timto: Luke Cornish
The founder of the children's birthday present service on the value of charitable fundraising
Tell us what your business does timto.co.uk is a unique children’s birthday service that allows parents to set up a free online birthday account for their child and provides guests with the opportunity to contribute to a collective fund, rather than giving small individual gifts. The family creates a present ‘wish-list’ from the extensive timto shop and then selects a charity of their choice to whom they would like to donate a proportion of the birthday fund. The family determines what proportion of the total funds collected will be donated to that charity. The timto shop contains online items and high street gift vouchers in association with Amazon.co.uk, The Entertainer Toy Shop, Early Learning Centre and Mothercare and also provides children’s experience days via Red Letter Days.
Where did the idea for your business come from? The idea came to me at a family birthday party in 2008 where my niece received an overwhelming number of presents from her guests. Although the generosity and goodwill of the guests was evident, it made me question whether the money and effort afforded by friends and families was of any long term value. Consequently, I conducted research and soon realised that there was a significant amount of waste associated with birthdays, where many gifts were duplicated or never used; not forgetting the time spent by parents shopping for a suitable gift.
How did you know there was a market for it? What’s your USP (unique selling point)? I conducted a significant amount of research before launching timto. From interviewing parents and carrying out extensive desk top studies, to attending business exhibitions and holding focus groups across the UK, I was able to produce some interesting findings. I found that there are approximately 6.5 million children’s birthday parties each year, equating to a total expenditure of over £800 million on presents, 30% of which is spent on presents that are unused, unwanted or unloved. timto is a unique concept, meaning we were the first to market and so consequently have no direct competitors. We allow users to contribute collectively, rather than providing individual gifts. This provides guests with a far simpler option and simultaneously allows the child to receive the gifts they desire.
What were you doing before starting up? I previously worked as a civil and structural engineer in the oil and gas industry. I left the engineering profession in 2008 with my sights set on starting my own business.
Have you always wanted to run your own business? Growing up I was always intrigued by family and friends who ran their own businesses and I was interested to see what being my own boss would entail. For me, the most appealing aspect to setting up timto was the thought of being a part of something that could genuinely be the next ‘big thing’. Running a business allows me to be involved in design, marketing, networking, financial management etc. timto is the chance of a lifetime.
What planning did you do before you started up? Aside from market research, I took time to draft and re-draft a number of business plans. Over the last 18 months there have been many technological advancements and so it was vital that my business plan was up to date. I sought business advice from a number of individuals. Their input has helped me to develop a practical and strategic business plan that I now feel confident will allow me to drive the business forward.
How did you raise the money? timto.co.uk has been self financed.
How did you find suppliers? I realised from an early stage that it would not be cost effective to sell our own products. As a result I set about forging links with a number of retailers who are able to provide the quality products that I was looking for, whilst maintaining competitive prices and promising excellent customer service.
What challenges have you faced how have you overcome them? The most difficult challenge initially was securing a payment service provider (PSP). In the middle of 2009 the economic climate was such that the financial sector did not want to consider the timto business model because it was so innovative. As a result, it took a significant amount of time to persuade a PSP to accept the model. Receiving confirmation from PayPal was a major milestone for the business.
How have you promoted your business? There are a number of different aspects to the business that require marketing and promotional support. Building and maintaining relationships with the charities involved in timto is a large aspect of this. Additionally the timto website and the functionality of the service are also under constant review. With help from a public relations agency and a range of direct marketing and social media tools, we are working to develop a service which generates public awareness and is effectively marketed to our target users.
How much do you charge? How did you decide this?The timto service is free to use. We also provide a free RSVP service, free party invitations and free contributor certificates. The only charge associated with our service is a 75 pence fee applied to each contribution. This covers charges imposed by PayPal and allows the guest to use a safe and secure payment system. Year 1 aim is to raise more than £100,000 for charity
What has your growth been like? The business successfully reached its targets for the first four consecutive months and we are on course to continue to achieve our monthly aims. I have an aggressive growth strategy and my primary objective is to raise £4m for charity in the next 3 years.
What would you say the greatest difficulty has been in starting up? Successfully managing my time and balancing numerous tasks at once.
What was your first big breakthrough? This was an email I received from the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-UK). After many lengthy discussions we were given permission to use the text ‘WWF-UK’. To be given a privilege that no other UK start-up business had been given was incredibly satisfying. This not only installed some much needed confidence amongst the timto team but it also encouraged a number of other charities to join timto.
What would you do differently? Aside from avoiding some unnecessary advertising campaigns and contacting PayPal sooner, there is little that I would do differently. Every step has been a learning curve and has helped me to reach the stage I find myself at now.
What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs? Firstly, do your research; without this, the foundations of your business will be unstable. Secondly it is vital that you build a network of people in whom you can trust and seek advice from. For most businesses, embracing technology is also fundamental to success. If you fail to do this, then your competitors will move on without you. I would also advise individuals to build as many revenue streams as possible into their business model to encourage greater stability. Finally, think big!
Where do you want to be in five years’ time? Do you have an exit plan? I think it’s essential that every business has an exit strategy. You can only govern the direction of your business if you know where the finish line is. In five years time I would like timto to be a successful business that raises millions of pounds for charity each year. I would like to develop a global brand within which ‘timto’ becomes synonymous with a certain type of party.