Sharon Keilthy, founder of Jiminy Eco Toys shares her life and business lessons.
Jiminy.ie is Ireland’s eco toy store, and also a zero waste business. The business has more than 650 eco toys and books, from babies through teens.
It’s also an eco-activist business, on a mission to make ‘eco’ the new normal for toys – by making eco toys easier to get, and by advocating for change in the global toy industry.
“I started Jiminy Eco Toys to inspire playfully sustainable future, making it easy for people to choose a toy they can feel great about because it’s fun for the child and kind to their planet”
Eco toys come unpackaged or in plastic-free recyclable/compostable packaging, minimising their trash footprint.
Tell us about your background, what journey did you take to arrive at where you are?
I graduated from Engineering at UCD, lived in China for a year, started my first business aged 22, then worked as a management consultant with McKinsey & Company for 13 years (a rollercoaster ride through how the world works!). But in 2018 I left wanting something more personally meaningful.
Two things happened: trying to buy a plastic-free, locally-made gift for my daughter’s 4th birthday (I came out empty-handed), and reading the 2018 IPCC report (which made clear there was nothing more meaningful I could work on than climate). So I started Jiminy Eco Toys to inspire playfully sustainable future, making it easy for people to choose a toy they can feel great about because it’s fun for the child and kind to their planet.
Why are you doing what you are doing? What need are you meeting? What’s your USP?
People want the kids in their lives to be happy, healthy, and safe. But they often lack time, knowledge, or options to choose toys with a positive impact on the planet and those kids’ future.
“Every order from Jiminy is one more sustainable toy, one fewer unsustainable toy, in the world. To have more of this impact, we need to sell more sustainable toys! So we have big plans to grow in Ireland and to expand into the UK”
Jiminy exists to inspire and empower a playfully sustainable world, by giving customers the facts, and easy-to-order eco toys on www.jiminy.ie, to make buying choices they feel great about.
How did you fund and start the business and what are your growth plans?
I invested my life savings to start Jiminy – we’re a self-funded social enterprise (a business whose primary reason for existence is to solve a social problem). I took a “do experiments and learn” approach so started on a dark November morning in my local park market, with a table and 20 products (we now have over 750!). Every order from Jiminy is one more sustainable toy, one fewer unsustainable toy, in the world. To have more of this impact, we need to sell more sustainable toys! So we have big plans to grow in Ireland and to expand into the UK.
What are your key skills and qualities that set you apart?
- We’re an activist business – we exist to change the global toy industry. That’s a very different starting point vs most businesses.
- Even among eco businesses, toys is a joyful, positive context in which to talk about topics like climate change and the power of every buying decision.
- Jiminy and I both believe in transparency: we answer 25 questions about every product – where it was made, what from, how it’s packed, etc; and about 5% of our products are ‘imperfect’ by our eco standards (e.g., they’re shrinkwrapped) – our website flags these IN CAPITAL LETTERS. Greenwashing is the opposite to what we do!
- My Engineering degree and my years in consulting set me up to research and understand the climate and environmental science relating to products. So when we stock an “eco” toy, it is scientifically “eco”, and we can explain that in very easy, relatable terms to our community.
What (or whom) has helped you most along the way? Who was your greatest mentor/inspiration?
I get great solace and inspiration from other small business owners – the eco businesses in Ireland are incredible. I’ve been part of an incredible group from all sectors in the Enterprise Ireland Going for Growth programme for female entrepreneurs this year, which has given me energy and drive when I really needed it! And I’ve just convened an Advisory Board with just two fantastic women, both much more experienced than I in different ways – and it feels great to have someone to ask for advice!
What was the greatest piece of business advice you ever received?
Fail fast! Do the experiments that really test whether your business is going to work in the first few months – because if it’s not going to work you want to know ASAP!
What circumstances/qualities/events can mark the difference between success or failure in life or business?
