In this podcast, I’m talking to Yvonne Jane Wright from www.Ecobears.co.uk. Ecobears are soft toy bears made with eco-friendly material that Yvonne makes herself. What I find interesting is how she’s now trying to expand the brand through creating a story book about Ecobears which she is also selling. She’s also looking at other possible options how she can license the brand. Unfortunately, during the interview we had a bad internet connection so there maybe a few bleeps here and there. I have the interview transcribed below as well if you prefer to read it.
Tara: Hi Yvonne! Thanks for joining me today. Would you mind telling me a little bit about where you’re based and your background experience?
Yvonne: Hi Tara. Thank you very much for having me. Yes, I’m actually based in Catalonia, in northeast Spain. I’ve been here for quite a few years now and Ecobears has been going for quite some time. It started back in 1996 and it was a combination of two passions. I’ve always enjoyed toy making and environment interest as well. And the materials that I’ve used from that moment onwards were mainly recycled natural materials. And the bears have an ethical message
Tara: So did you always sew before you made your first bear?
Yvonne: Well, actually I’ve sewn since I was a kid because my mother refused to buy us a TV. And she was always sewing, she used to make gorgeous clothes, she used to draw patterns and she was always doing things like that so it’s kind of been a natural thing for me to copy. So I was quite interested in soft toys then. I started doing just simple patterns, two pieces of fabric and then sew them together, stuffing them and try to put a little bit of character onto the face and that’s kind of all stayed with me. I don’t think I’ll ever change, I think that’s always going to be a part of my character. And so as time has gone on obviously the toys and things I’ve made improved. And I’ve made lots and lots and lots of mistakes along the way and still do. I think its such fun, the designing aspect I enjoy so much. I think it’s really good.
Tara: So you designed all the patterns and everything as well and then when you make them you use natural materials?
Yvonne: Yes, all the patterns I designed. I have a few basic ones that I kind of should I say formulate ones that I stick to and then I decide to slightly alter the accessories or clothes but yes the majority of the materials are natural and all of the materials that I feel will be appropriate to the actual design depending on what it is but most of the designs are teddy bears and stuff toys.
Tara: It says something on your website that the energy for your sewing machine is solar powered as well.
Yvonne: Well yes, because we’re out in the middle of the Catalonian countryside which is absolutely gorgeous but it’s just totally impractical when it comes to being on grid, so we are off grid. And as I mentioned earlier we had to build a house and the only way that we could get electricity was to use solar energy. So what we’ve done was we’ve installed six solar panels and then all the solar energy from the solar panels goes to certain batteries and then these feed into the house. So the majority of the year we have solar energy which obviously we run our electricity off.
Tara: So that makes it even more eco friendly both the actual bears as well how they are made.
Yvonne: It does. Yes, certainly does.
Tara: So do you make all the Ecobears yourself as well?
Yvonne: Yes, all the bears I’ve made myself. There’s just me in this little workshop and yeah I do all the work myself.
Tara: Did you protect your toy any way? I don’t know how you can protect stuff toys. Can you protect your patents or trademarks or anything like that?
Yvonne: Well in 1999, I trademarked the name and I trademarked the logo and I also I think I did three or four groups for the trademark. And so yes I did trademark teddy bears and stuff toys etc. I haven’t actually looked at the trademark itself but I think I have them somewhere. I’ve got it close at hand. So yeah, I have yes. I’m glad I have actually because I’ll do a Google search and I’ll be surprised and somebody somewhere is thinking its okay to use the name. You’ve got to protect, I think you’ve got to do it these days definitely.
Tara: So how did you first start selling your Ecobears and how did it develop to what you do today?
Yvonne: When I first started doing it, I decided it would be better just to stick to one idea in using the natural materials and it seemed an interesting idea to do character bears. And at that time I was very much involved in the teddy bear world because in around 1996 quite a lot of people, a lot of artists were doing collector’s bears so there were quite a few teddy bear shows going around the country. And I obviously took a look at them and thought this would be a perfect place to start. By showing the Ecobears I could see what people think and hopefully sell some as well. And also it was kind of like finding like minded people at the time. And so I just tapped into that market. Obviously it was a niche market but it was fun as well because you got to travel a little bit.
Tara: So how’s that gone from sort of there to what you do now?
Yvonne: Well it had to change because we moved from the UK. Obviously moving out to Spain and here aren’t so many teddy bear shows if any at all. But I think with the onset of the internet and technology that pretty much helped with the direction I’ve gone in with the Ecobears. So now I sell online. And I also tried to do features in magazines as well that usually brings in interest. And yes it has changed, from shows first, to the online method.
Tara: So you mentioned the magazines as one of your most successful ways of promoting Ecobears. Is that paid advertising or do you get free PR and articles done?
Yvonne: I have managed to get PR articles done. I think if you can pull a story together, whether depending on the angle, depending on the magazine, if its an artistic or teddy bear are environmental or whatever it is I think that works for both parties because you get obviously some free advertising and make a nice story.
