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‘The majority of packing orders and unloading pallets fell to just the two of us, often with two toddlers colouring at our feet’


by Amanda Cassidy
24th Oct 2020
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Small business owners certainly haven’t had it easy this year, but the adaptable approach and sheer grit shown by so many is also worth talking about. Amanda Cassidy speaks to a Howth-based husband and wife team about challenges of building a business… and surviving the bumps along the way. 


“It was a case of a new year marking new beginnings” explains Lauren McIlvenna, who lives in Howth with her husband James, their two children and labrador Sandy.  “That was certainly the case for me on the 2nd January this year when I finally hit send on an email that had been in my draft folder for over four years.”

She had finally taken the leap to work full-time alongside her husband on their business, K9Connectables.

“Goodbye permanent, pensionable job. Hello to the gritty reality of a doubly self-employed household,” she laughs remembering the mix of apprehension and excitement she felt as she took the plunge.

New beginnings

But, first, let’s go back to the start.

“In 2011, as victims of the recession here in Ireland, James and I left for the greener pastures of Ningbo, China.

Our experiences there were fruitful, allowing us to develop skills that went way beyond the cupla focail of mandarin and mastering chopsticks.  We formed life-long friendships and – although we had no serious intention of using them for our own venture – we also made solid business relationships.”  

Two years later they returned home to Howth, Co Dublin with both a shiny engagement ring and a puppy in tow.

Enter Sandy, a lovable, HIGH-energy labrador.

“Despite getting lots of exercise and attention, Sandy had an abundance of energy and tendency to focus that energy on destroying household items often in their entirety” explains Lauren. “The last straw was when she ate our wedding album”.  

The majority of packing orders, unloading pallets, etc fell to just the two of us, often with two toddlers colouring at our feet.

Energy

James, an industrial designer by trade, saw a gap in the market to create a dog toy that would both engage and entertain Sandy and hopefully tire her out.

“His research discovered (new to us but not to everyone) that dogs need both mental and physical exercise. For thousands of years dogs have been bred to do jobs for humans, and a dog with a job is a happy dog.”

Hundreds of 3D prototypes later, K9Connectables was born; a range of interactive connectable dog toys that could be stuffed with treats and then the various parts connected together to make different shapes and sizes.

The idea is the dog can see and smell the treat but needs to figure out how to break the connection in order to get their treat. We call this rewarding play for dogs but the experts refer to it as canine enrichment.”

Thanks to Enterprise Ireland, James’ idea developed from concept to prototype to product to a fully-fledged business, now employing five full-time staff.

Silver linings

But then another bump in the road…

“Back in January of this year, Coronavirus, to many people in Ireland, was something happening a long way off in China, presenting little in the way of threat here,” Lauren says.

“To us, however, it was already becoming very real. Our factory was closed. Phone calls to friends in Ningbo who had not left their homes in weeks, only confirmed that we were in it for the long haul.  

In the end, our factory closed its doors for 12 weeks and we lived in fear of running out of stock.  In a way, we’ve had a good problem to contend with. 

It was the perfect storm for us, despite the restrictions; dog ownership rates soared online shopping increased and people started to become a little more conscious of their dogs after being home with them all day. 

Like many others, there were downsides, of course. Like many, we had no childcare.  All of our staff were (and still are) working from home, so the majority of packing orders, unloading pallets, etc fell to just the two of us, often with two toddlers colouring at our feet.

The hardest part is that we couldn’t visit our factory in China at a crucial time when our brand new product line was in its first production run. 

If 2020 has taught us anything, it’s that hope is important

Pivot

For the first time in our existence, our 3D printers stopped printing dog toys and started printing PPE (face shields) which we then distributed to local GP’s and nursing homes, both here in north Dublin and north of the border in Omagh, where our Chief Technical Officer Diarmuid lives and has a home office full of printers. 

It’s been a journey, but one with many silver linings. Somehow mid-pandemic, amongst other achievements, we managed to clear our second round of investment.

We are heading into 2021 (our fifth year in business) feeling stronger than ever and almost fully restocked.

If 2020 has taught us anything –  and to be fair, this year has taught us a lot, it’s that hope is important, and once you have hope coupled with a little bit of hard work, you can get anywhere”.

Image via Lauren

Read more: The pandemic forced this cosmetics company to pivot

Read more: ‘You fall, you get back up stronger – that’s what being in business is all about’