I hate to say it but this year I’ve become much more aware of how my own mindset and my own wellness level affect my business. It’s not always straightforward, but I’m much better at figuring out a solution, asking someone for help, prioritising, when I’m feeling good myself – which for me means some exercise, eating well, taking my vitamins, seeing a counsellor from time to time, making time for friends and fun, and I’ve been using my wellness planner from www.MamaMoments.ie to manage myself on these things!
What was the most challenging aspect of either starting or growing the business?
The lack of structured decision making together with more experienced people. I had left a big company where I could rely on others to bring the, “OK now let’s stop 80% of what we’re doing and just focus on the highest-impact 20%.” It’s not something I’m naturally good at so I definitely continued-on with many things, when I should have been stepping-back and making tough decisions. For example I started selling at markets, and continued for a year before realising if you’re serving a niche, you’re much better off online. I could have decided that after a few months!
How did you navigate your business through the pandemic and what lessons did you learn?
We were lucky in that we moved to online-only in January 2020 by coincidence, and at the time had a small family-run warehouse (one household working there) – so when lockdowns started, we were one of few very toy stores still able to operate.
It put a huge focus on our website where we really had to up our game in terms of photos and functionalities like wishlists, pre-orders, etc. So I learned a lot about e-commerce! And I learned (not for the first time) that as a business owner your never get to ‘coast’ – even when it feels like things are calm, that’s a sign to get ready for the next curve-ball!
How has digital transformation been a factor in your scaling journey and do you believe Irish firms are utilising digital technologies sufficiently?
We have a Shopify website and do all the IT ourselves – off the shelf apps are so good these days you can get to “really rather good” without custom coding – in fact, our DIY website won 2nd-best small business website of the year 2021 with Digital Business Ireland! Covid pushed other small businesses to get online – we supply shops and when lockdowns started many of them didn’t even have a website at all! Now they all have really nice ones. Local Enterprise Offices have done a great job supporting SMEs with this transition.
If you were to do it all over again, what would you do differently?
Write a business plan, assemble an advisory board, and manage it strategically from the start (rather than getting caught-up in day to day everything at the expense of that).
Who inspires you in business today?
I love the eco innovators – be they small start-ups or intrapreneurs in big established businesses. We buy from the toy industry innovators – the ones investing in learning how to make their toy from recycled plastic or bio-plastic.
“The decisions you made, where you listened to your gut and not to what others were doing, were the best decisions of your life: make them all again”
We are delighted with LEGO’s “totally sustainable by 2030” plan and encouraged to see other toy makers starting to work on theirs. And I’m very curious to learn more about the circular economy – we have a project to make toys more circular – watch this space!
What advice/guidance do you give new hires and how do you nurture talent in your organisation?
I find the most important is to give someone ownership of a project or workstream end to end – one they have the skills and interest for – and then get out of their way and let them shine (but be there when they need advice). Having started doing everything myself this isn’t always easy and I have to remind and push myself to hand things over!
What business books do you read or would recommend?
“Reinventing Organisations” by Frederic Laloux. The title sounds boring, but the content’s really not. It’s an eye-opener into the power of giving teams authority to self-organise, rather than traditional top-down performance management approaches. Richard Branson’s books are very inspiring. And I often think back to a non-business book called “Walk Out, Walk On” (walkoutwalkon.net) about a self-organising community’s approach to social problems.
What technologies/tools do you use personally to keep you on track?
Google Keep lists. And pen-and-paper notes and to-do lists!
What social media platforms do you prefer and why?
Instagram is our bubble, it’s a warm friendly place for us, full of eco-interested parents and supporters.
What are your thoughts on where technology overall is heading and how it will apply to business generally and your business particularly?
I like to see automation of repetitive, low-thought tasks – and that’s coming in. For example we sell wholesale as well as retail but both are via our e-commerce site – our stockists come on and order online, with no manual invoicing or sales agents. As a society there are so many things we haven’t enough of – like caring roles, speech and language therapists, organic farm staff, social entrepreneurs – so at a macro level I hope automation frees-up more time for those kinds of roles.
Finally, if you had advice for your 21-year-old self – knowing what you know now – what would it be?
The decisions you made, where you listened to your gut and not to what others were doing, were the best decisions of your life: make them all again.