differences that kids may have which helps them develop empathy later in life. You know there is a lot of division in our society at the moment whether you know it’s because of different ethnicities but also people with different abilities as well they have a lot of challenges and I think if we can build that into the products that we are doing it starts conversations at a very young age and you know design is a big part of how we can solve a lot of these problems.

Elliot Moss
Let me ask you how you find your people because obviously in the beginning it was just you and your Co-founder. The first few people in your team, were they like-minded or have they kind of learned the Lottie way without sounding too strange about it. You know did you find people who went ‘this is actually more than just a doll and toy business’?

Ian Harkin
Yeah when it came to the point where we had to you now move off our kitchen table and into an office we were looking for investment and in a prior business we had investors and it you know a lot of the focus had to be on immediate returns and you know building a brand took time and we needed to find a solution that afforded us that and I suppose at the time the only option that we really had was that I sold my home here in London and I had been living here for 15 years at that stage, and I moved back to the north west of Ireland. For me that felt good because we had been through a recession in Ireland, we were you know it was hit very, very hard in comparison to say London and that whole North West of Ireland had the highest unemployment rate in the whole of the two Isles and being able to start jobs in a remote location for me was hugely rewarding but finding people was not really a challenge. We have all the skills there…

Elliot Moss
I was going to say Donegal which is where it is, is a place which is known for doll making as well.

Ian Harkin
It is yeah.

Elliot Moss
So there is some expertise there but just very briefly before we go back to some more music, is there a type of person that you look for?

Ian Harkin
Yes there is, yes.

Elliot Moss
And what is that? In terms of the values if there were 2 or 3 values what would they be?

Ian Harkin
Well we work with, its compassion really. You get a lot of it from the conversations you have, it’s not really all about CVs, its more about how socially aware they are, if they are a parent yes its very good but they don’t necessarily need to be. It’s just the understanding and seeing – when you are interviewing them you see how much passion they have for the brand, the research they have done. A lot of people come to us rather than us having to look for them so it’s good that way yeah.

Elliot Moss
You’ve got the job. Well done. Stay with me for more with Ian Harkin, my Business Shaper, Co-founder of Lottie Dolls. Time for some music right now, its Bill Withers and Ain’t No Sunshine.

That was the brilliant Bill Withers and the very famous Ain’t No Sunshine. I am with Ian Harkin and we are talking about the famous Lottie Doll. There are many Lottie Dolls around the world and in fact it’s an international business. You know the million that you have sold so far have not just been in these fair places here but we are talking about as far as where? I mean obviously America.

Ian Harkin
Yeah, yeah we are selling currently in over 30 countries. The US is our biggest market at the moment followed by the UK. But yeah no, we have been on the market now for 7 years and each year we are adding in new countries and expanding the distribution base so.

Elliot Moss
And how do you in your own way manage this business because it’s obviously, I think I read a quote somewhere about you being able to double your turnover from almost one year to another. This is exponential growth and it’s fabulous because we are in hard times whichever category you are in it you know getting another percent or 2 is tricky and even then you are only keeping up with inflation. You are really bucking the trend. There aren’t many players in this market. How does Ian ensure that Ian leads this group of people and this business properly?

Ian Harkin
Yeah one of the things about our category is that it’s extremely competitive. You have 4 or 5 major US manufacturers that dominate this category and I read a statistic somewhere that said 95% of entrants into our market fail within 2 years. So what we do is we don’t really try to compete. We build it slowly, you know we just, we steer our own ship and we believe in the values of what we have built in our brand and you know we have a couple of different angles to our business. We sell direct to consumers and we sell on the Amazon platform and then we are in around 3,000 stores around the world. We have a huge amount of loyalty from independent retailers and we look after them and they look after us. We also in some markets we are selling into some of the larger store retailers but… yeah.

Elliot Moss
Bit it strikes me about you personally because you are talking about the business there but you are sitting behind it and you mention a very hard terrible period in your life when you said you know you know there is a sense when you start to know who you can trust family-wise and friend-wise. It strikes me that you would want those people who are on that journey with you to be… to have the faith and that you would engender belief and if so, if that is true and I am sure it is true how do you personally do that?

Ian Harkin
We empower people a lot. We have key members of staff so we have our creative director, our head of e-commerce and finance and my wife is also in the business.

Elliot Moss
And what does she do, your wife, in the business.

Ian Harkin
Yes she looks after all of the production and the logistics so my wife is originally from Colombia, she spent half of her life then in Mexico where she was working in the car industry as well so importing is a big part of her experience to date as well.

Elliot Moss
Any you’re mummy and daddy to 2 children.

Ian Harkin
Yeah yeah exactly. Yeah 2 young kids.

Elliot Moss
How do you cope with that I mean is your wife still working, or is she taking a short break.

Ian Harkin
My wife works incredibly hard. I don’t know how she does it man but she still works and she is working from home at the moment.

Elliot Moss
This is full perspective by the way. Your child, your new one is 3 months old.

Ian Harkin
He is 3 months old yes.

Elliot Moss
So that’s, I mean that’s ridiculous; give her a break.

Ian Harkin
I know, I don’t know how she does it. Yeah she is amazing, yeah.

Elliot Moss
Well it shows just how much dedication there is in his family to this business. Stay with me for our final chat with Ian Harkin. He is the Co-Founder of Lottie Dolls plus we will be playing a track from – I always say this – one of my favourites he really is, it’s Mr Jimmy Smith. That’s all coming up in just a moment, don’t go anywhere.

