Some people are born to dance, and Sharon McBean’s daughter is one of them.
‘Before she even turned three years old, she was begging me to learn ballet,’ Sharon says. ‘She’d watch episodes of Angelina Ballerina and balance on her tip-toes, mimicking the dance moves.’
‘Mummy, I love ballet,’ she’d tell Sharon. ‘I just want to dance.’
When it became clear it wasn’t just a phase, Sharon signed her up for lessons. Seeing the joy ballet gave her daughter gave her an idea – she wanted to get her one of the traditional musical jewellery boxes that opened up to reveal the pirouetting figurine inside.
But when she tried to find one with a black ballerina – one that was more relatable for her daughter – she couldn’t find one.
‘I searched for 18 months,’ she says, ‘but couldn’t find one anywhere.’
Venting her frustration to her cousin last summer, she thought of something her daughter’s father had suggested, and the words tumbled out of her mouth: ‘I should just make one myself.’ ‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘You should.’
Her daughter was starting school in the September and she was already working part-time as a social worker, so had time to explore the idea. The more she thought about it, the more she felt sure it was what she was supposed to do.
Within a few months a friend had introduced her to a graphic designer, who in turn put her in touch with an illustrator he knew. Together, they created the first images of ‘Nia Ballerina’.
Nia, which means ‘purpose’ in Swahili, was also the middle name of Sharon’s daughter. ‘When I told her what I was planning to do she immediately wanted to help,’ Sharon remembers. ‘She started drawing her own designs, and was the one who insisted the ballerina be dressed in pink and wear a tiara.’
Next, the graphic artist helped turn the sketches into two product designs.
Although Sharon had the passion and drive to make Nia Ballerina a reality, she had no manufacturing experience. She relied on Google to teach her everything she needed to know about production and EU safety regulations.
She started searching for a British manufacturer to make the boxes, but unfortunately couldn’t find what she needed here in the UK, eventually turning to a Chinese supplier. There was only one problem – she had to order at least 1000 units of each design.
Despite the intimidating volumes, she decided to take the plunge.
‘I figured it would take 18 months, maybe two years, to sell them all,’ she explains. She saw it as a nice sideline business she could slot in around motherhood, and her social work.
She was able to self-fund the first order, investing around £15,000-20,000 of her own money, but is quick to point out that a lack of funds shouldn’t deter potential entrepreneurs.
‘There were a lot of funding options,’ she says. ‘Plus, the initial investment was taken in stages over 12 months, so I didn’t need all the money at once.’
When the samples arrived they were perfect. Sharon was so thrilled she took a short video, and proudly showed them off on her Facebook page. Friends began to share the clip, and she was surprised to find people contacting her for pre-orders; by the time the full shipment arrived in August she already had 100 customers lined up.
She put it down to an initial rush of excitement, but on her first official day of business she sold another 100 units. And the next day 100 more. The orders kept flooding in – now reaching 200 a day.
It turned out Sharon’s original Facebook post had gone viral in the US – her video now had 50,000 views – and people had fallen in love with her Nia Ballerina jewellery boxes.
But Sharon didn’t have time to enjoy her overnight success – she was frantically processing orders, and packing the boxes up for delivery. While she was incredibly grateful, it quickly became overwhelming. Family and friends were frantically drafted in to help get the orders fulfilled – even her daughter joined the production line – but with half her stock sold in just one week, she just couldn’t keep up with demand.
‘It happened so quickly,’ she explains. ‘I was so overrun I ended up putting an ‘out of stock’ message up on the website, just so I could stop new orders flooding in, and try to catch up.’
Terrified she was now letting people down, Sharon broke down in tears.
Then she received an email from a man in the United States: he’d bought a jewellery box for his young daughter, and had attached a video of her opening her present. Sharon watched as the little girl’s face light up: ‘She looks like me! She looks like me!’ she screamed with excitement.
That’s when she realised she was genuinely making a difference; that little girls were seeing themselves represented in a way they’d never experienced before. She knew she had to take a deep breath, and keep moving forward.
It was then that she came across the Department of International Trade, the Government organisation that helps British companies to export internationally. They gave her free advice on everything from intellectual property rights and contracts, to international marketing and press coverage.
Which was perfect timing, as the stock she’d assumed would take two years to shift was snapped up in less than three months, and she had to place a second order to allow for the Christmas demand.
Seeing that a huge number were still coming from the US, Sharon found a fulfilment house to package up and post out the American and Canadian orders, freeing her up to concentrate on Europe and the UK, and website enquiries. In March 2017, just seven months after launching, she’d sold 4000 of her Nia Ballerina jewellery boxes.
‘That’s when I finally felt like I could stop and take a breath, and let it all sink in,’ Sharon says.
The success of the jewellery boxes had really opened her eyes to the lack of diversity in the toy industry. ‘I’d always accepted it without question,’ she says, ‘but now I felt strongly that people shouldn’t have to find these products – they should be mainstream, and readily available.’
She has big plans for the future – including more jewellery box designs, a dance bag, a book series and even a Nia Ballerina doll. And, yes, her daughter is fully involved with all the plans.
‘She loves being a part of this,’ Sharon says, ‘She even helped me with a radio interview the other day.’
When she decided to create a jewellery box with a black ballerina, Sharon thought she was simply making her daughter’s dream come true – she had no idea she’d be bringing joy to thousands of other children around the world.
She’s also managed to create a business that allows her to work flexibly around her daughter.
‘She sees me running a business, yet I can still drop her off at school and pick her up afterwards,’ she says. ‘I feel proud that I’m setting her a good example and showing her that if she follows her dreams, anything is possible.’