The Little Dog Laughed - dog themed greeting cards from Derby

Pebble Dash Greeting Card

Pebble Dash Greeting Card - Credit: Archant

Anna Danielle is the founder and face behind the delightful Derbyshire-based doggy design greetings card and gifts company ‘the little dog laughed’. As the successful company celebrates its 20th anniversary year, Penelope Baddeley went to meet her.

Anna with her Romanian rescue dog Darley

Anna with her Romanian rescue dog Darley - Credit: Archant

Hi Dhruti - I think this would probably be five pages. The photos with a 1. are of the family and staff, 2. are from her Apart from a brief spell when she desperately wanted to own a pet shop so she could play with animals all day long, Derby-born Anna Danielle always knew her work would involve art, design, and in particular drawing.

‘I always drew and really just knew it was something I wanted to do from about the age of ten,’ said the 44-year-old creative director of ‘little dog laughed’ – whose designs featuring four-legged furry friends can now be seen in gift shops across the county, country and the English speaking world.

It was whilst at Winchester School of Art studying for her textiles degree that Anna got the chance of an elective with a greetings card company and knew, in a Eureka-type moment, that this was what she wanted to do.

For her final year project at university, surrounded by textile students undertaking complex projects, dazzled with dreams of high fashion and futures in smart London design studios, Anna opted for simpler subject matter – cows.

Anna with a piece of her artwork

Anna with a piece of her artwork - Credit: Archant

‘My final project was in cows. Because of growing up in Ashbourne I really like the English fields, the cows, the cricket, the tranquillity and loveliness of the English countryside.’

She entitled her degree project the ‘little dog laughed’, taken from the nursery rhyme line that follows the phrase, ‘the cow jumped over the moon.’

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Anna said: ‘It was simple, not clever. I hadn’t even started drawing dogs at that point but it was clear in my head – don’t do fashion. I knew I could draw animals and I was happy doing that.’

Despite the offer of several London-based and potentially glamorous jobs after graduating in 1996, Anna opted to head back to Derbyshire and start her own business from the bedroom of her childhood home. She started by making handmade calico fabric-fronted cards, a laborious process which took three hours to produce each card and resulted in permanent nerve damage to her shoulder.

Douglas and Anna's best-selling Dog Calendar

Douglas and Anna's best-selling Dog Calendar - Credit: Archant

Anna said: ‘The process was ridiculously complex and involved cutting, printing, hand painting, ironing, sticking, folding and wrapping and whenever I assume that card-making position that twinge is still there.’

But she got her first order – from Bennetts, one of the UK’s oldest department stores, who placed in their Derby branch her first sepia wash doggy drawings – featured on both cards and cushions.

‘It made me think if it’s good enough for Bennetts I can try somewhere else.’

Orders flooded in from various shops until the point Anna could not cope with demand for what became a range of acutely perceptive water-colour images of mainly mongrel mutts matched with gently humorous captions. Fortified with success 23-year-old Anna outsourced her card printing but found herself launched into a male world where she was promptly ‘stitched over’ by two different printing companies, the first of which charged her quadruple the going rate for envelopes.

Douglas the Boy Wonder

Douglas the Boy Wonder - Credit: Archant

Then plans to attend one of her first trade shows – the bread and butter of card and gift companies – were thwarted when her card consignment arrived from her second printing company in a substandard condition: the colours were poor, the spines on the cards were split.

‘I said I couldn’t accept them and they threatened to take me to court.’

By now Anna was working in two rooms she rented above her stepfather ‘Tivey’s’ property development business based in the centre of Derby. Her elder brother Gavin who worked there as managing director stepped in to help Anna.

Anna said: ‘I asked him then if he wanted to try and run my business because it was blatantly obvious that I couldn’t. It was ridiculous for him to go from construction into the greetings card industry but within nine months of being in the job he had people in the industry asking him for advice.’

Scruffy Love

Scruffy Love - Credit: Archant

It was the beginning of a remarkable story of the development of not two but three siblings-run and jointly owned business – a very close family team with a shared strong work ethic and a keen sense of humour which is characteristic of the art work and captions used in the production of ‘the little dog laughed’ product lines.

Big brother Gavin, ‘the life and soul’, became a joint owner and company director. He was later joined in the business by youngest brother Nathan, ‘practical, stable and calm,’ who is eight years younger than Gavin and six years younger than the creative and determined Anna. (Nathan has a first class honours degree in construction management but changed tack to become Head of Operations.)

Anna said: ‘For me this is one of the highlights of my job. It’s one of my lucky things to be able to work with these two. It’s one of the best parts of life. But it wasn’t one of those things that you could see coming.’

The trio went their own ways growing up, following the divorce of their teacher parents, a shock which rocked them.

Good Sign Greeting Card

Good Sign Greeting Card - Credit: Archant

‘Divorce is a massive thing, and even though it happened 30 years ago it’s like dropping a big rock into a pond, the ripples go on for years.’

Anna remains uncertain whether the divorce is now the reason the three siblings cleave together in their adult life but you get the strong sense that down at Little Dog Towers – the affectionate term for the company HQ based at a Derby industrial estate – it’s all fun and games, with family dogs making frequent guest appearances at work alongside a team of exceptionally close family and friends whose shared love for four-legged furry creatures has formed the foundation for a flourishing family firm.

Anna said: ‘But we do not live in one another’s pockets we very much have our own lives. We don’t do Christmas together because we see one another every day. It’s more to spare our relations in case others feel pushed out when we are together!’

