Two years ago, Ballybofey, Co Donegal-born accountant, Ian Harkin, sold his house and gave up the day job in London after spotting an incredible, but very risky, business opportunity.
The opportunity was in one of the world's most competitive businesses -- the doll market. Ian Harkin and his business partner Lucie Follett's, idea was simple; a little girl's doll called Lottie that didn't have a huge bust and freakish anatomical proportions like every other doll. But rather, a charming doll that was more dumpy and childlike.
Fifteen international awards later, and Lottie has featured on a slew of international publications from 'The New York Times' to 'The Huffington Post', and counts JK Rowling among her many celebrity fans. A massive success, Lottie is now poised to storm the world this Christmas and make its creators very prosperous indeed.
Ian Harkin describes Lottie as an antidote to other leading sexualised doll brands: "There is not really a wholesome alternative doll out there in any country. Lottie was purposefully designed under expert guidance to both look and dress as a regular child. It has a childlike body shape, no make-up, jewellery or high-heels. Lottie also has the ability to stand on her own two feet, in both a very literal and metaphorical sense."
Since her launch in August 2012, Lottie dolls have become something of a global phenomenon winning awards in the US, UK and Canada, including three prestigious Oppenheim Portfolio Platinum Awards. Yet amazingly Lottie remains relatively unknown in Ireland: "We have very little presence in Ireland so far. I think Irish media for some reason don't cover you unless you make it somewhere else," Ian says.
"We've sent Lottie into 'The Late Late Toy Show' for the past two years but they have not reviewed her even though we are one of the few Irish toys selling internationally. One of the reasons we have moved the company to Donegal is to create jobs and we are hoping to create ten next year," explains Ian Harkin.
In order to create Lottie the duo did a lot of research with parents, small children and even health experts. They got in touch with Prof David McCarthy, Professor of Nutrition and Health at London Metropolitan University, who gave them the average proportions of a nine-year-old girl. Armed with the knowledge, they went ahead and created a child-like doll.
Co-founder and creative director, Lucie Follett continues the story: "It really has captured the imagination -- especially in America. We are now selling into 14 countries so it has been very exciting. We are also selling in Russia, but not in Smyth's in Dublin. There are 12 dolls in the Lottie range so it is quite diverse, some have red hair, blonde hair, brown hair and they all have different eye colours and skin tones. We are now in the process of creating a boys' doll too."
Two years ago they dipped their toes in the doll market with a souvenir limited edition royal family doll. To their amazement the entire production run of 10,000 units sold out almost overnight and made the news in 352 newspapers and magazines including the 'Wall Street Journal'. Publicity you couldn't buy for love or money!
"In 2011 we created a Kate Middleton doll and brought it to market within four months -- so we learnt an awful lot from that experience," explains Lucie Follett.
However, despite the early success, it was quite another thing for two minnows to try and crack the fiercely competitive global doll market, where new dolls have marketing budgets the size of Hollywood blockbuster movies. A market dominated by billion dollar players such as Mattel -- makers of the Barbie range -- who have 80 per cent of the global doll business.
Yet despite the overwhelming odds, they succeeded, with Letterkenny-based start-up Arklu -- who manufacture Lottie -- now poised for global success: "We got an investment loan from Enterprise Ireland. The doll itself is manufactured in China by an ethically audited factory. That is very important when selling into department stores. We are delighted to base ourselves in Donegal. I have Irish ancestry myself, they used to call me a plastic Paddy," added UK born Lucie Follett.
Lottie retails for €19.99 and stands 19cm high.
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