November’s small business member of the month, Emily chats International Elf Service
We recently celebrated our incredible small business member of the month Emily Beckloff! Founder of award-winning International Elf Service, based in Islington London. International Elf Service proudly take children on unforgettable magical literary journeys, to the North Pole, Fairyland and other wonderful places … through handcrafted, personalised letters. Their captivating letters combine storytelling and illustrations with the excitement of family traditions; promoting family time; igniting imagination; and creating childhood memories to treasure forever. I got a chance to talk to Emily about her small business and her thoughts on The Resilient Retail Club
Why did you start your small business?
As a mum of 3 who passionately treasures that small window in a child’s life when they truly believe, I wanted to make magical times (Christmas, Birthdays, Easter and visits from the Tooth Fairy) even more enchanting than they were for me as a child. It all started when I decided to create an Advent Tradition for our very young family … one that was more exciting than discovering a chocolate or toy each day, wasn’t related to ‘good behaviour’ or presents, and looked and felt truly North Pole-y.
Nothing like that existed …
So each day in December 2009, when my eldest was just three, I wrote a little note from a Christmas Elf called ‘Elfie’ … a cheeky but loveable character who shared adventurous instalments from the North Pole Elves and Father Christmas as they prepared for the Big Delivery on Christmas Eve. These messages would appear mysteriously around the house for my children to find, complete with little ink splodges and scribbles to make them look ‘real’. When other mums at school heard what I was doing, I was asked to smuggle letters into the playground for them to stuff under their coats when small eyes weren’t looking!
Without realising it, International Elf Service was born and I launched it as an official business with the aim of making personalised, handcrafted products that were completely unique compared to the manufactured and commercialised merchandise on the market.
Since then, I have expanded the business from stories from the North Pole Elves to other incredible characters and places including Wizards and Wonders at Roots of Fantastical Matters, the Easter Bunny’s Underground Chocolate Laboratory, the magical and quirky world of the Fairies and Tooth Fairies, and the excitement of Birthdays and beyond.
Tell us about your background before International Elf Service
My entrepreneurial life started at 24. Having completed a Physiology degree at Bristol University, I saw a job advertised to set up the Bristol Heart Valve Bank – preparing human heart valves for transplant. On my first day, I was given a £40k budget and the phone number of another Valve Bank as a reference. Although it was daunting, my only option was simply to get on with it. I quickly learned new skills: working at 100% accuracy, preparing, testing and storing, and forcing myself to get over my fears.
As my medical training continued (as a Cardiac Perfusionist and then Osteopath), I learned to overcome crippling shyness, strengthen my problem solving skills, stay calm under pressure, and increase my professional network, finally opening my own Clinical Practice in 1997.
But I had the lightbulb moment for International Elf Service when I became a mother … I was curled up by the fire reading ‘Letters from Father Christmas’ by J.R.R. Tolkien, when I suddenly imagined delivering a note from the North Pole for our young children to find in their wooden Advent House – an experience-rich and chocolate-free Advent Calendar idea. At first I wrote tiny messages like ‘After nine helpings of Cherry Pie, Father Christmas lost one of his jacket buttons! It pinged off and flew behind the Giant Lollipops in the Elves’ Workshop!’. Then as the children grew, the letters got longer and turned into one long Christmas storybook with a new ‘page’ appearing each day.
What’s your best selling product, and why do you think it’s so popular?
Since its launch, International Elf Service has sold over half a million magical letters with an estimated readership reach of nearly 2 million. Our personalised Christmas Elf Letters Advent Calendar is by far our best seller. It’s a really fun way to enjoy the magic of Christmas Eve that we all love so much … all through December!
Children find letters mysteriously around their home each day – by their toothbrush, sticking out of a shoe or a cereal box – with the latest updates from the North Pole Elves as they get ready for The Big Delivery on Christmas Eve. And there’s even a letter from Father Christmas! It works brilliantly with or without an Elf and is such an easy way to create the most magical December for the whole family to enjoy together. Not to mention it’s a great way to get children reading and having fun together!
People who do Elf on the Shelf or similar, can struggle to find and keep up with creating a daily Elf idea. Especially if they’ve been doing it for a couple of years or more. Our customers really love the magic and simplicity of how our Elf Letters Advent Calendar works – their Elf can bring their letter back from the North Pole each night instead of (or as well as) doing its daily Elf antic.
What’s the nicest thing a customer has said about your business?
My proudest moment came in the first year of business – a parent wrote to me explaining how their eldest daughter (who has autism) had never really engaged with her siblings. But since receiving my Christmas Elf Advent Calendar Letters, she’d been reading them aloud and it was helping her to connect with her brothers and sisters. I never anticipated that my letters could have such a supportive impact on family life, and I found it extremely heart-warming.
Since then, my team and I regularly receive positive feedback from customers – uplifting messages from parents and families thanking us for preserving childhood magic, encouraging reluctant readers, inspiring children to learn independently, and helping families to bond.
What prompted you to join The Resilient Retail Club?
If all I had to do was chat to my lovely customers and create beautiful things, then I would be in my element. But I realised very quickly that running your own business isn’t like that. I knew Catherine had a wealth of experience and knowledge in retail but I think it was reading her book ‘Tame Your Tiger’ that encouraged me to join the Resilient Retail Club. It’s so well written and easy to follow. I loved it and thought ‘well, I’d like to hear more from where that came from!’ – so I joined the Club!
What was it like running your business before the Club?
My business has been in scale mode since we launched in 2014, and despite being incredibly magical, it’s a typical product ecomm business … with all the usual difficulties of managing stock and cash flow, and needing to prepare for Christmas well ahead of time (starting in January!).
I found myself very stressed and despondent much of the time as I felt that I needed about 112 pairs of hands to work on everything and I kept losing my focus on which were the most important bits at any one time! It’s also very lonely working on your own small business, and although I have a fabulous (and tiny) team – we all actually live and work in different countries from each other and only see each other on Whatsapp!
How has being in the Club helped?
I’m really enjoying the wide-variety of incredibly helpful, bite-sized RRC resources … with new ones being added all the time. I always feel so busy, so to have to commit to an hour’s podcast is impossible for me – so how Catherine’s set them up is just fantastic. I can dip in and out when I have time and I’ve learnt a lot about things I can implement and try out immediately. And to be part of the RRC community where everyone supports and learns from each other, and where you can bounce questions and ideas around has been invaluable.
In case I haven’t mentioned it(!) … Catherine’s book, ‘Tame Your Tiger’ is a must read!
What would you say your biggest win has been from being a member?
For me, the biggest win from being a member is having access to all the resources as well as guidance from Catherine, her Guest Contributors and from everyone else in the Club’s community. I feel very supported and that I’m part of a dynamic and ever developing membership.
How do you feel about running your business now?
I see my business International Elf Service as a series of manageable bite-sized chunks now – where I can drill down and focus on any one of those in a targeted and effective way and make a measurable difference to my business. I love having a place where I can bounce ideas around and learn from others in the Club – and I hope I can contribute in some way too.