Nadim Laperouse, 44, is the founder of London-based toy company WowToys. He studied product design at Chelsea School of Art and worked on Action Man and My Little Pony before striking out on his own in 1997. The company’s products, aimed at pre-school children, are sold in 40 countries worldwide and ten years ago Nadim became the youngest recipient of the MBE for services to industry.
It’s great. At the end of August this year the overall UK toy market was down 14 per cent year on year. We are 44 per cent up so we are completely bucking the trend. We’ve done a lot of research, with the public, with the retailers and our international customers. The reason we’re up is because of right time right place. We’re doing what the public want which is really good product at a fair price.
How did the company start?
Four toys I had designed went to the trade fair in London and got noticed by a whole load of retail multiples. So I was on a boat and had to paddle. Rapidly we were in every multiple and the offering grew to about 14 items in all, which is nothing really. I was in Tesco, Sainsbury, John Lewis, everywhere. And it was a nightmare. It’s one thing being a designer, but then you’ve got to work out everything else — distribution, all the rest of it. I think it was too much too soon, and in the end the toys didn’t sell that well. Because when you work with massive retailers you have to advertise on TV, pay them boatloads of money to be in the catalogues etc. Your product is almost irrelevant in those stores, it’s all about marketing — something I knew nothing about at all.
So how did you learn your business skills?
I didn’t really read books. I took advice where I could get it, and sometimes didn’t believe it. There was Business Link, a government startup agency, advice from other people in the toy industry, sales people and you mix it all together. But after five years it still wasn’t working in the UK. So in the end I thought this can’t go on. During those first few years we were selling well abroad, getting lots of dollars, and then euros, coming in to the company. We weren’t solely reliant on the UK but we were seeing minus figures all the time. So we did research with mothers who had bought Wow and they all really liked it, so we thought it must be something about our packaging or display that wasn’t communicating enough.
We did masses of research. It was heavy work but it was worth it because we have the same packaging that we came up with four-and-a-half years ago. Since then we’ve been in profit and never looked back. We still research all the time. We need to be close to the customers so we don’t become next year’s dinosaur.
The international side of things appears to be very important to you…
I don’t know how UK businesses can survive without a good dose of the internationals! Broadly, 40 per cent of our business is UK and 60 per cent is foreign. If you don’t do the trade fairs you’re not going to get ahead. Other people are cutting their costs but we are spending more than last year. Downturns or recessions are good for getting rid of the weak and making all of us do a bit of soul-searching. They bring the best out of business people in many ways.
Also, there’s nothing like a recession to start a baby boom. There are more babies in Germany on the way and we’ll be well placed to meet that wave. We launched this year in Germany for the first time, with 225 stores and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It will probably grow to around 400 by the end of next year when some of those babies will be a relevant age for our products.
You sell in Iran and Israel, all over the place…
We sell in Lebanon, Israel, Iran, Kazakhstan, the US, Canada, 40 countries. The thing about the recession is there is no less money around than there used to be. In fact, with the printing of money over the last year there’s more money than ever before but it’s just a question of knowing who’s got it, from a business point of view, and how to tap into it. The only way to do that is to actually go to countries, because you’re not going to read it in a book or report. There’s no substitute for actually touring the retailers and understanding what’s going on. Speak to shop managers, take pictures, look at pricing and suddenly you realise, “I think we can do something here”, and connect with that money.
Do you think the economy’s recovering?
About a year ago we had no idea how it would affect the business, and neither did anyone else. For 2010, I think it will be a difficult six months again, but we are in a good place. We are debt free and have bucked the trend. We learned a lot this year about promotion and we are going kicking and screaming into the market in 2010. The rules are be good at what you do, have no fear because you believe in your skill set and don’t fear what you can’t control because it’s pointless. Then you can use the recession as a great catapult to win over the competition because they hold back.
What do you like to spend money on?
I can’t believe the amount I spend on food! But that’s fine. Why scrimp and save if you’re lucky enough not to have to? We’re just kind of normal really. The money gets reinvested in the business, especially at the moment when the interest rate is basically zilch. I’ve got friends who have the flashiest of everything, Ferraris, planes and all that, but it’s never really attracted me. If my mind went into that area I wouldn’t be me any more and I wouldn’t get to do what I love to do which is the joy of building something.
Can you switch off on holiday?
Yes. I don’t have a BlackBerry. I do take a laptop and check emails every other day or so just in case something really bad has happened but also after a week of bliss my mind kicks back in and I start seeing things, making notes, I just can’t help it. But the other thing is that business is not a real legacy, family is. I don’t even think about business at the weekends, I want to play with the kids, read stories, mess about and just stop.
Was it a surprise when you got the MBE?
Complete surprise. When I saw this big thick envelope from Downing Street I thought I was being called in for questioning or something!
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