A Week in My Life: Nigel Phan, Founder of Whirli
Whirli is a children’s toy subscription service providing parents with a more affordable, environmentally-friendly way to access the latest must-have toys.
The startup seeks to facilitate a sharing economy for children’s toys. Sign up to a plan, choose the toys you want, and whenever toys become unloved, simply swap them for something new.
We caught up with Nigel Phan, Founder and Managing Director at Whirli, to see what his most recent workweek looked like...
I’m not at all a morning person, but Monday is the busiest day of the week for us, so I try to get into the office by 9.30am at the latest (I know, I can hear the tiny violins playing already…)
By this time the office is bustling, and there are two piles of boxes waiting for attention. The first one is stacked high with the toys that parents have returned to us. For a normal toy retailer, this would be a concern, but for us, it’s a welcome sight that shows that Whirli customers are embracing an alternative to the usual cycle of buying and throwing or giving away. The second pile is smaller and growing neatly on a pallet – these are the new orders we are packing and dispatching to customers today. We have a huge range – over 1,000 different toys – so each box we send is unique.
The weekend is the most popular time for customers to make their swaps, so on Mondays, we get to see our sharing-economy concept in action: unloved toys coming back, and new orders going out to the same customers.
I spend most of Monday with the operations team. As our subscriber base grows, so does our team. I like to stay close to the team to ensure everyone understands their role and our processes. When a toy is returned to us, we inspect, clean and sterilise it, and for new orders, we check again to make sure they meet our standards.
We review issues with toys; sometimes subscribers return them incomplete, and sometimes they get damaged in transit. Today I called one of our suppliers, as we’d been having recurring issues with a toy being damaged. This suggested to me that its construction was not very sturdy, so we decided to remove it from our library completely.
While I spend most of my time with operations, I make sure to check in with everyone else too. It’s important to me that everyone is clear on what they’re achieving this week, and if there’s anything blocking their progress. Plus, I like to hear how everyone’s weekends were!
On Tuesday mornings I meet with our software engineers and our digital agency partners, Hex Digital. As an eCommerce business driven by technology, we are constantly updating our product, and this meeting is vital for managing our roadmap and pipeline.
In this process, we report any new issues that have been discovered, and plan for the next few weeks. This means processing customer feedback, prioritising new features to implement (or bugs to fix), and working with designers and developers to wireframe and build new pages.
Tuesdays are great for web releases. It’s early enough in the week to catch any post-release issues before the weekend, but it’s after the Monday rush. I spend most of the rest of the day at my desk, reviewing what we’re launching for the week before giving final approval for it to go live.
This week we kicked off work on an important new feature on our website: a gift list function that allows customers to make lists they can share with friends and family. Worried about an influx of unwanted toys at Christmas? Soon, you’ll be able to curate a gift list on Whirli, get what you want, and then swap those gifts on Whirli for something else.
We’re typically quietest in the middle of the week, so I schedule calls and meetings for Wednesdays. This week, I travelled to meet the co-founder and CEO of a startup that I admire. They turned seven years old this year, so they’re quite a bit further down the road that Whirli is on. I shared what we were doing, and in turn, the CEO gave me some valuable insight into what he has learnt on his journey and what he would have done differently in hindsight.
In the afternoon I headed back to the office, to catch up with our marketing team. We use these meetings to review how our marketing channels are performing, what issues might be affecting our performance (blame it all on the weather!), and what new initiatives or activities we might want to plan, say around a new feature or a special occasion like Halloween or Christmas.
Towards the end of the day, I had two video conferences with institutional investors who were both interested in hearing about Whirli. These conversations are becoming increasingly regular occurrences, and ones that take up a lot of my time, but they’re also a valuable opportunity to receive feedback and measure Whirli’s progress.
On Thursdays, we take stock for the week – literally. As our subscriber base grows, we buy toys new to fuel the demand. Stock management – ensuring we don’t hold excess stock or stock we can’t sell – is an important part of retail. Luckily, we can take a very light inventory approach, as our suppliers are great at delivering to us quickly.
By this point in the week, we have a good idea of what toys we need to top up on, and what new toys we want to add. This means getting up to speed with children’s TV shows and movies (I promise we’re working!). We make judgements on what we think will be popular, and order new stock accordingly. We order from a handful of our dozens of suppliers each week, rotating to keep things fresh.
I also like to review our sales performance and cash flow. Like most startup founders I know, I obsess over cash management and planning. Perhaps less conventionally, I also genuinely enjoy updating our financial accounts and doing the bookkeeping – although not enough to have turned a summer internship I had years back into my day job and career.
I start Fridays off with a recurring meeting with our customer services team. We’re a very customer-centric company and we take a lot of pride in the extremely positive customer reviews that we receive. These reviews are a testament to the great work everyone at Whirli is doing. In the meeting, we discuss patterns we’re seeing and what needs feeding back to our developers and marketing team. We often also discuss individual customer situations in these meetings, and how we can improve our service for them or what we can learn.
By the afternoon, one or two of the orders we sent out on Thursday begin arriving (I told you our suppliers were fast!). We check these replenishments and get them ready to be sent out to our customers.
Every other Friday, I get the entire company together for a casual drink and a chat. After a hectic week, this can be a great time to unwind and hold broad discussions about what’s been going on at Whirli.