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How thinking small saw founders make it big

Marvling Bros, founded by friends Hayley Madden and Emma Dobie, creates mini gifts that can fit inside a matchbox, a concept sparked by a child's school project
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A business that began from a mum assisting with her son’s school project, to over half a million units sold worldwide, is set to celebrate its 10th anniversary with the re-launch of its most popular product – Hot Stuff In A Matchbox. We share how Marvling Bros has navigated the ups and downs of being an “accidental” startup – including a surprise visit from Inland Revenue – thanks to the determination of its co-founders and the support of family members and school gate mates

In 2010 a school competition was held ‘HOW MUCH CAN YOU FIT IN A MATCHBOX?’. Hayley Madden’s son was not enthused by the idea. Still, Hayley entered for him and came up with all sorts of objects that not only fitted in the matchbox but fulfilled a concept too, for example, a grain of rice and a coriander seed which she labelled ‘curry takeaway’ and a picture of the Mona Lisa and Van Gogh’s Sunflowers- ‘an art gallery’.

She did not win the competition, and most people thought it was mad, but one other person at the school totally got it – Emma Dobie.

Three years later, Emma, inspired by the matchboxes, thought the concept could be the basis for a business and for nine months she and Hayley beavered away researching products, developing ideas and learning how to run an e-commerce company, Marvling Bros.

The “mazy” days of building a startup

When orders started to get big on one occasion a delivery man arrived at Emma’s house asking where their forklift was. With no forklift, the gang of volunteers started carrying the boxes into Emma’s living room. At some point, Hayley’s Prius was filled to spread the load and Emma’s youngest son was unceremoniously evacuated out of his bedroom so boxes could be piled on his bed.

Client relations were strained to add to the chaos. The company’s blog reveals that “there had been a few rather heated conversations with Notonthehighstreet as orders began to become almost impossible to fulfil.” With a skeleton crew of mums and mates, Emma and Hayley decided life was just too short and agreed sales would stop at the end of November.

Marvling Bros, founded by friends Hayley Madden and Emma Dobie, creates mini gifts that can fit inside a matchbox (and your letterbox) which range from mini marshmallow toasting kits and micropub seed kits, to novelty stationery and their best-selling “Hot stuff” chilli in a matchbox gift.

As orders reached 3000 a day there was a nasty period when the Marvling Bros Paypal account was frozen for a few days due to ‘suspicious activity’ as incoming and outgoing payments “rocketed” in just days.

To compound matters, two inspectors from the Inland revenue introduced themselves one day on Emma’s doorstep and a whole morning was spent convincing them it was a kosher business

They asked, “‘Let me get this straight – you’ve made over £60,000 selling chilli in matchboxes for a fiver?”?

They left with a matchbox of “Hot Stuff” a piece!

The co-founders say the road to success is a “mazy one, full of ups and downs and twists and turns.”

Ten years later…

Today, Marvling Bros, founded by friends Hayley Madden and Emma Dobie, creates mini gifts that can fit inside a matchbox (and your letterbox) which range from mini marshmallow toasting kits and micropub seed kits, to novelty stationery and their best-selling “Hot stuff” chilli in a matchbox gift.

Now, to celebrate their 10th anniversary, the team are set to relaunch “Hot Stuff” and this time, it will be even hotter, as Emma explains:

“Hot stuff is actually what really saw the business take off. We’d gone from an accidental start-up based on a school project to just about getting by and visiting craft fairs to all of a sudden seeing our sales soar.

“To this day, I don’t know exactly how it happened and we’d almost given up. In fact, Hayley had begun to return to her core photography business and we were plodding along. We had listed on NotOnTheHighStreet for their Christmas catalogue with an estimate of shifting maybe 1000 units (not bad vs 10 in week one) which I was a little downbeat about at the time to be honest.”

‘Then all of a sudden….”it clicked”, says Emma. “Or rather, it beeped!”

Emma’s phone was linked to their CMS system began beeping. Order after order was coming in.

The business was bringing in 10 orders a week up to then, Hayley and Emma had barely spoken about the business and Madden was in a busy period for her event photography business. Then Emma called her.

“I got a call from Emma sounding a tad stressed. Err, you better come over so I headed over to see what was going on,” says Hayley.

Hayley soon discovered that Emma was somewhere underneath a pile of papers, packaging, matchboxes and chilli bottles. “I could barely get into the living room. Emma’s phone was constantly bleeping as new orders kept coming in,” she says.

The business was about to take off

Roping in family members including the kids, four mums from the school run to assist with production and Hayley’s partner’s mother who was in her eighties, to stick first-class stamps on jiffy bags, production was in full swing. By the end of half term, they were on 500 orders a day.

‘’Funnily enough, Emma’s husband (who was a great support as we got going and helped us get off the ground with a £5000 cash injection) had projected that we could conceivably do this if we got the demand but I don’t think we actually thought it would happen,” says Hayley. “Certainly not this quickly anyway!” she adds

At one point their chilli supplier in China thought they made an ordering error. “You’ve ordered 20,000 bottles, Emma. Your last order was 2000.”

“I had to explain there was no error and that we were going to be needing more as Christmas was looming and our novelty gifting was clearly striking a chord,” recalls Emma.

Fast forward 10 years and the team is now 7 strong with family members Charlotte and Kyle in digital marketing and warehouse managing roles, and loyal teams of suppliers and fulfilment assisting across the business. Plus, Emma and Hayley both have their houses back.

“We’ve grown up as a business” admits Hayley.

She continues, “We’ve had to learn the hard way wrestling with tech, battling with logistics, supply chains and all manner of chilli burns! However, I think at one level our business “innocence” at the start has served us well. We are both very creative people and we just tend to ask the question ‘what if we tried this’ quite a lot. Plus, we are chalk and cheese in terms of personalities.

“When you add in the support of family and friends you can build a fantastic opportunity but of course, you have to take it. We grasped it with both hands and yes, we were wearing protective gloves!”

Check out their website here.







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