Flat Friends recently won The Small business Award at the CRC National Multicultural Marketing Awards so we thought it was a great opportunity to speak to the creator of the cute, environmental and educational toys Lina Jabbour. Lina grew up in a migrant home so she understands the desire to fit in and always feeling a little different.
Flat Friends is Lina’s way of developing a greater sense of love and understanding between the children of the world to work towards a future where we all help each other more and show a bit more understanding, and what better way to reach out to a child than with an imaginative toy.
This is what the very passionate Lina had to say when we questioned her.
Can you tell us please a little about your business and how it got started?
Sometimes you start with a very simple idea and it evolves. This is what happened with Flat Friends.
Flat Friends started as a hobby for me. Before I had my daughter Natasha, I wanted a natural product for babies and noticed that there wasn’t very much available. Lambskin/sheepskin has many beneficial & therapeutic qualities so I started making my lambskin soft toys.
As my lambskin soft toys were starting to sell through shops, I noticed how much children loved the animal from their lambskin soft toy.
I am very passionate about our environment & how animals & children are treated. I noticed that my daughter at the age of 3 would get angry when she saw someone litter & would go up to complete strangers & ask them not to litter. This made me think, if I can somehow influence all children around the world to love & respect each other, then we can have more harmony & togetherness in our world. I felt that this would then allow them to love & respect animals & their environment.
What inspired you to create the Flat Friends® children puppets?
It’s really the character that is the centre of everything. The puppets are designed from my character.
I know that children learn best through play. Positive association works really well. Puppets are amazing, they trigger many sensors for children and this is why I chose to make my children hand puppets. They are unique and I am the first person to do something like this.
It took me a long time to find the right factory to be able to make my doll children puppets and more than 3 years to develop the children puppets. Each puppet is unique, the eyes, skin or hair is different, and none of my puppets are duplicated.
The clothing or costume can be taken off and the puppet can be dressed in other themes or clothes. In our range we have cultural, occupational, myths, legends & fables and our medical range that helps children understand & become more comfortable with children who are challenged in some way. I first presented them at the International Toy Fair in Nuremburg Germany in 2005.
It is interesting when I display my cultural puppets at the trade fairs, people from different parts of the world identified with the puppet that represented their country. This is how I got my UK Educational Distributor. They loved the way I represented the different cultures, the characters, the puppets, the stories.
The cultural puppets are dressed loosely in a cultural costume. It is really difficult to choose just one perfect representation, different parts of each country will have a different costume. When it comes to tribes these costumes will vary based on ceremony, tribe etc. The main objective is to make sure that children can recognise the country the costume is associated with & identify & relate to the puppet.
Do the puppets come with the fact sheets about the puppets that can be found on the website?
The fact sheets are made as a printable file from our website. We ask consumers, educators, retailers to go to our website to print the fact files. They are really our children’s stories. I will be changing the name from Fact Files to Children’s Stories.
Our children’s stories are told by children from all around the world about their life as it is today in their city. It is easier for children to relate to stories that are told by another child. They are also about modern day life, what it is like for them to go to school, what they eat, what their home life is like, the sports they play, the music they listen to or instruments that they play, festivities (which usually brings in religion), this all helps children to understand what life is like for other children all around the world & to gain acceptance through knowledge. I make sure that our stories don’t have a view about sports teams, religion or anything. Our stories are neutral & tell a story about a child’s life.
One of the interesting things I noticed when I was developing & writing our stories was that there was nothing like this. All the information was based on historical fact. Nothing really represented a child’s life in these cities as it is lived currently.
Having a character & a puppet to tell the story means that children will relate better & comprehend what is being said a lot better. Children will role play with their puppet.
How did you decide on the cultures that would be represented by the Flat Friends® People Puppets?
I wanted to represent as many cultures as possible but that was difficult. I tried to represent children from as many parts of the world as I could: in Asian we have Chinese, Japanese, Indian & I will be introducing our Indonesian. In Europe we have German, Swedish, The Netherlands, Italy, Spanish & we will be introducing our French, English, and Scottish & Irish. We have our US, Mexican, Brazilian, Australian, Russian, Saudi Arabia, Israel, & a selection of Indigenous, NZ Maori, Aboriginal, Zulu, Namibian, North American Native; Inuit & will introduce our Sami. Sometimes finding the right people to interview for our stories is a real challenge & this limits our ability to create a character & story but we persist & get there. Sometimes we will get a request for a cultural puppet to be developed. Our range keeps growing.
