Kathryn McNally: 'We're over the moon that this grant will help us build and be better!'

Kathryn McNally: 'We're over the moon that this grant will help us build and be better!'

Posted: Mon 6th Nov 2023

Back in May, Enterprise Nation and digital design and marketing services firm VistaPrint awarded 20 small businesses a share of £150,000 in grant funding through their joint programme Realising the Remarkable.

As well as the grant money, each of the winners received 12 months of free subscriptions to Vista's graphic design software VistaCreate Pro, £500 to spend on marketing materials at the VistaPrint UK website, and access to the 99designs by Vista silver logo and brand guide package.

A few months down the line, we were eager to find out how the grant money and prizes had helped the winning business owners with their ventures. Here, we talk to Kathryn McNally (shown right above) co-founder of UnderSky, an Ayr-based company that designs and makes nature-based educational products and hosts events for children and families.

Kathryn, please tell us about your business.

Both I and my co-founder Katie Walker were made redundant during the COVID-19 pandemic, which is what led to us starting our business, UnderSky. We provide outdoor, nature-based experiences for children and families through events and products. Our aim is to help protect the planet through the power of play.

Our product range includes our unique play tins and card games, which we design and produce in Ayr in Scotland. UnderSky tins are packed full of imaginative, engaging games and activities to encourage children to play outside and discover more about our native wildlife, science and ecology. We want families to explore natural spaces together, share the learning and discovery, and form positive memories.

We produce our play tins sustainably, using recycled card and eco-printing, recycled plastic ribbon, biodegradable glitter and no single-use plastic. We design and hand-illustrate all our products, using a true-to-life illustrative style that makes sure children relate to the real creature rather than a stylised cartoon version.

We also organise and run outdoor events for children and families. Each play session is story-led and full of imaginative and active games where families explore and play together in undervalued green spaces.

As well as holding paid events, we continually apply for funding to deliver our events for free to communities in areas of deprivation. We take fun and active play into the heart of these communities, reducing the typical barriers to access (such as a lack of finance or available transport) that families often encounter, especially during the current cost of living crisis.

When you heard you'd won a Realising the Remarkable grant, how did you respond?

We were utterly shocked and delighted in equal measure! This award will help our business achieve so many projects and developments. We're over the moon that we've been given this opportunity to build and be better!

Tell us how you've used the grant so far.

The grant has helped us in a number of ways:

  • Buying an additional event shelter: We run community events and birthday parties outdoors and so we need a wet-weather shelter. We had an event shelter that took two people 45 minutes to erect and it wasn't the perfect solution for events led by only one member of staff.

    Thanks to the grant, we've bought an additional inflatable event shelter which only takes 10 minutes for one person to blow up! It's really helped us take on more work.

  • Buying a new storage solution: We have a large volume of stock for our play tins and equipment for our play events. Previously, we stored these in crates and random cardboard boxes stacked precariously on top of each other. Not a great system when you need something from the bottom of the stack!

    We've used part of the grant to buy shelving and storage boxes that allow us to properly organise and record stock numbers and store equipment safely.

    This will revolutionise how we work in the future, as we can more easily check stock, select the correct equipment and generally have a much more peaceful working environment. We'll find it easier to scale up production with this storage solution, which should mean more sales. Hurrah!

  • Buying larger quantities of stock: This grant has given us the capital to buy larger quantities of stock and so take advantage of economies of scale. For example, we recently placed an order for playing cards, which we use in a variety of capacities within our product range.

    The cost of production has increased by 15% recently, but by purchasing at a higher quantity we were able to continue to pay the same amount per card pack and keep our profit margin stable.

  • Designing and manufacturing a new visual display unit for market stalls: Now we have the option of buying greater stock numbers, we're also able to manufacture greater quantities of our products. We're also more confident about contacting high-end craft and makers' markets, as we know we have a good range of products to promote and sell to a target audience.

    For example, we've recently been accepted to join makers at the V&A in Dundee, at the Glasgow Wasps Studios Market and also at SPOT Design Market. To make sure we display our products to the very best standard, we're investing in new display units suitable for the quality market stall expected at these events.

  • Contracting a seasonal event leader: We've sought additional seasonal event leaders to help us run our summer event programme. This is essential as we used some of the grant money to expand the volume of event days.

