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Featured Business: Thinking Toys
Name: Áine Conacur, owner of Thinking Toys
Industry: Special needs. Supplier of toys and equipment for children with special needs.
As work-life balance goes, Áine and Michael Conacur, the owners of Thinking Toys, have it all worked out.
Working and living in Killaloe, Co Clare, they get to spend time together and are there when their children Ailis and Oisín come home from school.
This idyllic setting came about when the couple moved home from London to be closer to family, after their daughter Ailis was born with special needs.
It was when Ailis was nine years old, and Oisín had started school, that Áine decided to research the gap in the market for accessible and affordable toys that could help children with special needs.
While raising her daughter, former process engineer Áine became aware that there were many products that could potentially help her daughter. Unfortunately these were generally only available in the States.
Thinking Toys was established and it wasn’t long before Áine was joined by husband Michael, an accountant, five years ago.
Together they have brought the company to a stage where they have made thousands of products available to parents of children with special needs as well as therapists and teachers in Ireland.
What was the inspiration for setting up your business?
Ailis was born in 1996 – she’s 16 now. We were very lucky she was born in London as she was referred to Great Ormond Street Hospital. What started off as epilepsy management ended up in brain surgery. With her condition, if you have seizures then you lose abilities you’ve already gained. When I moved back to Ireland, I’d go to an occupational therapist (OT) and she’d say you need this and I couldn’t find it. It was very frustrating; I could see what I needed to do, but I couldn’t jump in and do it because the products were not readily available here. When Ailis was nine she was doing pretty good, so we decided to look at the idea of supplying these products here in Ireland.
What have been the highlights to date?
The biggest to date for us was when we printed our catalogue in 2009. I thought it was a huge achievement for a small company.
How did you initially fund your business?
We funded it with personal finances ourselves and some help from the bank.
What’s your favourite part of being a business owner/entrepreneur?
My favourite part is being involved in something I am passionate about and making a small positive difference for parents of children with special needs.
How do you achieve a work-life balance?
We’re very lucky, we work from home. The whole business is run out of here and it’s our home as well. We’re very much a team.
Do you feel you know what your customers really want? How do you stay updated with this information?
I do courses to keep in touch, but the main thing is that I talk to therapists.
What has been the biggest challenge your business has faced?
The biggest challenge for us is to raise our profile and awareness. It’s very difficult for a small business to do that.
What has been the best reward in running your own business?
Every time I get an email thanking us then I know that we are helping to make a small difference for parents.
How did you scale/grow your business?
The catalogue was critical. The catalogue stamped us as being a proper business. As awareness grew, more OTs contacted us. We’ve increased the product range step by step. I’ve travelled the length and breadth of Ireland with my products to therapists. I felt that if they could see and touch the product, they’d say “that’s a good product” and recommend it.
How do you get ideas to further your business?
I take feedback from therapists, parents and teachers on an ongoing basis.
What’s your vision for the future?
My vision for the future for the business would be that if a child is born with special needs in Ireland that Thinking Toys is the brand people know; that whatever they need they can get it here. For myself I have a wonderful vision of someday having a centre that people can come and visit and be able to explain and show everything to them.
What obstacles to growth have you faced in the past?
As a small business it is very difficult to embark on a national media advertising campaign. Our biggest challenge has been raising awareness of the product range that can help parents with children that have special needs. Certainly without the AIB ad we would still be sitting here thinking, “How are we going to get this brand out there, so that everybody knows about it?”
Do you have a mentor; do you find this has positively impacted on your success?
My mentor is Michael, with his financial and business background he brings to the business all the skills I am lacking.
What’s the best business advice you’ve received?
If you’re not a business person or haven’t been in business before, you need easy access to good financial advice. You need to be honest about the figures. It either works or it doesn’t and you can’t blinker yourself no matter how much you like something.
What’s your favourite motivational business quote?
Steve Jobs resonated with me – I remember listening to him saying: “Don’t ever be embarrassed by something you do, or worry about what other people do, because what you’ll really regret is if you’ve never tried something.”
What would be your advice to businesses starting out?
Without Ailis having special needs, and feeling that there was a gap there, I don’t think I would have set up a different business. If you have something that you feel there is a gap and you are passionate about, go try it. You don’t want to be sitting there when you’re 60 going, “I wonder?”
What, if anything, would you do differently?
Maybe be a bit more forceful on the marketing side.
How would you identify the “lifestage” of your business at this time?
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