Moms Doing It For Themselves: Nicola McDonnell
Eczema is a scourge for many Irish children - 1 in 10, to be exact. Nicola McDonnell watched her daughter suffer with it from an early age, decided to do something about it and created the smart start-up ‘Itchy Little Monkeys'.
Tell us a little bit about your business.
Itchy Little Monkeys is a brand that offers solutions for kids with eczema. I know from experience that looking after a child with eczema can be very stressful. The Itchy Little Monkeys brand aims to remove the stress by making it as fun as possible for the child.
We currently offer two products: our Shruggi is a form of scratch mitten made from organic cotton and silk and comes in bright, colourful child-friendly designs.
With eczema, the main symptom is itching. The unrelenting desire to scratch results in children damaging their skin, never giving it a chance to heal properly. The constant irritation also causes infection, which then leads to even more eczema flare-ups - known as the itch / scratch cycle. Our Shruggi helps prevent children from damaging their skin due to scratching their eczema and plays a huge part in breaking this itch / scratch cycle.
We also have a range of storybooks featuring the Itchy Little Monkeys, Max & Mimi. The stories are fun for kids, while also providing top tips for parents. I have been working on the business for the last few years. I launched my website at the end of last year and literally over the last few months I’ve been getting the word out. The orders have started flying in. A lot of work went into it initially and it’s starting to pay off!
What was your motivation to start up your business?
My daughter was my motivation to start up the business. She has suffered badly from eczema since she was a baby. Eczema can be very distressing for both child and parent and there's no cure for it – it can only be “managed”.
We had endless sleepless nights with our daughter, she was constantly scratching. This was hard to deal with during the night. Each morning we would find that she had done a lot of damage to her skin. Parents find that it’s really easy to put our Shruggi on their child at bedtime, but most importantly it cannot be removed easily by the child, so it offers such peace of mind that your child is not damaging their skin. Being made from 100% organic cotton, it's also really comfortable to wear and is very soft on their skin.
I had looked at other products out there, but I couldn't find anything that was child-friendly. I thought it was bad enough that these kids have to go through the pain and frustration of eczema, that if we could take the stress out of it for them somehow that would be such a help. So, I created a prototype and worked with expert dermatologists and specialist dermatology nurses on developing the products.
As well as our Shruggi, our range of story books feature Max and Mimi, the Itchy Little Monkey characters. The idea for them came from my own daughter’s questions: “Why do I have itchy skin?” and “Why do my friends not have what I have?” and I thought it would be nice to give children suffering from eczema someone to relate to; who is going through what they are. The characters have itchy skin, but they’re fun, cheeky, adventurous little characters that kids love.
As well as being fun for kids, the stories are full of top tips for parents. The tips consist of things that we learnt along the way that we want to share with other parents – like daily baths or the different treatments available for eczema.
Itchy Little Monkeys offers a stress-free bed-time experience for kids – parents can read their child a story about the Itchy Little Monkeys, put on their Shruggi and tuck them up for the night with that peace of mind that they will not be causing damage to their skin. It makes bed-time much less stressful and much more enjoyable.
What have you learned in the process about eczema?
Basically that it is so common – affecting 1 in 10 kids in Ireland and 1 in 5 in many other countries. It is now widely accepted that hereditary factors play a role in the onset of childhood eczema. There is often a family history of asthma, eczema and hay fever and if a parent is affected by one of these, there is a good chance their children will suffer too.
There is no cure for eczema, it can only be managed so a really good daily skincare routine is so important. Eczema is not caused by a specific allergen but children with eczema are more prone to allergies, which we have seen in our own daughter as well.
There are several factors that may trigger an eczema flare. Each child is different and has their own trigger so by identifying these triggers in your own child, it may be possible to remove or reduce your child’s exposure to them. Most common triggers are heat, dust, grass and pollen, synthetic fabrics, biological detergents, cigarette smoke and cats and dogs.
With us, it’s a case of daily management – if our daughter's routine should change or is not kept up for whatever reason, the difference shows immediately.
What is your background?
I have a business background. In my life before Itchy Little Monkeys I would have worked in various management roles - mainly in the area of general management, operations, customer service and HR.
What have been the highs and lows of setting up your own business?
The highs have certainly outweighed the lows. Getting our first order was a definite high point – it was the validation for all the hard work that had gone into building a business. Receiving great feedback from customers when we have helped their kids through the use of our products and repeat customers - are always high points.
Low points have been making mistakes that I thought I wouldn’t make – but these are also very valuable lessons learned.
When setting up the business initially, I received assistance from the DLR Local Enterprise Office and was successful in securing a feasibility grant from them – this was a help in setting up the business initially.
I’m actually taking part in the ‘New Frontiers’ programme at the moment, Ireland's national programme supporting entrepreneurship, funded by Enterprise Ireland. I have completed the first phase and I am hoping to go onto the second phase, which gives you access to invaluable expertise from experts in the entrepreneurial space as well as funding. Phase 1 has been really beneficial so I really hope I will be successful in securing a place on Phase 2.
There is sometimes a perception that Enterprise boards are more focused on technology based start-ups, but there has been a real mix of start-up genres on the New Frontiers programme to date.
If there was to be a suggested improvement in the supports that local enterprise boards offer, it would probably be in the area of mentorship. It may not still be the case now, but when I availed of the mentorship programme, I was allowed only one mentor at a time and you had to end the mentorship with one before starting up another. When you are starting off and you may need advice in many different areas, and if there is not a mentor that can offer advice that covers all of the areas you are looking for, this can be a challenge.
What advice would you give other moms wanting to start up their own business?
Make sure that your business idea provides a solution to a problem. Talk to as many people as possible about your idea and surround yourself with good, experienced people to offer advice and support. Be prepared for hard work and commitment, and be aware that you will make mistakes.
Do you have any tips for balancing your work and family life?
Making the best possible use of your time. Family has to be your first priority so you need to organise your time to ensure that you free up quality time for that, which usually means working early mornings and late nights as well as school time. Also, having very obliging grandparents to help out with child-minding has been invaluable, we are very lucky in that respect!
What would you say is your next step for 2016 / 2017?
Since launching, we have done really well in the Irish market, so branching out into other markets further afield is the next step, while adding more products to our range.
If you were to be granted three wishes for your business what would they be?
- For Itchy Little Monkeys to become a household name in order for us to help many more kids out there suffering like our daughter has.
- To successfully break into international markets.
- To develop a sustainable business model for years to come.
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