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Madlug: The Co Armagh company founded with £500 that has given children their dignity back

Madlug is a Co Armagh social enterprise which was founded with £500 and a heartwarming story of children in care who were carrying their belongings in black bin bags.

Set up in 2015, by former youth worker Dave Linton, Madlug donates a bag to a child in care for every product it sells.

Armagh I caught up with Dave to hear about the origins of the business which has now provided bags to 52,000 bags to children in care and has collaborated with the likes of Shopify and Ikea.

Dave was a youth worker for 22 years; he and his wife are adoptive parents and they also have experience in respite fostering.

After moving to Lurgan, originally from Newtownabbey, Dave and his wife made to decision to foster another child and whilst at a course in the ABC district he was shown a video that changed his life.

“It was a video of a girl, she was in wheelchair, she was a teenager in care and she made this statement: ‘when we move the local trusts, the local authorities, don’t give us suitcases, sometimes foster carers loan us a suitcase, but quite often our belongings are moved in black plastic bin bags and we lose our dignity’.”

A “heartbroken” Dave was then resolved to fix this problem but he had no experience in business and did not know where to start.

Initially, he thought about collecting old bags from young people at the youth centre he worked at but upon reflection he knew this would make little difference with 90,000 plus young people in care across the UK and Ireland, with one child moving every fifteen minutes.

“I released this was a bigger issue…..they deserved to be treated with dignity, they deserved to be given a brand new bag.

“I thought about fundraising but I am not the type of guy to climb mountains or run marathons….I am also dyslexic, so the idea of funding applications – writing was my weak area in youth work so the idea of using that model was going to be a challenge and it wasn’t necessarily a good fit.”

Dave then remembered a talk from the founder of Toms Shoes at a conference he had attended, and decided that the ‘buy one, give one’ model, offered the sustainability he wanted for what was to become Madlug.

“I remember the first day, ringing up Invest NI saying I have a business idea, can you help me start? The first question they asked was is it a business or a social enterprise.

“I said it was a business but reflected and released it was a social enterprise…. now I am a big believer in the power of social enterprises.”

So it was all set…..well, there was the one issue of investment to contend with.

“Really there was about £500; I remember saying to my wife that I was going to start a business and she said: ‘we have no money and you have no business background’.

“£480 was the 40% deposit to get the brand designed…it was a case of I will find the money let’s just get the ball rolling”.

Friends that worked in business were not the most supportive admitted Dave, who said: “I have a friend that works in the tech world, he just said: ‘ It’s great idea but this is not America'”.

The friend commented that this part of the world were importers of brands not creators, Dave remembers thinking that only two local brands came to mind – O’Neill’s sportswear and Mac in a Sac.

But Dave was determined to make it work and was not prepared to wait, admitting that it was in part stubbornness.

After conducting some market research, walking through the many shops selling bags, Dave found that every brand was using the classic one pocket at the front design.

He then set about looking for ethical providers, which meant he could focus solely on the story which inspired Madlug and its branding.

“I can remember that at the very start, due to my inexperience, I did something illegal……I didn’t know that you could not sell something you didn’t have”.

Dave took to social media to show prototypes of the bags and in his own words “hoped” he had enough to fill an order, with the help of a supplier who offers fairly small quantities.

Initially, Dave found part time work but later left due to his vision and passion for the Madlug brand. He began “doing jobs which paid more money for less time”, namely consulting social enterprises, in order to focus on his own business.

“We were one of the first buy one, give one brands in NI; there are quite a lot now but we started the movement”.

After three years, Madlug had sold around 3,000 bags which by Dave’s own admission “was not going to change the world”.

“We saw our biggest acceleration in year three, an influencer in Manchester had bought a bag and told her story of black bin bags, [after that] we cleared out stock in ten hours.”

It was not all plain sailing for Madlug, Dave admitted that he considered giving up and felt lonely in his new role but little moments would change his mind.

“I can remember going into the office we were getting for free, council were providing it, and an envelope sitting there. I remember saying to a friend the night before I don’t know if I can do this, I am crumbling with loneliness.

“I open the envelope and there is this handwritten letter, still to day don’t know who it was from only that it came from Manchester because of the stamp…. it said to the Madlug team, it talked about how we cared about them without even knowing them, how we left us feeling with value and worth ….it was signed off ‘care experienced young person’ and I just thought wow I am going to keep going”.

These little reminders kept the passion of the business and his goal at the front of his mind.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Dave recalls hearing others in business talking of anchoring in but his board had other ideas.

He knew the business would not run out of cash for a few months and kept all his staff on full time wages, but business was slow.

“At the end of August….I went on holidays. With everything cancelled it was a couple days as a family in Donegal, then I got a call from a colleague saying Ikea had been ringing asking if we could supply 10,000 bags to them by the end of October.

“There goes my holiday.”

Madlug ended up sending 13,000 bags to Ikea, one for every one of their employees working across the UK and Ireland for their end of year gift.

Then in 2021, they contacted by Canadian business Shopify who wanted 3,000 bags for an all staff conference, all from a business based in a portacabin in Richhill.

“Over 52,000 kids don’t have their belongings moved in black bin bags as a result of what we started with £500”.

Visit the Madlug website here.

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