It’s a brave entrepreneur who enters Dragons’ Den and turns down funding, but that’s what Grainne Kelly did when she appeared on Ireland’s version of the television show in May.
Derry-based Kelly sought €200,000 (£160,000) in return for a five per cent share in BubbleBum, the inflatable child’s car booster seat business she founded five years ago, after growing frustrated with the non-availability of pre-booked car seats at airport hire-car desks.
With last year’s $2m (£1.1m) turnover on track to hit $3m this year and profits of $100,000, Kelly refused to compromise on the Dragons taking a larger stake. It wasn’t the first time the former travel agent has stood her ground.
“Crash test labs gave me a list of reasons why an inflatable car booster seat couldn’t be done but I worked through them to find solutions. I wasn’t looking at it from an engineering perspective. If I had been a car-seat manufacturer I would have seen more potential problems than I did as a mother of two young children,” she says.
Talking to a factory in China without a non-disclosure agreement in place was an early learning curve.
“The [original] factory tried to steal my IP,” she admits. Nine months after having the idea, Kelly, who self-funded the launch, watched her handbag-sized BubbleBum roll off the production line and go on sale in Ireland, with UK stores following in February 2010.
“Online sales went through the roof after I went on Simon Mayo’s [Radio 2] show. I shipped 1,600 in two days – all from my house,” she says. With products rolling out to 26 countries, next came a “make or break” decision to enter the US market.
“I moved with my husband, Fintan, and our children to the United States for a year. I took on two staff in Northern Ireland. By keeping Skype on all day we carried on working like we were in the same office,” she explains. “You cannot launch a consumer product into the US without understanding that market. The instruction sheet for the rest of the world is one page; for the US there are 36 pages… the regulations require you list all the ways you shouldn’t do it!”
By the time Kelly returned to Northern Ireland, BubbleBum had won entrepreneurial and safety awards and caught the eye of Walmart.
“We had been on sale in the US for three months but we weren’t ready for them. You cannot go into a major retailer on a global scale and make a mistake or you’re really screwed,” says Kelly. Instead she focused on securing £500,000 to scale the business – angels now own 32.5 per cent of the company, with a five per cent share option pool for employees – and launched BubbleBum into 2,100 Walmart stores last year.
“We expect to turn over $4.5m next year with a profit of $400,000. Our company vision is to see turnover of $10m within three years and see every child on a booster seat on every journey,” she says.
“There are only six of us and we don’t need to grow beyond 11. But looking at my board I need someone with media connections and manufacturing experience that can open doors for us.”
Those Dragons might wish to reconsider their offer.
Who? My cousin Patrick McGonagle [founder of polling booth maker PakFlatt] for telling me from the beginning that I could do this.
Which media? I don’t read newspapers these days but I manage to unwind while watching The X Factor.
Favourite place The Maldives. I first visited while working as a travel agent and I totally switched off, which is something I never do. I never usually give myself quiet time because there’s always noise and distraction.
Favourite brand Innocent’s smoothies. They’re a bit like ourselves – they take their business seriously but they don’t take themselves seriously. That’s one of our company values. I find them really honest.
Social media I went off Facebook for Lent and I’m back on it again! It is an easy way to keep in touch with family and friends while travelling, but I don’t have work colleagues on my Facebook page.
I can’t live without… My iPhone. It keeps me connected. My favourite app is Spider Solitaire.