How little Australian toy company Tiger Tribe captivates the babycino generation

Toy company Tiger Tribe designs toys in Melbourne which are exported to the world. Photo: my little tribe photography
Toy company Tiger Tribe designs toys in Melbourne which are exported to the world. Photo: my little tribe photography

For harried parents handing over your iPhone to entertain your offspring in a cafe is tempting.

Tiger Tribe founders Anthony and Naomi Green. Photo: My Little Tribe

Tiger Tribe founders Anthony and Naomi Green. Photo: My Little Tribe

But guilt about the impact of screen time can make those babycinos  with marshmallows harder to swallow.

Enter Tiger Tribe, a little Australian toy company that now turns over $4 million a year selling children's activity sets and toys that feature magnets, pencils and puzzles. 

An alternative to screen time

Husband and wife co-founders Anthony and Naomi Green started the business 10 years ago and say the last decade has seen a digital revolution in terms of games, social media and apps for children. 

"The fact that we share a 10th birthday with the iPhone is not lost on us," says Mr Green. "We try to offer an antidote to screen time which seems to occupy so much of children's playtime. We listen to parents who worry about this. Our products are designed to 'un-plug' kids."

Tiger Tribe products reflect a slower paced childhood following in the footsteps of American toy giant Melissa & Doug which turns over $US350 million a year selling timber toys and puzzles.  

"We don't get up on our soapbox and condemn technology," Mr Green says. "Technology is the window through which children look at the world and there are fabulous apps they are using but we do love the fact that kids can just unplug and parents can allow children some non-screen time and they will still engage and tap into their creativity and imagination and do it using old-fashioned pen and paper. It's an alternative to screen time." 

'This isn't working'

Tiger Tribe tries to offer an antidote to screen time.  Photo: my little tribe photography

Tiger Tribe tries to offer an antidote to screen time. Photo: my little tribe photography

The Greens started Tiger Tribe out of their garage.

Mr Green had worked in the toy industry before and borrowed $200,000 against their home to buy stock and set up the business.

"I was a freelance editor at home with toddlers," says Mrs Green. "I just went 'OK, I'll help you, sure'." 

"We thought there was a gap in the area of kids rooms," Mr Green says. "We spent our first 18 months making maps, clocks, cork boards and storage boxes. They were beautiful items but they didn't sell very quickly, we worked out they were too expensive and were a very personal choice. After many sleepless nights we thought 'this isn't working'. We had found good suppliers making magnetics and stamps and we decided a $20 gift item nicely packaged and suitable for a birthday gift was much more commercial and sold at a faster rate and as soon as we switched to that things started to turn around." 

Shipping to the world

After a swift pivot Tiger Tribe found its market. 

"The fact that we make something nostalgic and old-fashioned helps make us a unique brand," Mr Green says. "We design with a strong aesthetic in mind. We make an effort for things to look nice and presentable combined with portable and value content are the three things we have in mind when we design a toy." 

Tiger Tribe products aren't electronic and don't license characters or themes. 

But despite going against toy industry trends they are now stocked in more than 700 retailers in Australia and distributed in more than 36 countries including New Zealand, the US, Canada, Philippines, Germany, France, Sweden, South Africa and Japan.  

Mr Green says international sales "started really slowly" but "have really picked up in the last two years" now making up more than 25 per cent of Tiger Tribe's revenue. 

Old fashioned colouring in is on offer in a Tiger Tribe activity pack.  Photo: Tiger Tribe

Old fashioned colouring in is on offer in a Tiger Tribe activity pack. Photo: Tiger Tribe

Traditional toys in a tech revolution

Tiger Tribe's gains have been hard fought, with the Ibisworld report Toy and Game Retailing in Australia outlining difficult trading conditions over the past five years. 

The report's author, Claudia Burgio-Ficca, says there has been a technological revolution in the toy market with gradual reductions in the cost of computer chips and strong consumer demand for technologically enhanced merchandise leading manufacturers to create electronic and interactive products to entertain and educate children. 

"Age compression, where children demand more sophisticated toys at a younger age, has boosted demand for technological toys," he says. "This has led to a shift away from traditional toys, and increased demand for technologically interactive toys and games."

But Ms Burgio-Ficca says despite this trend, demand for traditional toys remains strong, largely driven by parents seeking a return to more traditional products which are reminiscent of those they owned when they were younger. 

"Traditional toys and games are also thought to offer greater educational value and promote creativity," she says.  

Industry revenue for the last year was estimated at $870 million on the back of solid demand for electronic and interactive toys but intense internal and external competition has led to weak growth of 0.7 per cent. 

Growing screen time

Some of this competition comes from the rise of multimedia entertainment such as video games and phone apps that don't fit within the toy category.

Research by the Longitudinal Study of Australian Children published last year found children aged between four and five years are spending about 2.2 hours each weekday watching screens, but that number grows to 3.3 hours by the time they are 12 and 13.

The numbers increase on the weekend, up to 2.5 hours for three to four-year-olds, and 4.3 hours for the 12 to 13-year-old cohort.

Professor Stephen Houghton, of the University of Western Australia, says there is debate on the effects of screen time on children's health.

"We know the more time they spend sitting on computers the more sedentary they are, which affects physical health, but the impact on mental health is not clear," Professor Houghton says.

Tiger Tribe's toys offer an antidote, if not a substitute for that screen time.

Product testing

Each toy is still approved by Tiger Tribe's toughest product testers, the Greens' 12-year-old son and 14-year-old daughter who are, admittedly, a little older than Tiger Tribe's target market.

"We still ask them for feedback on the products," Mrs Green says. "There was a moment in time when they had to accept that they were no longer suitable to be in our photo shoots but they are really, really proud of us. I'm excited that my kids will think if they work hard at something of their own they can succeed."