Friday interview | Sarah Greenwell on starting a festive family tradition across the world
HLN met the 37-year-old founder of 'An Elf for Christmas', to hear how she's built a global business from her kitchen table with her cute and cuddly elves that reward good behaviour...
By Laura Kingston
If we had to choose one word to describe Sarah Greenwell, it would be energy.
“It was just supposed to be something to do on an evening,” she said when we caught up with her to discuss all things elves. That was between running her own marketing agency, raising her two-year-old daughter and newborn baby boy with husband Ian, oh and looking after her rescue dog Stanley.
Most of us would be happy to have a bath and watch Netflix, but Sarah started An Elf for Christmas. She was looking for a festive tradition that could grow with her family over the years, but couldn’t find exactly what she was looking for. So she set about creating a cute and cuddly elf for her daughter, who would arrive each year on 01 December, building Christmas magic and excitement whilst encouraging good behaviour in the lead up to Christmas Day.
Four years later, she has sold more than 50,000 elves, starting an annual Christmas tradition in homes across the world, including Australia, South Africa, Europe and the USA.
Tell us about An Elf for Christmas…
It took about a year of product development to get my little elves exactly how I wanted them – high-quality, cute and cuddly little friends for children in the run-up to Christmas.
Families choose to adopt light or dark-skinned boy or girl elves – this year we have also introduced baby elves to complete the family. The tradition is that the elf arrives in children’s homes on 01 December, sent on a mission from the North Pole to keep an eye on behaviour in the build-up to Christmas.
Each night, whoever is in charge of the elf (parent, grandparent or carer) can set up either mischievous activities – such as wrapping the tree in loo roll – or a kindness activity like donating a Christmas present to charity. We keep it really easy with support from the magical reward kit that’s included.
The thing about An Elf for Christmas is that it really rewards good behaviour in a personalised way. The elf arrives in a box with a welcome letter, a behaviour chart, a sheet of stickers, Elf Report Cards and two Nice List Certificates. There are also two blank letters to Santa and a Goodbye Letter when the elf has to go back to the North Pole until next year.
We also register the elves so that if guardians of the elf submit information throughout the month, children will receive personalised emails from Santa Claus mentioning what the elf has reported back.
This means that every year my team and I sit down to write 24 new letters so that the tradition can be enjoyed by families year after year with new and different content. This can start in June – it’s Christmas all year round for us!
Once I was happy with the first product, the minimum order from the supplier was 3,000…
I had no idea of the volume – our house was literally bursting with elves. We couldn’t get in the dishwasher; my mum couldn’t get through the front door!”
It’s incredible that you started the business from your kitchen table – can you tell us more about what it was like in the beginning?
I set up the business in 2015. My daughter Holly was two and I’d just had my son Finlay. I love Christmas and really wanted to start a magical family tradition that we could enjoy each year. I looked around for a while but couldn’t quite find what I was looking for. I just thought ‘I’m going to create something myself’. So I put pen to paper and started to design our first elf.
Everything was completely new to me. I had to research how to get a product made and started to liaise with suppliers overseas. It took a year to get the product right. Once I was happy with it, the minimum order was 3,000. I thought I would manage to sell the rest at local markets so put the order in – I had no idea of the volume. When they arrived the house was literally bursting with elves – we couldn’t get in the dishwasher or through the front door!
My husband and I posted an advert on Facebook during a commercial break on X-Factor that Christmas and we were overwhelmed by how much people loved them. We sold those 3,000 elves in just 10 weeks.
It was a huge team effort of family and friends to get them all posted out. We obviously didn’t have a distribution centre so we were all packing boxes at home and the Royal Mail had to send vans to pick them up.
What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve faced?
Managing the supply chain, especially as we now have more than 20 products available in 10 countries. When we got big enough to use a distribution centre instead of sending the elves from my home I was really worried about giving that element away – I wanted them to be packed with as much care and love as they had been with me. But the distribution centre we found have been brilliant and really care in the way that we do about our customers. We kill our customers with kindness – we treat them in the way we would want to be treated ourselves.
and the main highlight?
Without a doubt is reading the feedback from families who are enjoying the elves every year. It’s great having social media to be able to see what all of the elves are getting up to! I’ve had some lovely letters from families sharing how their children read the letters out to grandparents over the phone. It’s that magical excitement that I was really trying to achieve and it’s amazing seeing that come to life in other families as well as my own.
Another highlight was the elves being on This Morning – watching Phillip Schofield read out one of my letters was surreal!
Your children are young and obviously still believe – how do you manage that when they see you working with the elves all year?
They think I work for Santa! They absolutely love it and are often involved with photoshoots and preparation in the evenings. I went to a Christmas in July media event earlier this year and managed to get a selfie with Santa so they could see that I was working hard on my business trip with the boss!
How do you manage the seasonal nature of the product?
It’s just about planning out the year. I have another woman Bev, who works with me full time, then I take on additional staff members from September to January to help with things like order queries and customer service. In the earlier parts of the year, we spend our time developing new products, preparing the marketing materials and writing new letters so that the content is fresh for families every year – that’s really important to us and it can take a while to get right!
I always ask about imposter syndrome – do you ever have it?
I actually just heard this on the radio this week and thought, that’s me! I often do think ‘am I qualified to do this?’ I feel so lucky and blessed to have a job that I love so much – every year I wonder if it’s the year that the bubble will burst. But I think that’s also what drives me to keep developing the product and continue creating a brand that other families can love and enjoy as much as mine.