The people behind the Irish Fairy Door Company secured a PR coup when they sent a personalised door to the Kardashians. Now they have their sights firmly set on the American market, they tell Áilín Quinlan.
JUST over three years ago, Niamh Sherwin-Barry and her husband Oisín were stony broke.
Their home had been repossessed, their parents were buying their groceries, and they were planning to emigrate.
Today the company they founded later that year — 2013 — with their childhood friends, Aoife and Gavin Lawler, is exporting toys all over the globe.
Its colourful, imaginative products, now on the shelves of some of the world’s largest and most prestigious toy stores, have even attracted the attention of the Kardashians.
Last December, Niamh Sherwin-Barry, a director of the Irish Fairy Door Company, was in the gym when a friend texted her.
“Get on Snapchat,” the friend instructed her.
“Ah, I wouldn’t be bothered with that,” Niamh replied, adding that Snapchat was “only for young ones”.
Her friend responded: “I think you’re going to like Snapchat now, because Kourtney Kardashian has just Snapchatted your fairy door!”
And she had.
Niamh recalls: “Kourtney Kardashian had a picture of Mason’s fairy door on Snapchat!”
These days, every second child in Ireland has a fairy door from the Irish Fairy Door Company — and that’s a statistical fact — but back in the summer of 2013, Niamh, a former Montessori teacher, and her businessman husband Oisín were barely keeping their heads above water in the aftermath of the financial apocalypse which hit Ireland several years earlier.
From living the Celtic Tiger dream during the boom — the couple had had the big house, the gleaming BMW 5-series car and the regular foreign holiday — they were struggling to even buy groceries.
After Oisín’s thriving mortgage brokerage collapsed at the start of the recession, things went downhill fast.
By the early summer of 2013, they’d sold their car, their home was in the throes of being repossessed and the couple were planning to emigrate when a chance conversation with their two closest friends changed everything.
A few years earlier, in 2008, while on holiday in the USA, Niamh and Aoife browsed a curio store in upstate New York.
They came across some picturesque miniature wooden doors, which they decided to bring home to their children; Niamh’s son Cian, then aged two, and Aoife’s son Bailey, who was three years old.
The little hand-made doors were a huge success with the small boys, who for years were thrilled by the imaginative stories their mothers told about the funny little fairies who lived behind them.
But now it was June 2013 and the four adults were tired, worried and recession-battered — Gavin had worked in the motor industry which had also been badly affected by the downturn.
The quartet, who had all been friends since primary school, were sitting glumly around Aoife’s kitchen table.
The two women tried to distract themselves from the general gloom by amusing the children with more tales they had made up about the little fairies who lived behind the old American wooden doors.
Noticing the children’s excitement, their husbands started to listen in to the conversation — and a genius idea was born.
In that moment the quartet decided to make, and sell fairy doors.
“We didn’t have a spare tenner between us,” Niamh recalls now.
They had the help of Niamh’s mum — she’d given up smoking nine years previously and had €8,500 in savings which she now invested in the idea.
The Irish Fairy Door Company was established and quickly became successful, even catching the attention of Ryan Tubridy, who has since featured its products on two occasions on the Late Late Toy Show.
Demand steadily increased and by 2015, the company was working with a PR company in London to promote the firm in the UK.
One day in October, recalls Aoife Lawler, now the company’s creative director: “One of the girls on the team said she could get our fairy doors to the Kardashians. It was just one of those things!
“We took a punt at it and personalised three doors for the children of Kourtney and Kim. We hand-burned the names of their children onto the doors, packed them into boxes and they were sent off.
"You cannot take it for granted that they would get it of course. That was back in late October 2015.”
It took a while, but, on December 14, 2016, when Niamh was in the gym she received a text from a friend telling her that Kourtney Kardashian had Snapchatted about the fairy doors.
“I was very proud of the fact that the fairy door had made it through the many, many layers of people who surround the Kardashians,” Niamh recalls now.
The Kardashians are sent so much and see so much, she says, that when they chose the Irish fairy door, it was both a huge compliment — and a great boost to business:
“I believe the fairy door was chosen over thousands of different toys that would be presented to them on a day-to-day basis. News of Kourtney’s Snapchat certainly resulted in a surge of visitors to our American site.
