Lottie Dolls: Inspiring kids to believe they can achieve

29 May 2018

Ian Harkin. Image: Shane O’Neill Photography

Ahead of his appearance at Inspirefest 2018, Ian Harkin invites us to explore the inner world of Lottie Dolls.

Ian Harkin is co-founder and CEO at Lottie Dolls, a inclusive range of dolls from Arklu, led by a team that is “passionate about preserving the magic of childhood”.

Launched in 2012 by Harkin and co-founder Lucie Follett, the Lottie Dolls range is inspired by real kids and the ambitious company is on a mission to empower children to be themselves, challenging stereotypes and winning accolades along the way.

Making it into the Inspirefest speaker gift bag in 2015, a Lottie Doll was the inspiration for filmmaker Elena Rossini to create something that was, quite literally, out of this world – but that’s another story.

Coming back down to Earth, Harkin will take to the Inspirefest stage next month to speak as part of the ‘Next Generation: The Future is Now’ panel on Thursday 21 June.

Here, he lifts the veil on the type of leadership that powers Lottie Dolls.

Describe your role and what you do.

My biggest responsibility is looking after our employees and stakeholders, and delivering fun, quality, safe toys that aim to inspire kids to believe they can achieve anything they set out to achieve.

How do you prioritise and organise your working life?

We have set dates for our industry. Christmas is obviously the main selling period in stores but for manufacturers, the selling period starts 15 months before that. We sell our products to distributors, retailers and consumers so we almost have three different calendars operating at the same time within the same business. It can be confusing, but we seem to manage it.

What are the biggest challenges facing your sector and how are you tackling them?

I’m not sure it’s so much a sector issue or more an issue facing us all, but sustainability is something we have been spending a lot of time thinking about going forward. We would love to somehow open up our IP to kids that are interested in 3D printing and crafts. I recently visited the home of one of our monthly competition winners. She loves Lottie and, as her mum walked me around her home, virtually every cupboard was converted to a construction site of cardboard buildings developed for Lottie. I love seeing how people develop worlds and buildings to add to play patterns. We are looking to plan a sustainability position audit and then map how we can improve in each area of the business.

What are the key sector opportunities youre capitalising on?

Lottie is pretty much the only doll based on a real child. Our character is a nine-year-old and she does the activities kids actually do; most other dolls on the market are based on adults. Lottie is seen as an adventure companion; a relatable, fun, inspiring doll.

More than 80pc of people find us through word of mouth or social media. That’s pretty incredible but goes to show the love for the brand. We are extremely grateful to all of our customers and supporters. Online is huge for us, with more than 50pc of sales coming from online. It means we are closer to our customers and able to serve their needs and get their feedback quickly while constantly improving our offering.

What set you on the road to where you are now?

It’s bizarre when you look back at your life. In some ways you wish you had started sooner, but every experience you have has led to where you are today, so there are no regrets. We started this business with a doll to celebrate the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton, all while we were researching the doll category. We actually guessed what they would call their first child by looking at William’s family tree, Lottie being the abbreviation of Charlotte, so it was a nice connection to our first product.

What was your biggest mistake and what did you learn from it?

We make mistakes every day. To a certain degree, I encourage people to make mistakes; what I mean by that is to take chances, make decisions – but learn from our mistakes. Missing deadlines, production delays and development delays can be extremely stressful. We design, manufacture, distribute, market and retail – it’s quite a lot of functions within a small business. We use the best tools; we cloud-host everything we can to remain agile and improve visibility of information. We are constantly adding tools and apps that can help reduce mistakes and improve processes.

How do you get the best out of your team?

We aim to empower our team as much as possible. Being a creative company, we involve everyone in our brainstorming sessions, which we hold off-site three or four times a year, for the company’s future plans. Communication is the most important thing; we share our plans and update the team regularly. Being part of an SME, being a product company in the toy category and selling in a global market is motivating in itself. Everyone in our company feels passionately about Lottie – as a management team, it’s an amazing privilege.

STEM sectors receive a lot of criticism for a lack of diversity in terms of gender, ethnicity and other demographics. Have you noticed a diversity problem in your sector? What are your thoughts on this and whats needed to be more inclusive?

In our second year, we developed our first STEM ranges. It was also our first real step into working directly with kids and it formulated our whole positioning as a company. Seeing the passion with which kids worked on projects, but also how they have very diverse interests as well as an interest in STEM, was incredible. In our company, almost 80pc of our team is female. In our brand, we want to challenge stereotypes with boys as well as girls. Toxic masculinity is as much an issue to us as the limitations of gender stereotypes for girls. Ethnic diversity, but also in diversity of ability, is extremely important to us.

Last year, we launched Mia the Wildlife Photographer, which was the world’s first mass-production doll with a cochlear implant. We don’t mention it on the packaging; we want to normalise it in our doll play. The great thing in working with kids is that they completely ignore stereotypes for change. We need to include kids more in our decision-making and in our design processes.

Who is your role model and why?

The kids that we work with inspire me every day. The emotional intelligence, compassion, creativity, drive and ambition they all show, while being selfless with their time for their peers and friends, is incredible.

What books have you read that you would recommend?

Earlier this year, I read Simon Sinek’s Start With Why. Having watched his amazing Ted talks, it really gives you focus on what is important. Having read it, I recently referred back to a book I had read a few years ago – our own Kelly Hoey’s Build your Dream Network. It was almost like a logical step having focused on ‘why’, now the practicalities of how and who may help make the plan a reality – Kelly’s book provides this framework. It’s one you can come back to again and again; it’s a tool you use throughout your evolving journey.

What are the essential tools and resources that get you through the working week?

Coffee. My wife Sofia is from Colombia, so I get the best stuff each morning. I do the night shifts with our 16-month-old. He is a progressive kid – he hit the ‘terrible twos’ at only 14 months old, so good coffee is a necessity!

Ian Harkin will be speaking at Inspirefest, Silicon Republic’s international event connecting sci-tech professionals passionate about the future of STEM. Get your tickets now to join us in Dublin on 21 and 22 June 2018.

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