Mia Hatton, joint co-founder of Letterbox Lab talks to Business News Wales about the creative innovation behind the company’s subscription boxes and the inspiration of science.
Can you give our readers a little background into yourself and your role within Letterbox Lab?
I am one of the two co-founders of Letterbox Lab, alongside my husband Bryan. We create subscription boxes containing everything families need to play with science at home. My husband and I were inspired to create the subscription boxes after a nine-month working honeymoon in which we got involved with science communication projects in the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Norway and Malaysia. When we got home we realised that we had found all sorts of ways to make fun science activities accessible to all, and so Letterbox Lab was born! We have been developing the subscription boxes and other areas of the business since May last year, and I’ve been involved in everything from testing slime recipes to grant applications.
What are your plans for the next five years, and where do you see your challenges and opportunities?
We’re a little giddy having only just launched our two subscription products – the Explore box and the Investigate box, which are taking up most of our time at the moment. Next we’re looking to expand our offer by scaling up the boxes for schools, parties and clubs. Developing classroom kits that are affordable to local schools will be our main challenge in that area, but with science becoming more and more popular we think the demand will make it worth the effort. Letterbox Lab is one branch of our business and we also offer training and consultancy to other professionals and organisations who want to engage the public with science. We’re always having new ideas for where the brand can go and we’re open to trying our hands at anything within the realms of education and public engagement with science.
Looking back at your career, are there things you would have done differently?
I’ve been very lucky since leaving school and have had a great time doing all sorts of interesting jobs. I switched to a part-time degree after two years in university, allowing me to work and study simultaneously and shape my studies around my career goals. I jumped on every
opportunity I could – including going off to work at a science centre in the Czech Republic aged 21 – and I’m glad of every decision I made.
What do you think are the most important qualities for success in business?
I can’t imagine we could have launched Letterbox Lab had we not been passionate about what we were offering. I think as long as you love what you do and you believe in your product then you can make it happen. So passion and self-confidence, even in the face of a ridiculously long to-do list.
What are your top three tips for success?
Never be afraid to ask for criticism, it’s much more useful than a compliment!
Following that, don’t get too caught up in feedback. Sometimes different people give us completely opposite advice, which used to stress me out until I realised that we were the only ones who knew exactly how our business worked and which advice would fit us best.
Evaluate yourself at every step. We’ve streamlined so many processes by casting a critical eye over our progress over the last twelve months.
Are there any innovations within your sector that you believe should be adopted by the wider Welsh market?
I’ve been working in science communication since 2007, an industry that is keenly focused on learning through play and experimentation. This attitude has been spilling over into formal education over the last few years, and I’m sure everyone could benefit from it. Learning by doing is far more effective than learning by reading, watching or listening.
Do you foresee any issues that Welsh business will be facing in the short/medium/long term?
There’s a lot of uncertainty at the moment, and funding cuts are the most likely problems we’ll face over the next few years. Sometimes you don’t realise how much you’re benefiting from public money somewhere or other before it’s taken away.
Do you have any predictions in regards to the impact of Brexit on your sector?
We straddle education and e-commerce, and it’s hard to say how either will be affected at this point. On the education side, the loss of European money could be a huge blow for publicly funded science communication organisations, but that could stimulate innovative ways to create paid products and services that achieve the same aim. On the e-commerce side, if the pound stays as it is then prices could rise. We source as much as we can from Wales but are already feeling the blow on purchases we make from the US.
What do you think Wales’ strengths and weaknesses are as a place to do business?
Wales is full of friendly and helpful people, and I don’t think customer service is better anywhere else in the UK. We have wonderful suppliers just down the road from us who are highly communicative and a pleasure to work with. Plus there’s Welsh ICE in Caerphilly, where we are based, without whom I can’t imagine we would have launched our product in the time that we did. I’m struggling to think of any weaknesses right now, but for e-commerce I don’t think it makes a huge difference where you’re based as long as you have good suppliers.
What can Wales do to attract more inward investment?
The Welsh can be self-deprecating (guilty as charged!) and I wonder if a nationwide confidence boost would put us in a better position to get our innovations and hard-working natures recognised.
What skills should the education system be promoting to the next generation?
I think the implementation of the literacy and numeracy framework a couple of years ago was a great step towards treating education as a skill-learning process, rather than the memorising of a list of facts. I think a scientific literacy framework should be next. So many people switch off from science at a young age because they see it as a list of boring facts, when actually scientific skills draw from creativity, innovation, evaluation and practical areas. A suite of science skills sets you up for all sorts of challenges.
How important is it for there to be a close relationship between business and higher education in Wales?
One of the things I struggled with most in my first year of university was wondering what on Earth I was going to do with the degree when I finished. There’s a great deal of pressure on young people now to get onto a university course at 18, and a great deal of pressure to choose a career path afterwards. I think a close relationship between business and higher education could relieve some of that pressure. If professionals offered guidance, support and encouragement to students they might be more inclined to look for employment with them through inspiration, rather than buckling under pressure.