"It did help on this side of the Atlantic also, because we got a huge amount of attention and well wishes, both here and in the UK.”
It was, recalls Aoife, “pure and utter luck”, and the Snapchat has been used by the firm to help promote the doors: “The fact that Kourtney Kardashian Snapchatted us is on our stands and on our promotional literature.”
Ms Kardashian’s interest in the fairy doors also featured heavily in the promotional literature displayed by the company when Niamh, Gavin, Oisín and other company representatives attended one of the world’s biggest and most prestigious toy fairs, the four-day American International Toy Fair in New York last month.
This event showcases toys, video games, kidult toys, educational toys, toy packaging material and other products, making it American’s largest youth and kid entertainment show.
The Irish Fairy Door Company already has its products on sale in the high-end US department store chain Nordstrom and the popular craft and toy store chain, Joann’s.
Representatives from both chains had very positive reports about customer feedback to the Irish fairy doors when they all met at the show, according to Niamh.
The Kardashian connection was a huge bonus, she believes: “We had hundreds of conversations with retailers over the four days in New York and being able to mention Kourtney Kardashian’s publicly-stated fascination with the doors was invaluable,” she said.
“Getting this stamp of approval from the Kardashians who are one of the most influential families in the world really gave us that extra boost,” she says adding that the company landed a contract with the gigantic Toys ‘R Us chain over the four show days of the show.
“This is a huge undertaking for us and we are really excited about it,” she says.
The challenge for the company in the USA is ensuring that the retailer “gets” what the fairy doors are all about, she explains:
“They sell it more easily once they understand the concept.”
Celebrity mentions are hugely beneficial, explains Aoife: “Our first Christmas we got a lot of attention after Amy Huberman tweeted about our fairy doors,” Aoife says, adding that they feel the Kardashian snapchat could now have a similar impact in the States, where they first launched just over a year ago:
“We are expecting a lot of interest off the back of this and we know it will be a very strong string to our bow. Americans tend to very much follow the crowd in terms of big trends.
“America’s quite a tough market to break into and we’re going to feel it out more this year.
“It’s a huge market and we knew we’d be a very small fish — but we’re much smaller than we thought.”
Although the company, of which Oisín is now CEO, employs 20 people in Dublin, the doors, and the many accessories that come with them, are now manufactured in, and exported from, China to retailers all over the world, including Australia, USA Canada, Mexico, Scandinavia, the UAE and the UK, to name but a few.
For 2017, the big focus is on solidifying and expanding the company’s base in the United Kingdom and in the US, Niamh explains.
As part of this big push, Aoife’s husband Gavin who is now the company’s international sales director, currently spends long periods in the States working at the coal-face of the US toy industry to ever more firmly establish the Irish Fairy Door Company as a well-known brand in this sprawling market.
“The idea is to have someone on the ground following up leads and basically striking while the iron is hot so he’s working between the US and Ireland,” explains Aoife.
It’s not an easy sacrifice — the couple now have three young children — but it’s necessary.
As Niamh puts it: “This company is everything to us. We have no other business and we are putting everything we have into the company.
“”We’re learning every day and in every market. There are huge sacrifices to make because this is it for us.
“We really, truly, believe in what we do,” she says, adding that the trajectory from small company to big toy manufacturer was almost dizzying.
“The biggest challenge for us is to get the cash-flow right.
“We went from small-scale to large business over about 18 months and although we have great support from Enterprise Ireland, the financial institutions here are still very cautious about loaning money.
“It’s very much a hangover from the recession. However, we are employing people, and we’re on the road to being very successful.
“It’s crucial for a company like us which has just landed a contract like that with Toys R Us (in America), to be able to rely on solid financial assistance from a major Irish bank.
“We have received the backing we needed over the years, but we had to work extremely hard to get it, and we feel for other business that are in the same position as us.
“It’s time the financial institutions here loosened the purse strings a bit for companies and businesses who have taken a chance and are employing people — and are landing the big contracts.”
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