With her brothers managing and operating the company, whose lines have at various times been stocked by retailers ranging from John Lewis to the National Trust, Anna could concentrate more freely on design and she focused on what she knew best – drawing animals.

Coasters designed for the RSPCA

Coasters designed for the RSPCA - Credit: Archant

Her beloved childhood scruffy mutt Jack, had been the inspiration for her first cards and now she had her one-girl-dog ‘Daisy B’ at her side at work as well as Gavin’s dog ‘Smiffy’ as inspirational muses. There were animal reference books and Anna also took full advantage of connections at Ashbourne and District Animal Welfare Society, where her retired teacher mum Susie was a volunteer.

‘I could nip up to animal welfare, take photos and draw.’

Close observation of animals and an eye for funny situations were reflected in the art work, which resonated with buyers and their animal-loving customers. ‘I’d see a dog with a huge big stick in its mouth and see it was overjoyed, then see its owner thinking “Oh no!” and a caption would pop into my mind to match an illustration.’

They found Print4 in Nottingham, who were so flexible they would even let Anna run the press through and tweak the colour for large card consignments.

Growing Old handmade cushion

Growing Old handmade cushion - Credit: Archant

For the next five years business boomed for the sibling-owned greeting card company who had found themselves in a unique position in the market and expanded sales across to Australia, New Zealand and parts of Asia.

But they were hit hard by the 2008 recession and had to half the size of the workforce and the creative heart of the company, Anna, went back to the drawing board.

‘It was horrific,’ she said. ‘It was just a shock as if someone had turned the lights out. We had pretty much employed family and friends and you are responsible. You know what these peoples’ lives are and I was a wreck.’

Distributors and buyers had the same message and their advice amounted to a single design phrase Anna had also encountered repeatedly at art school: ‘Come up with something exactly the same but completely different.’

It took five years, a ‘warehouse full of failures’ but Anna’s company recovered driven largely by two totally unexpected factors, her new home and the unavoidable onslaught of social media.

I met Anna at her striking period family home in Derby, which she shares with her four boys, Jack aged 12, Samuel aged 10, George aged 8 and Harry aged 5 and her rugby coach husband Alan Dickens, the former professional player with Sale, Leeds and Saracens.

(‘I wasn’t massively fussed about children, she says with a straight face, ‘but now I’ve got four. And that whole boys thing – they are all sporty- was just a shock. I once imagined I’d have a nice little house with a wall full of books and just me but I’ve spent my whole life on the side of a pitch trudging from one damp field to another and now, well, I love it.)

Anna often works from home on new designs away from the interruptions of administrative office tasks. She is covert about letting people see art work in progress but is happy to introduce me to Darley, her latest family addition, a Romanian rescue dog, the gypsy rogue, who has a disconcerting appetite for rubber gloves, socks and brioche.

It’s two years since Anna moved into her immaculate and partly Georgian, partly Victorian house and it was whilst creating mood boards to plan interior design and colour palette that she got inspiration for a card and gifts range, called ‘Digs and Manor’ which she describes as simply ‘saving’ for the company. A total ‘reboot’.

She decided to place the animal subjects in room settings and painted the mutts in their digs and the moggies in their manors. She added a twist and used her Apple Mac to add in flat contemporary wall colours not dissimilar to those in her own home.

‘Art design has become much more computerised,’ said Anna. ‘The Apple Mac is right up there. I’m not embarrassed to have created Digs and Manor using it in part to create the flat background where I wanted to avoid any painterly marks.’

Anna also takes took huge inspiration from social media to select her canine and feline models.

She said: ‘I’d avoided social media for ages. I thought I’m not showing people what I had for lunch. It’s ridiculous and I haven’t got time for this malarkey but I think its saved us from a design point of view.

‘The other night, I had missed a lot of deadlines, the kids were ill, Christmas had been hectic and so I put something on our facebook page asking for photographs of a dog that thinks it’s awesome and a cat that doesn’t give a damn. By morning I had 700 photos to scrawl through. I was just like a dog with a bone and I thought how brilliant is this?

‘If people stalk me on social media, the chances are I WILL draw their pet.’

Anna and ‘the little dog laughed’ are never complacent in a market place where they have witnessed a shrinking and struggling high street and a reduced footfall at the trade fairs, the traditional route used by buyers to source their lines.

‘It’s a case that we are constantly analysing, we never sit back and never take anything for granted.’

They have developed other routes to market, not least on the virtual high street but also by concentrating on improving points of sale by creating beautiful display stands to aid retailers.

In celebration of its 20th anniversary the company has launched six new cards featuring Anna’s new rescue dog Darley and for one year only has released six of Anna’s original printed sepia wash drawings.

They have begun a charity project to support the RSPCA throughout the anniversary year via sales of their collection ‘It’s A Good Sign’ and are planning to go back to their roots by creating an anniversary window dressing for Bennetts in Ashbourne.

‘They gave us our first break and I want to thank them,’ said Anna.

Anna’s motivation has always been simple – to make someone’s day with a card that has a real resonance for them.

She said: ‘If I go to an art gallery or museum it gives me a smile that I get as much enjoyment when I head to the gift shop. I have friends who do proper work. Proper conceptual art on canvas and you can feel inferiority when you are among those people but the greetings card for me is every day art. I love it as an art form and have cards framed all round my house.

‘It’s art on a piece of paper that someone has taken the trouble to buy. I could never send a card to someone for whom it was not perfect. It’s about your relationship with the person you are sending it to. Yes a greetings card is commercial and you might end up recycling it but if you pick the right one, for your children, or husband or friend, it holds its own.’