My Startup: Whirli

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Whirli’s mission is to help parents better manage the sheer volume of toys that their kids have.

With plastic landfill becoming an ever-growing issue, Nigel Phan decided to try and change the way parents and kids interact with toys to reduce their environmental impact. 

The toy subscription service allows parents to pick the toys they want when they want them, and to hold on to them for as long as they like.

Founder: Nigel Phan

Founded: 2018

Website: whirli.com

We spoke to Nigel to find out more about Whirli...

Nigel Phan, Founder, Whirli

Why did you start Whirli? 

My founding story is more pre-emptive of a problem that I’ll face rather than reactive to one. A few years ago, many of my friends became parents for the first time and they collectively bemoaned at how much they were spending on transient baby goods, and how cluttered their homes were becoming!

There must be a better model for such a commonplace problem, I insisted – but there was not. My friends lamented that you could get second-hand from eBay, Gumtree, or charity shops – but you might not trust the sellers and the quality. You could rent from a few small companies, but they might not have the brands you want. At the end of the day, there wasn't a professional service that parents could rely on and trust.

Further research on different categories honed Whirli in on kids’ toys. The average lifespan of a toy before being unloved is very short (weeks, if not just days and hours). Neglected toys across the UK are cluttering homes to eventually become landfill waste and stretching family budgets unnecessarily. I founded Whirli to help solve this problem for parents, and solve it for myself one day!

Tell us more about the company?

At Whirli, we believe that flexibility, choice, and convenience is paramount. Our subscription model and end-to-end user experience are designed with this fully in mind. We never want to pretend to know more about your parenting philosophy than you do, or know more about your children than you do, and end up sending you a box of stuff you don’t want or don’t see value in.

Parents choose a subscription plan which gives them a token allowance to spend in our store. A Whirli token represents £1 at retail price (so a £20 toy is 20 tokens in our store). Parents can then pick and choose exactly what toys to play with, selecting from our wide catalogue of the top brands. Whenever a toy gets unloved, simply send it back and you’ll get the tokens back to swap for something else. Fall in a love with a toy and you can also buy it to keep forever. Each box comes with a prepaid returns label, a tape to reseal the box and anything else you need.

Unlike a lot of other subscription box models, the toys come back to Whirli and we facilitate a shared ownership/sharing economy. When we receive a toy back, it is triple checked, cleaned, and sterilised before we put it back on the store for another family to pick up. This way, Whirli enables parents to get much more value for their money, declutter their homes, and lessen their impact on the environment.

Where’s the business at right now?

We opened for a limited pilot in November 2018 and completed this in March 2019. In this period, we successfully tested our technology and warehouse logistics. Further, we made many improvements to our customer service and toy collection based on feedback from subscribers. We now have close to 1,000 toys available through our service, covering babies from birth to kids up to seven or eight years old.

The Whirli team

We’re really excited about what we’re developing for gifting. Gift-buyers know the struggle of trying to pick something for another person’s kids! Parents are frequently exasperated when they receive toys their child already have at home (sometimes even receiving the same toys from different people attending the same party!), or receive toys that are inappropriate for their kids due to age/skill level or if it doesn’t fit their parenting philosophy. 

With Whirli’s gifting proposition, you can give a subscription gift card and choose physical toys up to the gift card value to go along with it. If your recipient loves the toys they can just keep it like any other gifted toys, but chances are they prefer to swap. Simply sign up with their gift code, and they’ll be able to use Whirli to keep swapping and get stuff they want. Our gifting proposition will be available from late July 2019 onwards, so keep an eye out – especially for when Christmas rolls around the corner!

What are your aims for the next year?

We’re still early on in our journey and want to make sure we focus on delivering a strong customer experience and retaining subscribers. This means investment into our technology to continuously improve user experience and offer value-added functionality and services.

As our subscriber base keeps growing, we also need to be mindful of the increased logistical complexities. It’s important we scale our operations without compromising on the quality of customer experience and service. This likely means investment into a bigger team, bigger warehouse space, and more technology to help us get more efficient and keep error rates very low.

What’s been the hardest thing about getting Whirli off the ground?

All startups face issues recruiting talent early on when there isn’t much more than a concept to work with. With Whirli, I was very keen on ensuring the quality of our work builds trust with potential customers. I also wanted to be quick to market so we can test and learn.

This led me to start a partnership with Hex Digital, who have been instrumental to Whirli’s progress and success to date. Hex supported Whirli across the entire suite of areas a digital product needs for success. This included rolling out our branding (designed by Ragged Edge, a branding agency), website and marketing creative design, technology build, and managing our performance marketing.

Their experience and ability to draw from a wide range of expertise in their agency meant that the quality of our work was far better than what Whirli could have achieved with a small in-house team. For example, Whirli does not have an in-house digital designer – we could have used freelancers but their commitment and consistency are concerns. With an agency, we could draw upon designers as needed and create a strong consistent feel across all our channels. 

See Whirli's video advert

The quality in everything we’ve done, from our website to packaging materials, to advertisements/branded collateral has been superb. To this date, we have new customers and potential investors who say that they’d never have guessed we were such a young company given our executional quality! 

Hex has also now helped me interview and hire our own developers and marketers to build our in-house team and capability. This support has been vital to ensure we continue building a strong, independent, team at Whirli and that we are not over-reliant on agencies. 

It’s a perennial debate if agencies are worth their cost, especially for startups. From my experience with Hex, I certainly found that if you choose partners well, they can help solve many startups’ biggest challenges early on when it comes to attracting talent and building a quality product at speed. 

Why should more people be using Whirli?

Apart from improving affordability and access to toys, and reducing clutter in households, we often talk about two missions we have at Whirli.

Firstly, toys play a massive role in a child’s development. In fact, most children do not have a wide enough variety of toys or enough playtime with physical toys. Toys teach motor skills, linguistic skills, mathematical skills, acoustic skills, creative skills, spark career aspirations, and so much more. With Whirli, we’re improving access and making sure that children from all backgrounds can afford and play with a wide variety of toys; reducing skill disparities that can manifest even before kids start school, and therefore improving long term outcomes.

Secondly, toys contribute massively to plastic waste going to landfill. By facilitating a sharing economy, we help parents who are environmentally conscious and want to make small changes in their lifestyle. Through changing how we consume toys – and swapping, not shopping – parents can collectively make a big difference for our environment. We’re proud that what we’re doing with Whirli can have a huge impact and doesn’t require our customers to make unachievable and drastic changes to their lifestyle and what they consume. 

How much will it cost customers? and why is it worth it? 

We have a wide variety of plans available, starting at just £9.99 per month and going up to £29.99 per month depending on how many toys you want to have at a time. If you’re a frequent swapper, you can add free deliveries for £5 a month (otherwise it is £2.99 per delivery or return to cover our costs). 

The average parent spends around £300 per year on toys for a single child. We commissioned research earlier this year (conducted by Sapio Research) that revealed parents think a staggering 23% of toys they purchased were neglected within just ONE week.

It’s clear something has to change and parents are not getting good value when shopping for toys. If you sign up to Whirli you’ll save money, reduce clutter at home, and make a difference to our environment. It's easy-peasy. 

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