By CianWalsh Izzy Wheels is a Dublin based brand founded by Irish sisters Ailbhe (pronounced Alva) and Izzy Keane. The idea was inspired by Izzy who was born with Spina Bifida and is paralysed from her waist down. Ailbhe saw that her sister’s chair was the first thing people noticed about her but it wasn’t a reflection of her bright and bubbly personality. Izzy Wheels started off as a college project for Ailbhe during her final year in The National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in 2015.

Ailbhe designed a range of stylish wheel covers that expressed a wheelchair users individuality and personality.  Izzy Wheels transforms a medical device into a piece of fashion and self expression. The waterproof wheel covers come in 3 sizes and fit onto any manual wheelchair.

BBC Video

Where do you see the challenge for Irish startups. Funding , expansion, etc?

Well I guess for us, Izzy Wheels started off as a college project and it never was intended to becoming a business. It all happened very organically. We were lucky in that we struck upon something that was really real and what people actually wanted. A challenge for me at the beginning was I finished college age 22 with a really good idea, but with no business experience. Zero. I quit business when I was in Junior Cert.

I wasn’t taught properly what business was what it meant to be good at business or to be a business woman. And I always saw myself as I wanted to be designer and I was really tunnel visioned on that, but I didn’t realise was that to be a successful designer, you also have to be a good businesswoman. Because you need be able to make sales, generate revenue, and manage cash flow. That’s a huge part. I finished college then and I was like “Oh God what do I do?”. Enterprise Ireland were unbelievable support for us. So I did  the“New Frontiers Entrepreneur Development program”

And I think Ireland is a really nice place to start for a startup. For us we are also selling physical products. And which kind differentiates us from a lot of like heavy tech. We’re something physical which is really nice. And we’re female founded. And Ireland’s been a really good place for us. Obviously there is challenges. For instance we sell a very niche product to a very niche market. And that’s girls who are wheelchair users! You don’t really get much more niche! But once you have an e-commerce story, you can be worldwide. Once you have a you’re global!

You need to manage how you get your name out there. And the challenge for us at the beginning was that we had no money. And I knew nothing about raising investment. But you learn how to be kind of nifty with how to get free advertising. And that is learning how to make something go viral. Once you kind of figure out what people want. What’s good content. And you can get you your product in front of a lot of a lot of eyes for no money.

Your story is rightly an inspiring one. Do your supporters and champions shape the message of Izzy Wheels or do you try and stay true to the original intent.

So Izzy Wheels  obviously started off as something really personal to me.

So I think that’s why even the branding is so colourful and quite girly. We’re very girly ourselves. So we don’t try and be anything we’re not. And you know I started off just designing for Izzy and her needs and her outfits. And then from there, I designed for other people individually and then that’s when I started asking other designers to get on board because they have their own style as well. And our community, our spokespeople are at the heart of what we do and they’re really engaging and really responsive. They write to us and we take their feedback on board and listen to whatever they say.

I’m the creative director of the brand, but I’m not a wheelchair user. I’m making it for them, so they have to like it and they have to need it and want it. So even we’re doing new collections, we put out a shout out and ask them what designers they want to see working with the wheels. Before we came to the final make of the wheel covers, we talked to hundreds of real users on the fabrics and what is the best way to do it and what did they want. We we try and stay as close to our users as possible. So when someone orders a pair of Izzy Wheels. It’s a really really personal thing to order and they order from me and Izzy. So we try and be their friend make it as personal as possible. So we always try and deliver more than what’s expected and I think that’s really important when you’re an e-commerce story because you don’t get to meet them face to face and that’s usually how you make a sale. And when you can’t do that, then you have to make sure that when their parcel arrives in the post that they are so happy.

So we write like and we can’t compete with Amazon and eBay with next day delivery because we’re not that kind of company. So we have to make sure that when the parcel does arrive that it’s amazing. So everything’s handcrafted and we write every single customer a handwritten letter which is time consuming. But it’s very important because they’re a customer for life and they’re incredibly loyal.

What has been the most surprising challenge for Izzy Wheels?

Well there’s different challenges everyday I guess. Everyday is completely different with a startup. I think Time management .The more work you put into something the more you get back out of it. But there’s only there’s only one me and only one Izzy. I suppose finding the balance. Like scaling something. Something which in hindsight was something really brilliant, but at the time was super stressful was the fact that our views grew so fast. So one day it was me designing for Izzy’s summer camp. Easy peasy can spend a whole week designing their baseball wheel. And then we had a viral video and it was like we went to sleep and woke up and it was a completely different business with completely different challenges and we were getting hundreds of orders from places I’ve never heard of.  We have a system where we print on demand so we don’t keep a big stock. I went to sleep and woke up and all of their money was in the account and they were waiting on their orders and nothing had been done. And I was so stressed. But in hindsight then, it was a brilliant thing because I had to learn how to manage and how to upscale. How to send to other countries. But it actually when you actually look at it, it’s putting a different address on the box, it’s ordering wheel covers, it’s getting three extra hands in. And it was fine. Calm and collected is the best thing.

You mentioned yesterday that business was not your preferred route until it was applied to your passion. Is there areas you found you have an affinity for?

I was terrified of public speaking, really scared. I’ve overcome it. I was the kind of designer that I used to love creating stuff for me and and scared to present in the world because it’s so personal and you’re worried of fear of judgment of other people. And I was just naive in that. Once you’re applying it to what you’re actually doing, it actually is interesting.

How involved are customers in the designs and suggestions for the designs.

It’s tough to choose. Because we have a waiting list now of over a thousand designers. Some of these are some really well-known design studios. Some designs student, some wheelchair users, some schools. I think that when you come across a designer whose work really speaks to us, we just kind of know. And we limit it to 10 designers per collection because we try and keep it exclusive. We have to do that because I hate also saying no because people really want to support us and it’s lovely. But we do need to keep it exclusive. And it’s a really fun thing to design. So you have to take into account that it has to look good upside down and sideways. And and then for a designer to see their work somewhere that’s actually bringing happiness to people. The bigger the designer gets, the more commercial that work has to get. The more tight the brief. Whereas when we choose a design to go on a wheel, we give them complete creative freedom. We’ve chosen them and trust them that we know they’re going to do something amazing.

What would be an ideal 2019 for Izzy Wheels?

Keeping growing having more and more spokespeople. We want to do more role models, fashion shows and we really want to work towards the Paralympics. And we’re really working on our next products and ultimately we want to create a fashion brand for wheelchair users. And that’s our goal. And every year we’re working towards that.

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