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Liesl van der Hoven | ecomafrica.org

Interview with Liesl van der Hoven of Fairy Caravan

Interview with Liesl van der Hoven of Fairy Caravan

What inspired you to start an eCommerce business? Can you tell us a little bit about your journey?

I fell in love with children’s book writing and illustration, but I felt that the opportunities for working in this field in South Africa was quite limited. I also have quite a strong independent streak and I wanted the freedom to create what I wanted in the way that I wanted to.

Fortunately, at about the time that I was taking courses to hone my illustration and story-writing skills (2009 – 2010) I discovered a few overseas children’s book illustrators who had their own online businesses. They were selling a variety of products that were printed with their illustrations, such as fabric and stationery.

I investigated to see if I could find printers in South Africa who could help me create similar products printed with my own illustrations. I was fortunate to find a handful of excellent service providers and I started my business towards the end of 2012.

Having an eCommerce website where I could sell the products I create has played a crucial part in the development of my work. I’ve been able to see what works and what doesn’t and get feedback from real customers about the aspects of my work that they like and enjoy.

You "inspire magical childhood journeys with caring stories and handcrafted toys”, that in itself sounds enchanting! How did the idea for Fairy Caravan come about? Why is eCommerce best placed to deliver your product offering?

The name “Fairy Caravan” was inspired by one of Beatrix Potter’s later, and less well-known books. I am a huge admirer of her work and I aspire to create the kind of timelessly enchanting stories that she did.

Deciding on which products to offer in the Fairy Caravan online shop, has been a bit of a journey. When I first started my business, I was a little unsure about my story-writing abilities, so I focused purely on creating decorative items for children’s rooms, such as wall stickers and bed linen. However, I continued to write stories about the illustrated characters I created, until finally I decided to share these stories with my customers.

Their positive response gave me the confidence to focus more strongly on what I actually wanted to do: to write and illustrate stories that will inspire and benefit children as they grow up. By this time I had also created a range of fabric dolls and characters that I could use in my illustrations, and I think they bring a unique quality to my work.

Having an eCommerce shop has enabled me to keep my overheads relatively low and to experiment with small quantities of products first, to see what works in the market.

Growing slowly has also given me the opportunity to learn business skills while running my business, and I’ve been really fortunate to meet the right people at the right time.

It was especially significant that I met my play therapist colleague Lenka, right when I had been writing stories for a while and was looking for a way to share a deeper message.

At some point, quite long after choosing the name, I also realised that a “Fairy Caravan” was the perfect metaphor for my eCommerce shop. I am able to send my products throughout the world so they can touch the lives of children – almost as if by magic!

How do you create these thoughtful stories? More so, as a storyteller, how do you ensure that they are representative of who we are as Africans?

I create all of the stories I share on Fairy Caravan, with the help and advice of Lenka de Villiers-van Zyl, a play therapist with her own private practice in Somerset West outside of Cape Town.

Lenka and I usually decide together on an emotional issue that we would like to address, and then we talk about how such an issue can be overcome through therapeutic intervention.

Each of my animal and fairy characters have their own personality, and we usually also decide together which character would be most suited as the main character in the story, based on how much he or she will struggle with the emotional issue we have chosen.

From then on it is almost as if the story starts taking on a life of its own: Once the character is placed within the challenging situation, the story evolves around how to resolve the issue.

I prefer animal characters because children find it easy to identify with them. They are also a way to bridge gender and racial identities, and appeal to all South African children, regardless of their cultural background.

Beatrix Potter’s animal characters have again been a big inspiration in this regard, and I think this is part of the reason why they are still so popular today.

My fairy characters are human, but they are as diverse as the beautiful people who form part of our rainbow nation, and they usually act as wise advisors to the animal characters.

The little people who consume your stories - do they do so in the traditional (book) format or in digital format? How safe is it to expose young children to the digital world?

My books are mostly sold in physical format, as I completely agree with parental concerns about exposing children to devices when they are very young.

However, the digital stories that I do have available in my eCommerce shop was an important way for me to share my stories with parents and their little ones to see whether there was a market for these therapeutic stories before spending money on having physical books printed. So it was a way for me to ensure that my stories were good enough to be printed in book form.

My digital story products all consist of printable files, as well as audio files, so that children can enjoy listening to the story and look at the illustrations while minimizing interaction with a device.

What advice would you give young females looking to get into eCommerce?

My most important bit of advice is to never, ever give up!

It will take longer than you may think. It takes time to develop your skills and to find your niche. Some people are lucky enough to know exactly what their calling in life is before they start their business, and for others it is a journey of discovery. All of this is OK.

It will also be harder than you think when you first start. And yet, you will learn the most interesting things about yourself when things get really tough. It will all be OK if you view every challenge as an opportunity to grow and learn.

Starting an eCommerce business is super exhilarating and all of the hard work and overcoming challenges are worthwhile. I still get a thrill every time I receive a new order, and I can still remember the excitement I felt when I received my first International order!

Having an eCommerce platform is one of the best ways I know of to share your vision with the rest of the world. Just keep going and keep learning, and you WILL find success.

If this story inspired you, comment below or nominate a woman who inspires you.

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Mpho Sekwele

Mpho Sekwele

Mpho Sekwele, a Dartmouth College (USA) Mandela Washington Fellow for Young African Leaders Initiative, has over ten years of corporate work experience in the retail industry for Blue Chip retail companies in Africa. Mpho is an alumnus of the University of Cape Town, University of Witwatersrand and holds an Executive MBA from IEDC Bled School of Management (Slovenia). Mpho is passionate about youth and women empowerment; through sintuonline.com an eCommerce platform where contemporary African Heritage Clothing and Accessories made by young women in Africa, are sold globally; as well as BantuHikers a wellness, networking and mentorship platform for first generation students.
Liesl van der Hoven | ecomafrica.org

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