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July 2015 | Vol. XIV - No. 7
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Spotlight on: Women in Toys


This month, we're putting the spotlight on women who have invented toys or started their own toy companies. We've interviewed dozens of women in the industry over the years, and we wanted to share with you how some of them were inspired to bring a toy to market, their advice to aspiring toymakers, and how they overcame some of their biggest challenges along the way to success.

How did you come up with the idea for your first product?

"I started a tradition with my group of entrepreneurial friends in San Francisco called "Idea Brunch", where we'd get together once a month, make breakfast and give each person 5 minutes to pitch the group on their latest hair-brained idea on how to change the world. During one of those sessions, the idea for "construction toys for girls" came up after one of my female engineer friends and I were complaining about the lack of women in the field. She owed her passion for engineering to playing with her older brothers' hand-me-down Legos. Everyone in the room got excited about the idea, but I knew it was my life calling."
- Debbie Sterling, creator of GoldieBlox

"Our first product was a Keister creation called the Hexadecimal puzzle. My role at ThinkFun isn't to come up with the ideas for our games and puzzles — my role is to make things happen! In the beginning, this meant figuring out all the logistics of how to get things made, how to sell them, how to do the accounting, how to track inventory, sales, and so on."
- Andrea Barthello, Co-Founder and COO of ThinkFun

"My husband, Isaac and I were working on several mobile games (some for kids), and were curious to see if any of the new advances in technology had made their ways to toys. We wandered through the toy isle, mind-blown that toys hadn't really evolved since our childhood. We had no intention of being toy designers, but after we couldn't find what we were looking for, we decided to build it.

"We sat on the idea for a few months since I had hesitations around building hardware, but the idea kept coming up in discussions, so we decided to take a leap of faith, and rented the cheapest workshop we could buy, took sewing lessons, and learned how to make silicone molds. 4 months later, we launched on Kickstarter, and within a year, we completed our first production run."
- Carly Gloge, CEO and co-creator of Ubooly

"The idea for Pillow Pets® was inspired by my oldest son. He had a particular stuffed animal that he took everywhere with him and he even slept on it until it began to flatten out. That was how I began to form the idea. After I had the idea, my husband and I met with a manufacturer at a trade show in Las Vegas and got some samples made. Shortly after we put in our first order for a full container."
- Jennifer Telfer, Creator of Pillow Pets and CEO of CJ Products

"The original inspiration for Zylie actually came when I was a young mother observing my two daughters play; one loved dolls, the other loved to dress and play with her teddy bears as if they were dolls. It was so simple, why hadn't anyone combined the two?! But what really brought the idea to life was us as a family sitting around the kitchen table, asking the question, "Who is Zylie?" Everything we observed as wrong with the industry--too much reliance on advertising, not enough depth to the play experience, bratty characters, bad body images--we did the opposite of, and created a set of characters and stories that we fell in love with."
- Mary Beth Minton, CEO of Zylie the Bear

"I had grown up bilingual in French and always felt that was a huge advantage in life. I wanted [my son] Emmett to experience the same benefits as I did of being bilingual. I was already singing and speaking to him in French, but I wanted him to have something that he could watch while I was at work, and use with his father and caretaker too, who don't speak French. That's when I came up with the idea of a language teaching series using video for kids, and Little Pim was born. I always imagined it as a kind of "Rosetta Stone meets Baby Einstein" and wanted it to be as fun as it was effective and educational."
- Julia Pimsleur Levine, creator of Little Pim

What were the biggest obstacles you faced along the way?

"The biggest obstacle so far as been in getting the product 'just right'. It's sort of a Goldilocks story, funnily enough. In one sample, the holes were too large, In the next, they were too tight. It's been a struggle to get them "juuuust right". Because our factory is in China, there is a long delay in between sample revisions and it's not always easy to communicate such minor tweaks. We were running out of time and still hadn't gotten it "just right", so I booked a last-minute flight to China and visited the factory in person to make sure nothing got lost in translation. That finally did the trick."
- Debbie Sterling, creator of GoldieBlox

"Capital and distribution were our most difficult challenges. It's very easy to stay lean as a software company, but hardware takes a significant amount of cash. Kickstarter not only gave us initial funding, but also proved to angel investors and venture capitalists that there was demand. Distribution is a challenge for a young company as well. Many retailers would prefer to stick to safe bets with existing vendors. We focused on driving our own direct sales through online advertising, and direct response TV advertising. Retailers like Bloomingdales, AT&T, and Apple have now come around to sell the product."
- Carly Gloge, CEO and co-creator of Ubooly

"We survived starting a business and continue to this day to believe and work towards a destiny we have not yet fulfilled. Our mission is to have a meaningful and profound impact on kids that results in better problem solvers and shows the world that you can have fun while learning — if you can become a good problem solver, you can do anything you put your mind to — and the fact that our games help kids do that is remarkable."
- Andrea Barthello, Co-Founder and COO of ThinkFun

"We learned from our mistakes. We had developed a product before Pillow Pets that we spent most of our savings on, which didn’t do well at all. There are always setbacks when starting a new business, but staying true to your dream and working really hard to make it happen is the most important thing. I sacrificed a lot of personal time as I was working hard to create a brand. There never seemed to be enough time! This hardship made me realize how precious time really is... how to better make use of my time as a mother, a wife, and a business owner. I believe balance in life brings happiness."
- Jennifer Telfer, Creator of Pillow Pets and CEO of CJ Products

"We originally created the Zylie line to be sold directly to consumers, through our website. We quickly--but not so quickly--realized how important seeing the physical products in person was, so we started approaching retailers. But without retail packaging, it was an uphill battle. So we spent 5 months redesigning and recreating our packaging from scratch, and seeing that gorgeous new box on shelves at our neighborhood toy store is really an amazing feeling!"
- Mary Beth Minton, CEO of Zylie the Bear

What advice would you give to aspiring toy and game designers and inventors?

"Ideas are great, but it's all about putting in the hours to really bring a product to life. I've met a lot of folks that are really passionate about their ideas, but never fully commit to them. It takes sacrifice, but it's all worth it at the end of the day."
- Carly Gloge, CEO and co-creator of Ubooly

"Put yourself out there, find the right mentors, collaborate, brainstorm and network. It seems so obvious now, but this was the impetus I needed find people to collaborate with and start acting like a true entrepreneur, instead of a lonely inventor. That literally changed everything."
- Debbie Sterling, creator of GoldieBlox

"Mistakes are merely the cost of tuition, paying for your education as a business owner. You're always going to make mistakes, and learning from them quickly is incredibly important. I also was told early on that it is very important to find the right partners, and luckily my son Matt and I work spectacularly well together. Finding a co-founder who complements both your skills and your mindset is crucial as a startup."
- Mary Beth Minton, CEO of Zylie the Bear

"1. Make sure there is a market for your product. 2. Find a manufacturer that can produce your product at a low cost so that you are in the right price point. The retail price has to be what people will pay. 3. Make sure you have a great sales and marketing plan before you start."
- Jennifer Telfer, Creator of Pillow Pets and CEO of CJ Products



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Justina HuddlestonWriter's Bio: Justina Huddleston graduated Magna Cum Laude from Emerson College with a BA in Writing, Literature, and Publishing in 2009. After graduating she was the on-site director of the Boston Children's Museum gift store for a year, selling educational, developmental, and creative activity toys that tied in with the museum's exhibits. Justina also interned at children's book publisher Candlewick Press before moving from Boston to Los Angeles, where she is now Editorial Director of TDmonthly Magazine. Read more articles by this author

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