Like many parents of young children, Australian expatriates Jade Poon (left in picture) and Natalie Chow (right) found their Hong Kong homes were becoming cluttered with toys – many of which their toddlers no longer even played with. Friends since their schooldays and keen to live more sustainably, the pair decided this was wasteful. So in April 2019, Ms Poon, a human resources executive, and Ms Chow, a marketing executive-turned-entrepreneur, came up with the idea to establish Happy Baton, Hong Kong’s first toy rental subscription service. Ms Poon outlines their journey thus far:
Did you have a eureka moment when deciding to find a solution not just for yourselves but for parents across Hong Kong?
It came about organically through our own experiences as parents. When my daughter was about five months old, a paediatrician, during a routine check-up, advised me to get some hanging toys that would help her meet certain developmental milestones. I went out and bought everything I could find, without doing much research or knowing what was appropriate. After a couple of weeks playing with them, my daughter lost interest, and I was stuck with all these toys. This went on for several years, and you can imagine all the toys we accumulated. I spent a lot of time decluttering, offloading and passing toys to Natalie, whose child was a bit younger, and when my son was born, she passed them back to me.
In Australia, as well as in the United States and United Kingdom, toy libraries are commonplace, but there weren’t any in Hong Kong. So, we saw a business opportunity.
How did you start?
We didn’t want to invest too much money to begin with, so after developing our business name and website, we relied heavily on social media and word of mouth to build our customer base. We selected popular educational toys from Australia and built up our inventory. Our business name stems from “passing the baton” – the idea of promoting the sharing economy – which resonated with people. As demand grew, we started buying more toys.
Has the business model changed since its start-up?
Yes. We found that potential customers were signing up to browse the website, but were not progressing to ordering. Seeking their feedback, we learned that our online toy catalogue was too time-consuming and that parents didn’t really know which toys to choose.
Our first upgrade provided a “toy curation” service, choosing toys based on the child’s age, developmental goals, and interests. To further improve the customer experience, the second upgrade – our current business model – provides subscribers with a toy box programme. Each toy box contains four toys and a play-guide delivered to their door and swapped every four weeks.
Customers may choose a three-, six- or 12-month subscription, and also place one-off orders such as large play equipment and toys for a birthday party.
Do you have criteria for library toys?
We prefer wooden toys, avoiding plastic and battery-operated items which break easily and cannot be recycled. Our toys are inspired by Montessori, Reggio Emilia and Waldorf philosophies. Every toy in our collection is carefully considered and promotes a developmental goal – so they’re not only entertaining for the child but help them to perfect a skill.
How did your start-up fare during the pandemic?
Really well! Not only did parents need more ways to entertain their children during the lockdown, it also spawned a need for larger items, such as indoor slides and climbing frames, for use at parties in homes or residential clubhouses. So we added these to our catalogue as well. Now, we are growing a business to business model supplying toys to private members’ clubs and residential estates. Every quarter, we go in and swap them around. The kids get to play with quality toys, and there is no wastage.
Where to from here?
From two of us at start-up, we now employ two full-time staff, five part-timers and a consultant, a specialist Montessori educator who advises on the toy selection. In the beginning, our customers were almost all expats, but now a large percentage come from the local community.
We have certainly seen growing momentum in Hong Kong for a more sustainable lifestyle. This sentiment has been building over the past four years and keeps getting stronger. So, we feel we were in the right place, at the right time, to start this venture.
We continue to encourage and educate families to live a more sustainable lifestyle. We actively seek out brands, products and partners who share the same vision and values as us to help make Hong Kong and the world we live in greener.