Alice Taylor, Founder of MakieLab: Stop Contemplating, Start Doing!

Alice Taylor is the founder and CEO of MakieLab, a UK-based company that lets users customize and 3D-print their own toys: the Makies.

Seeking partly to overcome the typical role models that come with toys – and dolls in particular – she decided to create her very own business model, letting people design unique dolls and also bridging the gap between online and offline gaming.

After a year of planning and some prototyping, in 2011 MakieLab was born. Just one year later, the company secured a $ 1.4m seed investment, and in March 2013, MakieLab won the prestigious SXSW Accelerator prize in Entertainment & Gaming. Today, Makies are the world’s most advanced 3D-printed toys, officially approved for kids aged 3 and up under European safety regulations and available at Selfridges stores in the UK and online.

We met with Alice Taylor at this year's NEXT Conference in Berlin and talked about her founding experiences, convincing investors and managing startup and family life at the same time.

LW: How did you set up the company?

AT: Having the idea and founding the company didn’t happen at the same time in my case. I first thought about Makies in 2010, when I was still an editor for children at Channel 4, visiting a toy fair. But I didn’t start the company until I had developed and tested a prototype and I could see it was really possible. That was in the spring of 2011. In August 2011, MakieLab was granted a government fund of 100.000 pounds so we could really get started.

LW: In 2012, MakieLab secured 1.4m$ in seed investments. How did you manage this?

AT: At first it wasn’t easy. Lots of VCs liked the idea and our team, but of course, in 2011, we were missing traction. We talked to investors in Silicon Valley, Finland and the UK, but they all told us to come back after our launch with more numbers. Finally, we were lucky with visionary, early-stage investor Lifeline Ventures. That was a real door opener! Lifeline introduced us to Sunstone, who also decided to invest. Private investors and superangel Cedric Littardi joined. It was just incredible: We got a major seed investment, raised solely in Europe. That meant we could go live in alpha, start developing our toy line properly, and get the game started.

I think part of what made us successful is our decision to talk to early-stage investors. Also, we didn’t give up even after several people had told us “no”.

Another thing is the appeal of our idea and business model. It is really unique and combines several aspects with great future potential: 3D printing, gaming, avatars, customizable dolls... I had already experienced the great appeal of this combination when forming my team in 2011: It only took me three months to get the core team together because people were instantly taken with the idea.

LW: Where is your company at right now (August 2013)?

AT: Right now I would say we are about two thirds of the way. We have a handful of sales per day. Our app launched in March and has had over 200,000 installs since then - more than 1 million Makies have been created online. This month we opened a minishop in Selfridges Toy Shop, featuring a new line of Limited Edition collectible Makie dolls, and our online game is tracking for release by the end of this year. We have additional products in development now too, centred around fantasy combat themes.

LW: What did it mean to you to win the SXSW Accelerator this spring? What has changed since then?

AT: We won $ 4.000 of prize money and two tickets to next year’s event, which was nice. But what’s more important: We got a lot of reputation! This also means more invitations to conferences and talks. And of course this kind of attention is very good when you’re looking for investors in the U.S.

It was a great signal for women in technology, too.

Awards and accelerators, especially in tech, are oftentimes all about men. So there we were, two women on the final stage, and then even winning at SXSW. A pretty good feeling!

LW: Speaking of women and startups. You have a small daughter. How do you manage a startup and your family at the same time?

AT: It’s not always easy. The world is not set up yet to support parents particularly well. For example, almost 100 per cent of my salary goes to childcare. I couldn’t get by without my husband and daughter’s support.

At Makielab, I try to provide an infrastructure that makes it easier for everyone. Both the founding team and investor board are 50% female and male. This pretty much goes for my staff, too. Also, we try to have a balanced ratio of parents and non-parents. This way, lots of problems actually take care of themselves: The parents come in early and leave early. The others can sleep in and stay longer hours.

LW: Do you have any advice for fellow female founders?

AT: In terms of balancing family life and a career: I had a great (very, very senior) mentor while I was working at the BBC. She always said, "Don’t work a minute overtime. Don’t bend. Family time is the most important thing you have". She really helped me to set my priorities straight.

And in terms of pursuing your business goals: I like the Gandhi saying "We have to be the change we want to see". I encourage everyone to go out there and do things instead of just dreaming about them!

I still lie awake at night sometimes, getting freaked out about what I am doing and all the responsibilities. But then again, it works! And that’s fantastic, right?

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