What has been the most challenging issue you have faced in the journey from conception of the company to now?
Sometimes I think we start things before their time. When I first started my lambskin toys it took consumers a long time to become comfortable with them because it was a totally new product.
I am finding the same resistance with my children puppets. It is a completely new product. I am the first person to really do it this way & it is taking time for consumers to recognise the benefits. When I explain the benefits to retailers they say “Wow, Lina you need to make it known somehow.” This is why I developed our benefits sheets & will now put some of the benefits on our gift cards.
The other challenge was finding the right people to interview for our stories & then the translators. I started by writing short fact files that went on a gift card, so the card was in the form of a small booklet. I had these facts translated into 8 languages because I wanted children to recognise the difference in how each language is written, the characters used & the language used. This is important for children. I also wanted to reach the world with my stories & information. It was really interesting that the adults learnt a lot from my stories, facts that they didn’t know. Our cute & cuddly characters feature at the front of the card, so our cards look really good. I wanted people/children to collect our cards.
You have just won the small business award at the National Multicultural Marketing Awards. Congratulation on the win and what a wonderful feeling that must be. Can you tell us a little about what these awards are?
I was really lucky, Maria Kobas, sent me an email on 15 August 2011 asking me to apply.
I didn’t know about the awards before being approached. When I did my animal lambskin soft toys, I made gift cards that went with them to tell children about the animal. This was translated into 8 languages. I found native speakers for the translations. I wanted to make sure that the facts were translated correctly. Having studied French as a third language & growing up speaking Lebanese as a second language. I knew how things can get lost in translation.
In writing the children’s stories we had to find people from these countries to be able to tell authentic stories. I want the children who read our stories to get a real feel for what it is like to live in those cities.
In order for me to create what I create, I have to see the world as one country. This is what has given me access to developing what I have. The award is a celebration of one world, unified by cultures coming together & working together for the greater good of us all.
What can you tell us about the process of getting involved and being in the running for these awards?
For me it was easy. My passion is to teach children using all mediums available including toys, books, animation & computer games. I want to also help children & animals financially. I have been working on my Flat Friends for many years & have built up a lot of information from marketing material, products, trade fairs, charities, famous people & more.
I worked really hard to develop my characters, stories, & puppets making sure that they looked right & represented each culture accurately with skin colour, eyes, hair, costume & that our characters were a good reflection. I had to make sure that our puppets were cute & friendly; this is why their eyes look directly at you. This is much more engaging than looking sideways. Each aspect of the puppet, the same as the character, had to be thought through carefully. So by the time I applied all the hard work had been done & tested!
Getting the information ready for the application was easy. I had all the information, I just had to compile it & deliver it to Maria Kobas with some of my puppets.
After the awards, Maria said that she had 2 of my puppets near her desk & everyone that went past commented about them. It was really lovely to hear her say that.
How are the winners chosen? Is a panel of judges, a public vote, etc.?
I believe it was a panel. I’m not sure how the panel is made up.
Can you tell us a little about your vision for the company?
My vision is to have my flat friends in shops & schools all over the world. I want to reach as many children as I can & to empower them with knowledge about other children from around the world. To help them understand & relate to these children. To learn to love & respect these children regardless of cultural background or situation. I want children to learn about many animals & to learn to respect them instead of fearing them.
Are there plans to broaden the product ranges? What’s next for Flat Friends?
Yes I am working on broadening my range.
With my toys I am increasing the range to include more cultures & other themes. I have been working on some finger puppets & 22cm stuffed dolls. So that our children characters with stories will be offered in 3 sizes & 3 price points. I will offer them in gift boxes & our boxes will convert into table top puppet theatres, I have already designed this box.
I am also working on our children’s books. These will be published in 2012. I am thinking of self-publishing but will consider working with a publisher. I have my first draft ready to go with my Spanish Boy. These will be published as a series with each section being a 22 page hard cover book with illustrations using my characters.
I have also been working on 3D computer games with 2 friends both excellent programmers. We have an awesome engine but funding is prohibiting our progress.
I have a stand at the International Toy Fair in Germany & will be looking at getting more international distributors on board. I am also currently speaking to a distributor in Australia to help me distribute my products in Australia & New Zealand which will free me up to grow my international business & allow me to focus on developing new products, writing my books & working on my computer games and animation.
You can visit Flat Friends at: www.flatfriends.com.au