Tiger Tribe founders Naomi and Anthony Green talk about growing their children's gift business from a garage to the global market.
When husband and wife Anthony and Naomi Green launched Tiger Tribe in 2007 — out of their Melbourne garage — there was no formal structure. But there was a hands-on mindset and plenty of real-world experience as the parents of three children.
“In the beginning, we were doing everything, from negotiating with the manufacturers in China to physically packing the orders,” recalls Naomi.
Anthony had left his sales manager role in the children’s gift industry while Naomi had been a freelance book editor and a lawyer. Their goal was to create beautifully packaged gifts that were not mass-produced or licensed to some kind of mega franchise. At the time, it wasn’t a conscious decision to provide parents with screen-free alternatives for their children, as the iPhone had only just launched. But it has certainly been a happy coincidence.
“We felt that there was an opportunity to go to Hong Kong and China to explore different manufacturers and then come up with a range of gifts that would be suitable for the retailers that I had had previous relationships with,” says Anthony.
Neither has formal qualifications in design, but Anthony’s industry experience has given him an eye for what sells and he provides a significant amount of input to the team’s Melbourne-based designers. Tiger Tribe’s products include activity packs and “off-the-grid” toys that Anthony describes as “a boutique aesthetic, which is “somewhere between a kid’s book and a high-design item”.
Anthony has assumed responsibility for sales, marketing and other front-of-house duties, while Naomi is CEO and oversees production, finance and legal. The duo say safety is paramount — and ensuring products comply with global standards is something they take seriously.
“We do two things: we work with our manufacturers to make sure that the product materials, the shape and form can comply,” says Naomi. “We also work very closely with the Australian Toy Association, which has an excellent service whereby we use their compliance manager [Richard Hayman] as a product consultant. He gives us documented advice on whether we’ve got everything right. Safety is a major part of our design work.”
Hayman is paid when he gives specific advice, but provides general advice as part of his role.
Growth was initially organic, Naomi says. Their products began to be stocked in boutique retailers such as Seed, as well as galleries and zoos across Australia. In just five years, Tiger Tribe has employed 20 staff and developed a presence in 30 countries. Overseas sales now account for 40 per cent of the total, including through Barnes and Noble in the US.
Creating an advisory board helped Tiger Tribe’s founders tackle strategic challenges and stimulate growth. An informal advisory board began meeting sporadically in 2011. It included Anthony and Naomi, plus Ted Russell, a retired former mining company CFO who was also a mentor to Naomi in financial management, along with Naomi’s father Colin Wise, the former general counsel of a mining company.
The advisory board meetings became a regular occurrence when Tiger Tribe received a federal government grant in 2014 to subsidise strategic business adviser Anthony Moss. “As we grew, we needed help with facing the next set of challenges — ones that were beyond our current knowledge base,” explains Naomi. “We see the advisory board as helping us with the things we don’t know yet.”
The advisory board began as a way of measuring whether the company was achieving its strategic objectives — one of which was to export its products. A roadmap was created and someone with expertise in exports was recruited. “I’d love to say we entered the US thanks to some strategic brilliance, but there was a degree of luck involved,” says Anthony. “We communicated with a couple of American companies and met with one of them at a gift fair. It just so happened that they had recently transitioned from being a family-owned business into a larger business that invited private equity. Our brand was seen as a useful addition. So it was a bit of serendipity in that they had money to invest in growth and our brand was sufficiently developed.”
Over the past six months, the advisory board has helped the company refine its export strategy. The traditional distribution model in the US relies heavily on sales representatives, who must have a good relationship with a particular store. This is in contrast to Australia, which has more direct relationships between retailers and wholesalers.
“We know we need to make our story clear to the American market through our distributors, so we need to support their presentation of our product,” says Anthony. “In this climate, it’s not just a matter of putting a box on a shelf in a store — there has to be a story behind it. The challenge is working out how to partner with your distributor in their marketing efforts to help to build sales.”
Calm in a time of chaos
Having an advisory board was crucial in a time of heightened anxiety when COVID-19 broke out in Australia in March 2020, the Greens say.
“A year ago, when none of us had any idea whether COVID-19 would decimate us, we called an emergency advisory board meeting. It was a great help for calming our nerves and focusing on short-term plans that helped us stay on track,” says Naomi.
With parents home-schooling their children and desperate for ways to keep them occupied, Tiger Tribe’s sales have remained steady, with an annual growth rate of 10 per cent over the past two years.
By a stroke of luck, the company had launched a new direct-to-consumer website when bricks and mortar stores closed as the lockdown was imposed. The company was also “extraordinarily fortunate” in terms of the impact various lockdowns had on their supply chain, says Naomi.
“China was supposed to shut down in February 2020 anyway, because of Chinese New Year,” says Naomi. “But our factories were able to get going again with just a two-week delay. It was a credit to the logistics team and our amazing partners in China.”
Nonetheless, selling product to 30 markets is not without its stressors — the biggest of which is managing supply. “There’s always competing demand for stock in China,” says Naomi.
“It’s not like opening a fridge door and taking out, say, an apple. Whatever we need has a long lead time for production, so we have to be organised. Last year was enormously challenging because everybody forecast low, so everybody ordered low. But then, in pretty much all the territories, sales exceeded what they’d ordered and they were asking for top-ups.”
While it may not be the worst problem a company can face, another headache was the threat of US tariffs at the end of 2019. This caused US buyers to worry about the impact on pricing, and orders dropped as a result.
“The years 2019 and 2020 were certainly not my favourites,” says Naomi. “But now it’s time to put our foot on the pedal and really push it.”
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