Toy mogul Nick Mowbray's rise to Entrepreneur of the Year has been anything but smooth.

From living on $1 a day in China to even getting in trouble with the Triads, those days are a far-reach from where the co-founder of 5000-strong billion-dollar company Zuru Toys is today.

But it's all of this that Mowbray says entrepreneurship is about.

"So many people see the success attached to certain entrepreneurs, but what they don't see is the sacrifice," Mowbray told the audience at last night's EY Entrepreneur of the Year awards.


"Along with that [sacrifice] also comes lots of problems. Daily, weekly, monthly problems, they were relentless.

"Whether it was being in multiple lawsuits from the very beginning when we had no money to defend ourselves, Chinese factories going bankrupt, factories stealing our production tooling, we didn't know how to make toys that sold, I went to a China jail for a while, I got in trouble with the Triads and I was in a safehouse in Hong Kong for a month."

His story, and that of Zuru's, began at the age of 18 when he and his brother moved to a small city in the middle of China.

"There were no foreigners, no one spoke English, and we lived in this small apartment on the eighth floor, there was no elevator. We lived on about $1 to $2 a day and food just eating rice and vegetables everyday," Mowbray said.

Nick Mowbray of Zuru, the 2018 EY Entrepreneur of the Year.
Nick Mowbray of Zuru, the 2018 EY Entrepreneur of the Year.

"I actually remember the first couple of years we celebrated Christmas at McDonald's, with my brother, and even that was a treat, spending what was the equivalent in New Zealand currency of $3 or $4 on McDonald's."

Even when he moved to Hong Kong, Mowbray said he first lived in a little showroom where a table was about all that fitted inside, before "upgrading" to a ramshackle hostel which cost $10 a night in rent.

"It was horrible," he said of the hostel.

"I used to live in this room with 18 other people and there was about half a metre space between the beds, but that was kind of like an upgrade for me at that stage."


Mowbray said he used to sneak out the back fire escape of the hostel to have meetings with customers or clients who were staying across the road at a really flash hotel.

"I used to remember that there was this really flash hotel opposite and a lot of my customers and clients used to stay there, so everyday I'd have to take the back fire escape out of the building so they didn't see me coming out of this building every morning and then I'd have to go and have a meeting with them," Mowbray said.

Even Mowbray's first big break didn't go smoothly.

At 19 years of age, Mowbray says he came up with an idea to licence David Beckham for a Tamagotchi-style football video game player, featuring the likeness of the famous star.

Everything seemed to be going according to plan when agents in the UK agreed to hand over the licence, Walmart ordered 2.2 million units and a business partner in China agreed to develop the product.

But as they started making the toys, Walmart decided to cancel all but 300,000 of the original order - which meant no one was going to make a profit from the deal.

Eventually, Mowbray managed to convince Walmart to up the order to around 800,000 units, which they did.

The only problem was that the product was a complete dud. It sat on shelves and no one would buy it.

"It was a disaster," Mowbray said.

"I don't know if it was our first hit, but it was our first big deal."

Fortunately, things have been on the up ever since.

Zuru, also founded with siblings Anna and Matt, is now one of the most recognised names on toy shelves around the world, with toys such as Robo Fish, X-Shot and Bunch O Balloons known to millions of children and parents.

"It's about getting knocked down seven times and getting up eight," Mowbray said.

Mowbray will represent New Zealand at EY's World Entrepreneur of the Year
event in Monaco next year, competing with other title winners from more than 50 countries.