Raising a child is expensive. In addition to their healthcare, education and living expenses, simply ensuring that they have age-appropriate toys – to stimulate their social, physical and emotional development – can break the bank. For example, today the classic pound-a-peg toy (the one that allows toddlers to hammer coloured pegs into matching holes) can cost nearly R200. Within a few months, the child will have outgrown it and parents will be forced to invest in the next plaything.
Cape Town moms Lyneve Pieterse and Sarah Brown are trying to solve this problem. They are the founders of The Smart Toy Club – a company that offers monthly rentals of toys for children between the ages of six months and five years.
Parents sign up for the service, enter details about their child (like age and gender), and every month receive a bag of between four and six age-appropriate toys. Once their month is up, the toys are returned (either via courier or drop-off points in Cape Town) and parents receive a new bag of toys. Only quality, durable toys are rented and the inventory includes battery-operated playthings, books, puzzles, and educational games. Once returned, all toys are sterilised. The service costs R199 (US$15) per month.
How we made it in Africa chats to Pieterse about how the duo came up with the idea and got their business off the ground.
The company was founded in 2012. What was the inspiration behind The Smart Toy Club?
I had just had twins and Sarah had a one-year old child – and it just came from the necessity of wanting toys and just realising how expensive they actually were. So we started doing some research into our idea of renting toys and apparently it’s not a new phenomenon in Europe and elsewhere. But there is nothing like this in South Africa.
I was a single mother at that stage and really needed another income, but more than that it was about how we could be of service to other mothers.
Is this your first entrepreneurial experience?
Yes. We are both very nervous and everything we do is learning as we go.
Who were your first clients?
Just people we met and spoke to. We started drawing up some fliers and chatting to other moms. At that stage we were even giving away a free month to try and get them into it. And obviously we improved on our idea and people started to catch on.
Today we have affluent clients in Clifton and we also have nursery schools and pro bono cases that we do in Khayelitsha. So it really is far reaching and doesn’t just stop with one income band.
Is R199 a month affordable for lower-income clients?
It is a good question. Like I said, we do have lower-income people who subscribe to our service. We think R199 per month is still worthwhile because you get about R700 to R1,000 ($51-$73) worth of toys every month. However, in saying that, we have helped people who have come to us and said they are single moms or part of the [Twins and Triplets Society] – and we give them a discount. So we do give special offers.
And it is definitely something we are thinking more about. Maybe we do half a bag for R100 ($7.30) for people that really need it – and they will still get some benefit. As we are growing, these are definitely things we will be thinking about.
What marketing tactics have proven successful?
About a year ago we started advertising on Facebook, and we have grown so much from this. We are sitting at about 150 clients right now – and there is definitely room to grow.
How large do you think this toy rental market actually is?
Well, we don’t know, but we believe so much in it that I have quit my job to focus on this business full-time. I think it could be huge. Just the other day we went to buy new stock, and the prices for toys were astronomical. For a normal little toy – let’s say a choo-choo train that lights up and makes noises – the opening price point was R500 ($37). I don’t know who can afford that.
What is the greatest challenge your business faces today?
I would say maybe reaching more people, at this point. That is our greatest challenge right now. But now that I have quit my other job, I think this will be less of a challenge going forward, because I will have more time to focus on this. It is just about trying to stay focused and finding the time. When you are a full-time mother and permanent employee, it is really difficult to stay focused on growing a business.
So how did you manage?
There were many times that we almost gave up. But having a business partner who is also your best friend (and like-minded) helped. When I was down, she picked me up – and it was the other way around when she was down.
What advice do you have for other single mothers when it comes to starting a company?
You just have to start. It really is just as simple as that. Take it day by day. We wanted toys for our kids as well so we just started doing this and every day we did a little bit more.
We also called on friends as resources. For example, we knew a website developer and designer and so we called in favours and we asked them if we could just pay them off over a certain period of time, because we didn’t have the money to pay them then.
Now we are sitting at a really great point – where [the business] is here for the taking.
What has been the biggest entrepreneurial lesson so far?
Just start by using the people and resources you have around you. We signed up with the National Small Business Chamber and went to a few of their seminars for motivation because it is easy to have an idea but feel so demotivated with how to start. So these little seminars definitely helped us… And little by little we just carried on.
Just start – it really is just the best advice I can give. Also, have a good support structure – and don’t give up.
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