Tara: Are there other ways that you promote Ecobears online as well?
Yvonne: I use social media marketing, obviously because I’m living out in the states in Spain it’s one of the best sort of ways for me to get the message out there so through Facebook, it’s amazing. I end up using Facebook if I put one there and somebody might see that and say, “Can you make me a bear like that?” so on Facebook, it works. It just works.
Tara: Did you start out the business yourself or did you take outside investments?
Yvonne: All of it has been funded by myself. Over the years it’s kind of funded itself. I’ve not taken any investment from outside places although I have thought about it and I have looked into it. And sometimes it seems that until you have something to show, people aren’t very interested in funding it. Once you’ve got something to show, they’re more likely to take an interest it’s a bit of like a chicken and egg really. The point of this is that it takes so much time and effort to just add the value, add to the brand. That’s what you do constantly. You constantly build in, adding value to the whole concept. So I spent years I suppose just trying to create something trying to bring it all together. And obviously we’ve got the story now. We’ve got the character bears. We’ve also got a logo, we’ve got a name but it’s up to me to keep building that up. And you do a lot of it on fresh air and what’s that phrase? Sweat equity. There’s a lot of sweat I’m putting up you know what I’m saying is, a heck of lot of it in there. So yeah keep on pushing forward and just keep the belief.
Tara: So is most of your market in the UK or are you selling in Spain as well?
Yvonne: I do sell quite a lot of things locally because as you may have seen on the website I do personalize gifts as well. So I do get quite a lot of local people that say, Can you do me a bear for a new born, can you put a name on it. So I do tap in to that local market. The bears get to see places I don’t. For example, I think there’s one living in the rainforest in Australia. I’ve also done did mascots, I did one for the World Wildlife Fund, and they took that two years ago, So that’s good for the Eco bears profile and that brings in a lot of interest. I’ve done a bear recently that just climbed Kilimanjaro for charity, the Millicamps Charity. So things like that, that all add to the profile.
Tara: I know you first referred to a children’s book about Ecobears, can you tell me a bit about that?
Yvonne: The children’s book started out about twelve years ago, my partner did the writing for that. And it’s taken quite a long time to obviously get it put together and a publisher who is willing to take it on as well. But what I have done is I have it professionally illustrated, so that’s a collaboration between myself, my partner David and also the illustrator who just happens to be the publisher as well, Calvin Innes. The point of the book, it’s a children’s story aged for nine year olds plus and it’s illustrated and it’s very much an environmental story, and it’s very fantastical and it actually starts off a planet, called planet Vynen. I can read you little bits if you want. Do you want me to read it?
Tara: Yes, go on 🙂
Yvonne: It’s exciting and it’s action packed and it has a message for caring for the environment and the protection of Earth’s resources. It starts off, in a far off galaxy, there is a lush and vibrant planet known as Vynen. The rich forest of the planet is home to thousands of exotic species of plants and animals, from the giant hairy mammamoth to the miniature flick beetle. Each of them cared for by the Ecobears. The Ecobears are highly intelligent creatures who watch over plants and animals on planets all across the universe protecting them from harm. They travel vast distances across space, strange worlds with unimaginable forms of life with their only aim being the protection of endangered species whatever they may be. When the evil bear known as Krakkov and Dilus the bear reaper are located on a distant planet the brave ecobears must quickly jump into action. These villains are known well on the planet Vynen and wherever they go trouble quickly follows. Can they protect their planet from certain destruction? Join the ecobears in their first action packed book to find out.
Tara: Very good.
Yvonne: It’s crazy.
Tara: It would make a good animation as well wouldn’t it?
Yvonne: Oh Yes.
Tara: So you’ve got the book. Any plans to create other spin off Ecobear product to license the brand and other things?
Yvonne: That would be absolutely fantastic to be able to do that and that has always been part of the goal, part of the long term plan but obviously I need to do a lot of research. I need to find out more information and maybe get help on that book. I don’t see why not. That would be brilliant.
Tara: So what advice would you give to anyone who’s got a product idea and kind of don’t know what to do?
Yvonne: Stick with it. Absolutely stick with it. And the more work you put into it the better. And just keep that belief, if you believe it’s good then carry on, carry on. Keep knocking at doors, keep pushing forward. And if you’ve got that belief in it, and is unique and is different hen surely you know one day it’s going to work for you definitely.
Tara: So if people want to know a little bit more about you and Ecobears . Where’s the best place for them to go?
Yvonne: There are several places they can find us. We’ve got a website, www.ecobears. co.uk. You can find out more about the book at http://www.mylittlebigtown.com/ecobears. You’ll also find me on Twitter, @ecobears and also on Facebook, we’ve got ecobears and myself, Yvonne Jane Wright in there as well.
Tara: Great. Thank you very much.