Inspirational Woman: Virginie Charles-Dear | Founder & CEO, toucanBox

Virginie Charles-DearI’m the founder of toucanBox, a subscription service delivering a monthly package of creative activities to children.

After a career in investment banking at Morgan Stanley and with Yahoo! and an e-commerce startup, I partnered with a Montessori school teacher to create toucanBox. Our vision is to empower children through play. As much as we want children to have fun, to be carefree and happy, we also want them to develop into curious and critical thinking people, to open their minds to new ideas, and have outlets with which to express themselves. toucanBox is built to be such an outlet, with every project designed to support a philosophy of empowerment, both intellectual and emotional, for children and parents.

Today we provide personalised educational arts and crafts activity boxes to children aged 3 to 8 years old, posted straight through their letterbox. From our headquarters in London and our factory in Heathrow, we design, manufacture and distribute over 200,000 activity kits to children every month in 27 countries.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

No, I’ve never really planned my career as such but I have always been open to opportunities. I started my career in investment banking because I had done a summer internship in a bank and they offered me a job to come back at the end of my degree. I was looking to move back to London after my Masters in Berlin and so having a job “waiting” for me was perfect and removed the stress of job hunting during my final year. I learnt a lot from my two years at Morgan Stanley but ultimately, I knew that I didn’t want to be a banker forever, I didn’t enjoy the lifestyle, the long hours and the lack of meaning, I wanted to work in a “real” business and build things. The idea of starting my own business had always been on top of my mind ever since I was a child, but with a couple of years of experience I didn’t quite feel ready. Joining Yahoo!’s Corporate Development team gave me a fantastic opportunity to further build my experience. The company was very acquisitive at the time and my job was to find the next cool start-up to buy: I met a lot of start-up founders and worked with them to develop their business plans. It was fast-paced and stimulating. After 3 years at Yahoo!, I made a move into the start-up world and joined a business as employee number 4. Without any previous experience in marketing, I was made in charge of recruiting new customers for our daily deals business and grew our database from 0 to 100,000 in the space of 18 months. This start-up experience was an excellent preparation for what would come two years later when I founded my own business.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

I started toucanBox in 2012 and built the business to become a leader in the Ed-tech space, with over 7 million of our activity boxes delivered to children across 27 countries. Of course, the path to get to where we are today hasn’t always been straight and easy: building a business from scratch comes with its share of challenges. Our first hurdle to grow was to find investors to be able to reach a certain scale. We did find early-stage business angels who believed in the founding team and the idea and we managed to raise our first £1 million in equity, this allowed us to hire our first employees, start prototyping our products and recruit our first customers/testers. Within a couple of years, we had proven our business model and were able to raise further funding and venture debt to scale the business further, open a new warehouse, increase our marketing efforts, and grow internationally. Aside from raising money, some of my biggest challenges have always been to recruit the right people. I made some mistakes along the way that almost killed our original culture and could have cost us a lot more, but I’ve learnt from those mistakes, and we now have a very robust hiring process. We may hire a bit slower than we would like to, but the quality of our people is outstanding and definitely our biggest asset today.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

After investing massively to scale our operations between 2016-2018, a key milestone for the business was to turn profitable again as we didn’t want to rely on further equity rounds to fuel our growth. We are proud to have created over 50 jobs in the UK and plan to create another 15 over the next 18 months.

In April, toucanBox won the Queen’s Award for Enterprise for International Trade, recognising the company’s growth internationally. Over the last 5 years we have quadrupled our revenues and are now shipping over 150,000 boxes per month to our customers across 27 countries.

Virginie Charles-Dear with toucanBox productsWhat one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

Surrounding myself with people who are better than me and who bring something different or have complementary skills. There’s only so much you can achieve alone; strength definitely comes with the right team and toucanBox wouldn’t be where it is today if it wasn’t for the 50+ people making it all happen every day. From our operators in the warehouse who take huge pride in preparing the boxes to our colleagues in the office who work behind the scenes to deliver the perfect experience for children and their parents, we are all passionate about our mission to unleash creativity, one box at a time.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

I have mentored students and friends in the past, when they were looking for advice on starting a business and raising money. I find the mentoring process extremely rewarding and always felt like I learned something from the experience.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

I truly believe we need to start early. I find gender stereotypes in toys for example particularly infuriating: who says boys shouldn’t play with dolls and girls wouldn’t want to dress up as dinosaurs? At toucanBox, we develop all our activities with children in mind, no matter their gender. From the colours we use for our packaging to the choices we make to market our products, we want to create an environment where children feel they can be themselves, be creative and have limitless possibilities to investigate the world around them, no matter their gender.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self what would it be?

  • Don’t wait for the perfect time. Perfect timing doesn’t exist, just launch, test and learn. If your first product is perfect, then it means you waited too long to launch it.
  • Get real customer feedback (and no, your mum isn’t a real customer). If you can’t handle the truth, pay someone else to conduct customer research, don’t be afraid to hear the honest and brutal truth about your product or service, it will save you a lot of time and money down the road.
  • Hire people who are better than you.
  • Cash is king. Businesses fail because they run out of cash, even if their PnL shows a profit!
  • Always pay the first invoice of a new provider on time.
  • Find a cheerleader (ideally outside the organisation). The entrepreneurial journey is a rollercoaster, with big “highs” and equally big “lows”, you’ll need someone to celebrate the victories with, and encourage you to keep going when times are tough.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

Our ambition is to grow our revenues to 70 million by 2030. To achieve our targets, we are planning to continue our international expansion both in Europe and North America. We are also looking to expand our product range to reach children outside of our current target group, adding a toddler range as well as a new product range for children aged 8+. Finally, beside our craft kits, we will soon add new product lines including baking kits, books and science kits.

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