Every week on The Primer we ask a local business or product to introduce themselves in eight simple takes. This week we talk to Jenny Etherington who, along with her partner Thomas Mortimer, founded Solvej (sool-vay) Swings – makers of sustainable and long-lasting swings for babies and toddlers.
ONE: How did Solvej Swings start and what was the inspiration behind it?
Solvej Swings started not long after the birth of our daughter, Solvej, in 1992. We desperately wanted a swing for our baby as we both had many fond childhood memories of swings that we wanted to pass onto her, but also because it provided a fun, safe and, most importantly, hands-free form of entertainment for her.
The only swings on the market we could find were plastic which didn’t suit Thomas, a cabinet maker, or myself, who’s passionate about sustainability, so in 1993 we made our own from wood and canvas instead. Friends and family loved the design so much that we were asked to produce more and more. It then got to a point where it made sense to share the joy and start a business.
As Solvej grew older, we developed more swings for her and her friends at varying ages. Now studying architecture, Solvej is continuing the family legacy in the business.
TWO: Was there any interest/experience in business or entrepreneurship prior to starting Solvej Swings?
Before the swings, Thomas and I were both craftspeople who travelled between our home countries of New Zealand and Sweden making and selling crafts. When we finally settled in rural New Zealand, we decided we needed to create our own employment. Our business acumen was very limited and it was a huge learning curve moving from selling local to international. When we started there was also no big World Wide Web, which not only dominates business nowadays but is also a great source of information for a start-up business.
THREE: What sort of things were considered when Solvej Swings was designed and how are they made?
Safety, as with any baby product, is the main factor to consider when designing. After that comes joy and sustainability. Joy, in our minds, being both for the child (beads to play with, bright colours) and for the parents (attractive aesthetics, ease of cleaning, moving, packing etc.).
Design is a particular passion of Thomas’ and sustainability is a particular passion of mine. The Scandinavian design tradition which Thomas grew up with highly values both aesthetics and functionality, and the added element of sustainability requires the efficient use of materials and longevity. We wanted a product that was beautiful to look at and pleasing to touch, but most importantly would really be of benefit to those using it. Thomas took to all these design challenges with enthusiasm and we think it’s resulted in a practical, beautiful and sustainable heirloom product.
FOUR: Where in your home can you install a Solvej Swing? Are they safe for all babies and children to use?
Anywhere there’s ample support above (like a door frame, from a rafter or beam, pergola etc.) and room to swing. They can be used both inside or outside the house.
We have multiple sets of screw eyes throughout our house so that the swings can be moved according to season or activity. Having it somewhere near where you are working (the kitchen or office, for example) is particularly good as Mum or Dad can have their hands free to work.
All our swings are very safe with a deep seat surrounded on four sides (one by the leg divider) and a seatbelt.
FIVE: You state that you’re committed to being environmentally and socially responsible in all aspects of your business. How do you go about doing this?
Sustainability in production starts with a design that’s efficient in its use of materials and is long-lasting. For example, the Solvej Baby Swing converts to and from a baby or toddler version so that it can be used from six months all the way to six years. They’re also made to last as long as possible so they can be passed down for generations. Only top quality materials and production techniques are used, and measurements are designed to fit standard material sizes to reduce waste. Any offcuts are then used in other designs or community art projects. Materials for us is an important balance between sourcing as much as possible locally to support the Kiwi industry and then using only what we believe to be the best quality materials to make a long-lasting, safe product.
Then there are the everyday things, which include how you heat and light the workshops, how waste is dealt with, and using good practices like repurposing or recycling anything we possibly can (from furnishing of the workspaces to offcuts of manufacturing). We also encourage and educate others on how to do the same (educational resources are something we’re currently trying to develop.)
Socially, it concerns paying – at minimum – a living wage and creating an environment where workers feel safe and supported. We all lunch together at our house which is a five-minute walk from the workshops, and we try to support one another in life as much as possible.
We also keep production local in my hometown village of Matiere as I wanted to provide employment for my community. Employment opportunities in the country have been decreasing as the modern farming industry needs fewer people. We think one of the best ways to give people a real choice to live in the country is for other industries to establish themselves in rural areas.
We also work hard to keep our prices as affordable as possible as good design should be accessible to everyone. If people can’t afford our swings we really recommend other swing options like those at your local park as not only are they fun, but they’re beneficial to eye development, balance and coordination.
SIX: Last month, Kourtney Kardashian included Solvej Swings on her 2018 Holiday Gift Guide. How did she come into contact with your product and what effect did this endorsement from Kourtney have on your business?
Kourtney’s endorsement was lovely. She bought two swings from us a few years ago and then this year reached out to say how much she liked them, asking for a few to give to friends and family and saying that she’d be featuring it on her wish list.
Having such a well-known person endorsing our product was particularly exciting and gave it a much further reach than usual. It was great to have a spotlight put on our business for other Kiwis as customers were able to learn about us through subsequent coverage and other start-ups were able to see an example of a Kiwi small business/design success. We saw an immediate increase in sales, both direct and through stores, and we’ve also had stores reaching out to us wanting to sell our swings.
SEVEN: Do you have any other plans to scale/grow further and if so, what are they?
We’re always working to grow our business through both retail and direct sales. Currently, we’re concentrating on the European retail market as that quickly became our fastest growing market when we entered it. We’re doing this by attending trade shows and reaching out to retail stores we admire. There are also a couple of new swing products waiting in the wings to be released into the range.
EIGHT: Lastly, tell us about a New Zealand start-up or business that you really admire right now.
ShearWarmth is a local business near us in the early stages of growth. Lyn and Monique are working really hard to bring back the heirloom traditional blankets of New Zealand. They’ve made the brave move to take wool from their farm and turn them into beautiful wool blankets with production and finishing all done locally. New Zealand needs more businesses to establish themselves in smaller towns and villages to keep rural New Zealand alive!