Mar 4, 20199 min read

Viral Success Turned the Gift to Her Sister into an E-Commerce Business.

Kristian Borglund headshot

by Kristian Borglund

Ailbhe Keane never saw herself as a businesswoman when she was growing up in Galway, Ireland. But then… well, in a moment of inspiration she decided to pimp the wheels of her sister Izzy’s wheelchair with patterns she’d designed herself, and they got attention from millions of people. She started the online business Izzy Wheels, and what began as a way to empower her sister and others in her situation is now also inspiring creative women around the world.

The online sensation Izzy Wheels started off as a passion project when Ailbhe Keane, during her final year in art college in 2016, wanted to create something to help make her sister, Izzy, feel more confident in her wheelchair.

“She was born with spina bifida and has no feeling or movement from her waist down. I created a collection of stylish wheel covers that allowed her to transform her wheelchair into a piece of fashion and self-expression.”

She didn’t anticipate her colourful wheel cover designs growing into a global brand. But it happened – and quickly.

From 3 million views on Instagram in a single day, to e-commerce in 35 countries

“We set up an Instagram account called Izzy Wheels and posted little videos of Izzy modelling her wheels, and the page went viral. One video we made got 3 million views in one day and 16 million views in one week. We began getting messages from people all over the world wondering where they could buy our designs, so we decided to open up an online store.”

Today Izzy Wheels are selling in 35 countries. Their journey is impressive, to say the least:

  • The sisters have collaborated with 50 famous designers on wheel cover designs over the past two years and have a waiting list of over 900 designers who have applied to create designs for Izzy Wheels.
  • They have won 10 national awards including ‘Accenture Leaders of Tomorrow’ and were both named on Forbes 30 Under 30 for Retail and E-commerce in 2018.
  • The designs have been featured in some of the world’s biggest publications including British Vogue, Teen Vogue, TechCrunch, Vice, Forbes, Elle, Oprah Magazine, Cosmopolitan and Business Insider.
  • Schools around the world are doing Izzy Wheels Workshops with their students to educate children and teenagers about designing for diversity.

BBC Three also featured Izzy Wheels in their series ‘Amazing Humans’ in a documentary called Pimped Up Custom Wheelchairs.

The unstoppable sisters

The step into the e-commerce world came naturally. Ailbhe already felt drawn towards starting a business.

“If you are truly passionate about something and want to make it happen, I don’t believe you should let anything get in the way of that. I just went ahead and did it.”

Twenty-two-year-old Ailbhe and eighteen-year-old Izzy founded their company without any business experience whatsoever.

“Neither of us studied business in college so we were self-taught. We marketed our products and told the story of our brand in a way that was completely organic. We learned by doing.”

In her younger years, Ailbhe never imagined herself being a businesswoman.

“I wanted to be an artist. My idea of what it meant to be a businesswoman was all wrong. To be a successful artist you need to be able to market your work, generate cash flow and sales, and trust your instinct. These are all the same qualities you need for both and I was naive to think that they were any different. I am proud to be both an artist and a businesswoman.”

Being a woman in a male environment

As she entered the business scene, she immediately noticed the dominance of men everywhere; at business networking events, and at business competitions.

She felt a bit out of place.

She wasn’t used to that.

“I grew up in the west of Ireland in a world where I never felt any different being a woman. I had gone to a mixed primary and secondary school and was given the same opportunities as the boys in school. I studied graphic design in college in Dublin where there was a relatively equal amount of guys and girls on my course. It was only when I left college and joined the business world that I felt that I was outnumbered by men.

“Not only was I one of the only females in the room, but I was also much younger than most people and my style of dressing is a bit eccentric, so I really felt like I didn’t quite fit in. I soon learned to love the fact that I stood out; it meant people would remember me. I fit in but in my own way, and although I did feel a bit different I always felt respected and very welcome. Even in the past three years that I’ve been part of the Irish business scene, I’m noticing more and more diversity.”

Passion for inclusivity and individuality

Ailbhe’s childhood gave her appreciation for the importance of equality, inclusion, and diversity.

“Izzy was born with a physical disability which means she has been a wheelchair user all of her life. But our parents raised us in a way that taught us that everyone should be treated equally and given the same opportunities. Celebrating your individuality and what makes you different went on to become an important part of who I am and the career path I chose.”

We asked Ailbhe: What are three of the most important insights from your first year of business that you want to share with anyone who is considering starting an e-commerce business?

“1. Always try and deliver more than what’s expected. During your first year of business, your first few customers are extremely important. If you are selling a physical product, make sure that when the customer’s parcel arrives in the post they are thrilled. We make sure that everything is magnificently wrapped and that the experience is made as personal as possible. We include a handwritten note in each parcel so the customer feels really special. We let them know that the wheel covers were made with love and care just for them. This makes a customer feel loved and they are likely to tell their friends or share it on their social media.

2. Speak to as many users as possible before you build or add a product to your store. Just because you think something is a super idea doesn’t mean that other people will want to actually buy it. It’s so important to get as much feedback as possible from users. We spoke to as many wheelchair users and their families as we could and got them to try out our products before we launched anything online.

3. Find a mentor who you really look up to. Having someone who you admire that you can go to for guidance is extremely important. It’s really valuable to have support from someone who has been on a similar journey to you in the past and has come out the other end. They can guide you around the pitfalls. It’s wonderful to have someone to get advice from whose business or career is where you’d like to see yours in a few years time, i.e. who has raised the kind of investment you hope to raise, hired a great team of people and reached the types of milestones that you would like to.”

Do you ever have self-doubt?

“Having the responsibility of running your own business can be daunting at times. Worrying about all of the little things that could go wrong is normal but you need to focus on the bigger picture.”

She has three strategies to deal with this: Try to learn and discover something new every day. Take every day one step at a time and be patient with the process. Remember nothing happens overnight so don’t be too hard on yourself.

What’s your secret to keep moving forward with your passions, dreams and visions?

“I adore our online community. We call our users our Spokes People. They are a wonderful community of wheelchair users who share the same love for their wheelchairs as my sister Izzy. We get photos and stories sent into us every week of Spokes People wearing their Izzy Wheels. Seeing how they match their wheels to their outfits and hearing about their different experiences of living with disabilities makes my job very meaningful. Izzy Wheels opens up the conversation around mobility devices and shines a positive light on inclusion. Our Spokes People see their wheelchairs as a symbol of their ability, not their disability. Izzy Wheels began as a very personal passion project and it still has the same values now that it’s a business. The difference is that now we are creating beautiful wheels for users all over the world, not just my sister.”

Which woman inspires you the most to grow as a businessperson today?

“Iris Apfel. Iris is a 97-year-old American businesswoman, interior designer, and fashion icon. In her book ‘Accidental Icon’ some of her secrets to success are: ‘When something excites you, go for it’, ‘Don’t obsess over your age’, ‘Pick a partner who celebrates your success’, and ‘Start new endeavours with one small step, you only fail if you don’t try’.”

This interview is a part of the series “Behind the Business”. Read more about it here