  • Contracting an extra graphic designer: We've contracted a freelance graphic designer to assist with designing producing illustrations for new projects – something we've only been able to do thanks to the grant.



We're in a cost of living crisis right now. How will the grant help there?

In terms of the cost of living crisis, the grant will help us in three different ways:

  • Limit the effects of a reduced profit margin: We outsource some items for our themed play tins and events, selecting suppliers with high environmental standards and local businesses. Such items are more expensive than less sustainable options, and their price has increased significantly over the past year (some by nearly 40%), which reduces our profit margin.

    The grant will allow us to continue to invest in local and sustainable businesses, focusing on the community wealth-building agenda. We can also buy larger quantities, taking advantage of economies of scale, and lowering production costs as a result.

  • Better marketing to encourage customers to spend with us: The cost of living crisis means families are spending less on non-essential items. We'll use the grant to market our products more effectively, helping families realise the benefits of buying our play tins or attending our events.

    We provide cost-effective experiences for families – increasing time outdoors, intergenerational play and appreciation for nature. Each of these impacts lead to a more informed, healthier, more environmentally conscious and ultimately happier community.

  • Continue to provide free events in the community: We seek grant funding to take free community play days into the heart of deprived local areas. Due to the cost of living crisis, the number of grant options has reduced, although demand has increased.

    Our ultimate aim is to invest a percentage of our profits back into the local community by providing free events. This funding helped us continue to deliver free community play days in deprived communities this summer.

And how will the grant aid your design and marketing?

This grant will be a massive help in improving our business's design and marketing. Our brand is well known in the local area, but we want to expand our audience across the whole of the UK.

We've used some of the grant to employ an additional graphic designer/content creator, who will provide us with artwork for marketing, social media, adverts and articles in relevant magazines, plus direct marketing to our supporters and customers.

By developing our social media presence and sending more regular newsletters, we'll increase our online following and make more people aware of our products and services. The grant will also allow us to buy advertising space in relevant magazines and have a physical presence at design markets and (potentially) trade fairs.



Why do you feel your business deserves this grant?

UnderSky is a two-woman team. We were both made redundant during the pandemic, and we're so convinced that UnderSky is a viable business idea that it's been our full-time employment for the last 24 months. We've fed back almost every penny we've earned so far into giving UnderSky the huge potential that it has today.

There's no-one doing what we do or selling what we create. UnderSky is unique as we combine four main areas (active, outdoor play; learning about the UK's wildlife and environment; unique illustrations and branding; and high environmental and ethical standards) to create an entirely new product and experience.

We've inspired hundreds of children to explore green spaces on their doorstep and learn more about the UK's wildlife. We were finalists in the Green Startup category in the Startup Awards 2023. We were part of Scotland's only Nature Based Accelerator Programme, gaining vital skills in business management and meeting wonderfully inspiring entrepreneurs.

We've also had a motion raised in the Scottish Parliament, commending us for gaining funding to provide free outdoor events in deprived communities and wishing us lots of success with our business.

Finally, what are your plans for growth over the next 12 months?

All the avenues which UnderSky could investigate relate to one key theme: learning and loving the natural world and environment through outdoor play. There are four main areas we'd like to develop into the future:

  • Expanding our audience up and down the country: We want to make outdoor play and connecting to the natural world accessible to as many families as possible.

  • Expanding our play tin range in shops and create bespoke tins for businesses and charities: We have a number of ideas for new play tins, to bring new themes and ideas to extend our range for families and that we would sell in our online shop. We could approach conservation charities, children charities and businesses to commission bespoke UnderSky products.

  • Widening the area in which we deliver events: We could develop this by employing staff in different local authority areas and training them to deliver UnderSky play events, or we could expand UnderSky as a franchise.

  • Expanding our curriculum-linked outdoor learning sessions to primary and nursery schools: We've already been working with local schools on their outdoor learning provision in valuable areas such as sustainability, recycling and STEM learning.


Realising the Remarkable: A £150,000 cash grant programme by Enterprise Nation and VistaPrint

Other Realising the Remarkable success stories

Enterprise Nation has helped thousands of people start and grow their businesses. Led by founder, Emma Jones CBE, Enterprise Nation connects you to the resources and expertise to help you succeed.

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