How the founders of $4 million kid’s toy business Tiger Tribe are beating major Aussie retailers and taking their brand global

Tiger Tribe

Anthony and Naomi Green. Source: Supplied.

Naomi and Anthony Green founded children’s toy manufacturing business Tiger Tribe 10 years ago in 2007, after becoming disenfranchised with both their current jobs and the toy offerings on the market.

Knowing they could create better made toys — with a focus on aesthetic — the two threw themselves into the business, transforming their garage into an impromptu business hub and trekking to trade show after trade show, determined to create something great.

Today, Tiger Tribe pulls in annual revenue of more than $4 million, employs 16 people, and has recently struck a deal with major US book retailer Barnes and Noble. Anthony Green spoke to SmartCompany about the business’ growth and international opportunities, and why he and Naomi aren’t perturbed by the rise of tech based kids entertainment.

We launched Tiger Tribe at a trade fair in Melbourne 10 years ago in 2007.

I had worked previously in a children’s accessories business dealing with clothing stores as a sales manager, and Naomi was working as a lawyer.

I was pretty unhappy in my previous job and I wasn’t really suited to corporate life. I had the choice to go find a new job or try to set up my own business with the knowledge I had gained from my work.

We had young children and I felt like there was a shortage of well-priced and constructive and interesting toys in the market compared to plastic licensed toys. We recognised there was an opportunity to go and create this business, but we knew nothing about the manufacturing process or how to get started.

We were turned on by the aesthetic and the design more than any other aspect, so we started with a small range and learnt from the market. We also had a focus on well-priced items; around $20 was our target price.

We literally started the business from our garage. We had a friend come over and insulate some of the walls in the garage and set up phone lines.

We used a small retail store in a neighbouring suburb as a temporary warehouse for our stock, but within about 12 months of starting we had to move to a small 300 square metre warehouse.

Early on it was a lot of sales work. We were going to markets and trade fairs in Melbourne and Sydney and eventually, demand began to grow.

There were a lot of very fortunate factors in the way we grew the business.

There was an appeal to a very wide group of retailers that weren’t just toy stores, like bookshops and gift shops and clothing stores. That really helped us grow.

The first person we hired was a warehouse manager and he’s still with us today. He’s part of our 16 staff, some of those part-time but most full-time.

Damaged or returned stock meant a lot of sleepless nights early on; we were worried about our reputation and how we were going to get through it. We also had to put a lot of effort into getting our product mix right.

We only borrowed a few hundred grand to get the business started, and there were very large minimum order quantities from our manufacturers. If we got it wrong, there would be a lot of money sitting on the shelf straight up.

As we got bigger we were able to change and grow and this became less of an issue.

When we began, the only real competitors in the space were European brands. That’s where we had a competitive advantage as we were cheaper to manufacture and had more efficient supply chains.

Even today there’s only a couple of Australian toy brands in the market. We’ve been quite fortunate to ride out all the bumps along the way, especially as people were spending a lot more on kids back when we started, before the Global Financial Crises tightened things.

Even with the rise of technology, there’s no shortage of parents who are looking to unplug their kids and seek out the traditional, old-fashioned options. It’s become a lot more noticeable in the past two years.

Parents are looking for nourishing constructive activities for children that go beyond swiping at a screen.

We don’t worry about the rise of technology focused kids entertainment because we can’t stop it. However, I do think there’s a move back into simplifying and unplugging, which really works in our favour.

In the last couple of years we’ve found a lot of export opportunities, and we’re trying to align our whole business to cater to export partners, while still looking after our domestic market. Getting the timing of certain deliveries and production runs has probably been the biggest challenge in recent years.

It’s admittedly a tougher retail climate here at the moment; it was a lot more profitable and prosperous 10 years ago. It’s much harder now for smaller players.

The large majors like Kmart and Target make it very hard for independent retailers to thrive, and independent retailers are the lifeblood of our business. The largest chain we would be in is Seed.

We have grown organically and continued to grow, so we’ve never really entertained the idea of taking on any equity partners. One day we’d like to cash in our chips and sell the business for a healthy sum but not for a while.

Right now our [sales from] international market[s] are only about 25%, and that’s only really taken off in the last 18 months. We just got a very large order from Barnes and Noble in America, and that was done independently of any distributor.

I expect in about three years we’ll be split 50-50 between domestic and international.

My advice to business owners would be to hire good people and be very careful recruiting. We only hired once we were earning a certain level of income, so try to find the best possible candidates you can to grow the business.

Also, focus on what you do best. Really focus on your niche — don’t spray the target.

Right now we’re just focused on looking after our customer base. We have about 700 active [retail] customers in Australia, and without sounding complacent, there’s not a lot of perceived growth there without going into majors like Kmart or Target.

We have a lovely group of people we work with and we’re looking to expand the range carefully. There’s a lot of competition in the market so we’re looking to work with export partners to best understand their needs.

We’re hitting some big milestones, so growth will come.

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