That was Jimmy Smith. I promised he would come and he did and that was On The Sunny Side of The Street. We’ve got a few more minutes here with my Business Shaper here on Jazz Shapers, it’s Ian Harkin, Co-founder and CEO at Lottie Dolls and we have been talking about all sorts of things. To me the ethos in the business is around empowerment, you have got an incredibly hard working team and your wife included in that. As you look forward it strikes me that the money, and I am sure now you are turning over a really significant sum, you don’t have to tell me what it is but it feels like it’s a lot more than it was a year ago and so on, margin wise it’s probably healthy too. Beyond the money, what else is going to make you excited? What does continually fascinate you and make you really focus on what you think is important for this business?

Ian Harkin
In terms of growth it is sort of building out the content side of it. A few years ago we did a publishing agreement with Penguin, which has another year or so to run on that, and we have been working on an animation series with a studio from Northern Ireland called Dog Ears – they are one of the animation studios behind Puffin Rock – and we are currently pitching that out to major studios at the moment. So the content side of it is very important to us. In terms of you know the product itself and how we get it further out onto the market, one of the challenges for I suppose every consumer product industry at the moment is about sustainability so we are currently looking at how we can improve our packaging. I mean our packaging at the moment is you know it’s, it’s got a minimal amount of plastic in it. We intentionally made the product smaller as well because we wanted to have a smaller footprint but there is more we can do and the likes of Greta Thunberg, there from Sweden who is the environmental campaigner and she is about 11 years of age in it so you know it makes you look again about you know what kids want and kids it is the future, it’s their future, so we need to, well we have been standing back again and looking at how we can improve our packaging and you know how that plays out as well you know from the manufacturing perspective. We want kids to create almost their own world, we don’t want to be building big large plastic doll houses, we want kids to create their own. You know we will focus on the dolls and the clothing and the play patterns but when the kids start using their imaginations that’s what really excites us. We had a competition a couple of years ago where we asked kids to develop their own den and some of the ideas that we got, you know they had little slides, they had zip wires and we actually made one of them for the winner but yeah when you get kids’ creativity going that really excites me and you see a lot of craft, you see people making their own outfits. Again you know we want to encourage that rather than you know as a business you might kind of go well actually that’s taking away from our product sales but no that actually excites me, I like seeing kids being creative with our product.

Elliot Moss
And the customer service thing just to note again, we are talking here today because (a) my daughter Iris demanded it, not in that way but in a nice way and (b) my wife happened to ring up your customer service line and say ‘unfortunately my daughter has lost some small bits of clothing, I wonder if you could help identify where we might be able to buy them’; we were sent all of them for nothing. They said ‘No, no of course and in fact here is some other stuff as well’. Ensuring that you maintain that as you get bigger that would make you stand out. How do you do that because that is super uber generous and relaxed about the fact that you can do that sort of thing?

Ian Harkin
Yeah we actually, we purchased a bit of software a couple of years ago via a Dublin based company called ExcelCo and in terms of that customer management the tool is phenomenal but we want to over deliver. My family background is in the hotel industry and I guess from a very young age I have been working with customers and you can see, you know if you over deliver those people become loyal customers, they talk about your brand to other people and it becomes you know, they become advocates of your brand and you know you don’t have to pay for that type of marketing. We have some amazing followers and they you know they bring more customers to us, more than any you know advertising that we can possibly do.

Elliot Moss
So in simple terms it just makes good business sense.

Ian Harkin
Yeah.

Elliot Moss
Keep doing it. It’s been really lovely talking to you. Thank you and good luck with this business which feels more like a sort of a social enterprise as well as a business which is very smart and a really good thing for young girls as they get older. Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Ian Harkin
So there is a song by Nina Simone, I’m Feeling Good, and its written by two writers from London here and it’s a song about emancipation and I suppose from Nina’s background and actually the play that it was written for initially, it was around you know black emancipation and getting rid of those chains but also from a feminist perspective as well. So I can relate that also to kids you know, kids that have been bullying as well and you know if you are able to listen to the lyrics of this song it makes you feel good you know no matter what challenges you have.

Elliot Moss
That was I’m Feeling Good from Nina Simone, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Ian Harkin. He looked for people that were compassionate and socially aware. He talked about not trying to compete. He talked about building his business and his brand slowly and most importantly from a customer service point of view it was all about over delivery. That’s it from me and Jazz Shapers, have a great weekend.

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers. You will find hundreds more guests available for you to listen to in our archive. To find out more, just search Jazz Shapers and iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Ian Harkin is CEO of Lottie Dolls, a collectible diverse range of premium quality small dolls that are designed to look like children rather than adults. The company champions the importance of childhood and the fact that children’s voices should be heard.

Since launching, Lottie dolls has challenged the toy industry with regards to body image, gender stereotypes, diversity in ability and ethnicity. Lottie has particularly been promoting STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) to girls who are underrepresented in the STEM fields. A partnership with the European Space Agency saw the company send their Stargazer Doll to the International Space Station for 264 days alongside British astronaut Tim Peake. Winning 35 international toy awards to date, the dolls are on sale in over 30 countries worldwide.

Interview highlights

We looked at how children were missing out on their childhood and growing up too soon.

Academic research has discovered that certain brands of fashion dolls leave you with body image issues later in life.

We got a lot of courage from the first doll we brought to market, which was the Kate Middleton doll. 

A lot of the ideas that we use to develop into products are coming from children.

We wanted to target diversity and ethnicity as key areas of development for the dolls.

The dolls are tactile, and get kids to actually start conversations about social situations.

We empower people.

We want children to create their own world.

We don’t want to be building big large plastic doll houses, we want children to create their own.

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