How I Started an
Eco-Friendly Toys Company

Jiminy logo

Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?

I’m Sharon Keilthy and in 2018 I decided to be an eco-activist – to tackle some aspect of the environmental crisis – in a hands-on way, through being a business I wished others were.

I made phone calls about a few ideas, and the first “yes” I got was about eco-friendly toys. So I went where the energy was. I set up Jiminy to make carbon-neutral, trash-free toys more normal – by making them easier to get – by retailing to the public and supplying shops.

It has turned out to be a very effective forum for communicating about climate problems and solutions with people who are interested but not experts. It’s a colourful, fun, context in which to have the conversation in a practical, positive way.

What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?

This is my second start-up. I started my first business aged 22. I was straight out of college, had an idea, and went for it. As a shy, goodie-two-shoes, top-of-the-class school and college student I hadn’t thought of myself as an entrepreneur…turned out, I was one!

When that business plateaued I left and worked 13 years at global management consultancy McKinsey & Co. It was a rollercoaster ride through how to strategise and organise as a big business or public agency – I learned so much. I took at least 2 flights a week, bought a bottle of water in each airport I passed through; I was asleep to the environmental crisis. 

But then I had my daughter and connected with more real things. I breastfed her and for the first time really understood that cow’s milk is another animal’s breastmilk. I tuned-in to the zero waste movement and how much plastic trash we produced as a household. I started to make small changes – my toothbrush, my deodorant.

Sharon Keilthy, Founder of Jiminy
Sharon Keilthy, Founder – Jiminy Eco Toys

In 2018 I left my job intentionally with no plan – to create space to see what might fill it. I did an online course in Social and Environmental Justice, and that was it: I was an activist. And the IPCC report confirmed I wanted to work for our environment.

“And everyone always says their biggest challenge is talent. Same here!”

What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?

A friend had told me, “Do the experiments to test your business, if it’s going to fail make it fail as quickly as possible so you can move on from it.” So I viewed everything as a learning experiment. Which is good. But some expertise in these topics would have helped me be more strategic about it.

I ordered some products, bought a marquee, and set-up for our first day at my local park market. I learned so much about how to (not to) present things, what people (didn’t) want. and I had no website.

Jiminy Eco Toys
Jiminy Eco Toys

I have self-funded the whole way which I think really hampered the business’ growth. I felt poor. “Someone needs a doctor…can we afford the €50?” I did everything myself…everything. So things moved slowly, and lacked that high-level strategic thinking I had learned at McKinsey.

And everyone always says their biggest challenge is talent. Same here! It’s hard to find the folk you need for a start-up – they need 10 very wide-ranging skills, so much drive, and salaries eat your available cash so every hire feels like a huge risk.

Who is your target market?

We serve people with kids in their lives – parents, grandparents, aunties, uncles, godparents, neighbours, teachers, therapists…even Santa. They come to us for gifts, for craft materials, for books.

And we supply independent retailers – the eco stores, the independent gift and toy stores. In Ireland mainly, and to a small extent in the UK.

Jiminy: Eco-Toystore

How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?

We do PR, social media, SEO, and digital marketing. We exhibit at trade shows.

“Success for us is that eco toys go mainstream.”

Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?

You know, it’s all been too fast and furious to even think about this. We are still in the pre-stabilisation phase. We are not yet managing statistics or even looking at them, other than ensuring orders come in and trying to avoid selling products at a loss.

What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?

You know, it’s really still just me. Everyone else is either casual helping-out, or an external supplier.

But we do role model transparency and having a backbone when it comes to values.

Our website tells you any imperfections in a given product – our ideal product is made locally in Europe from natural or recycled materials – but if we make an exception to that, even in a small way, we tell you IN CAPITAL LETTERS…no surprises!

And we did a diversity and inclusion audit of our toys and our lifestyle images in 2020. We found one brand that only represented white-skinned humans; we asked them to fix this, they refused, so we cancelled our distribution agreement with them and discontinued the products.

We exist to make toys sustainable, not to get rich or build an empire. Success for us is that eco toys go mainstream. In fact, the biggest toy retailer in Ireland started stocking one of our bioplastic toys recently – at 25% less than we can offer it, because of their scale – so we discontinued it but still list it on our website and link to where you can buy it from them. Because it’s great they’ve got their first bioplastic toy, we want them to see demand for it and add a second, and because we’re not willing to have our customers feel cheated paying us 25% more.

What software, services or tools do you use within your business?

Shopify and Shopify apps, that’s it! And Google Drive for file sharing.

What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?

I do wish I’d gotten investment and an advisory board and done it with more of a ‘big business’ mindset. Taken bigger risks and gone faster.

But maybe I’d have failed!

What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?

Just the self-determination. That’s what is so motivating. I get to decide.

What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?

I can never switch off!

When we have a bad sales day, I feel like a loser. I question all my choices and think, someone else would have done it better. I look at others doing well and feel terrible about myself. (Of course, on a good day all of these reverse themselves!)

What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?

I have no time to read or listen to podcasts. I just work and mind my child. And sometimes I get to have some sleep!

Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?

4 times bigger in revenue and jobs created. Starting to see a tangible change in the toy industry in Ireland and globally.Maybe moving on to a next challenge!

Where can people go to find out more about your business?

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