Mary Beth Minton had one child who loved dolls, and another who preferred to dress up her teddy bears as dolls. After searching for, and not finding, a bear designed to be dressed up and played with as a doll, Mary Beth and her son Matt set out to create their own.
Q. What career path did you originally envision for yourself? Did you ever anticipate working with children’s products?
A. I had always enjoyed making things, even back when I was a kid I would sew my own dresses. They were nothing to write home about, but the creation process is really fun for me. I did go to Wharton Business School, and I had an inkling that I wanted to start something after my youngest went off to college. I don't know if I saw myself starting a toy company, but 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?!
Q. What aspect of the toy industry most surprised you when you first started?
A. Any business is all fun and games when you're just coming up with ideas. But when you go to actually make something, and then go about creating a business around it, reality sets in and spoils some of the fun. For Matt (my son and co-founder) and me, finding a great factory seemed overwhelming, but it ended up being a chance encounter that led us to a fantastic consultant and ultimately a great factory. A lot of our roadblocks throughout the Zylie journey have been solved with serendipity like that, though that doesn't mean we don't have to work like crazy to get "lucky." As they say, you make your own luck.
Q. How did you come up with the idea for your first product?
A. As I mentioned, the product inspiration came from observing my two daughters play with their toys as young children. 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. We're incredibly excited about what opportunities exist down the road for Zylie with new technologies and new ways to tell her stories. We wanted a traditional toy (and Zylie and her friends are about as traditional as they come, being 18" jointed stuffed bears, sort of a crossed between American Girl Doll and Steiff Bear) made for the modern child. So her personality, style and "world" are all contemporary.
Q. What steps did you need to take to go from the original spark of an idea to actual production? How long did it take?
A. When Matt and I finally looked at each other and said, "let's do this," it was the summer of 2009. We immediately went about designing a real prototype, Zylie's fashions, and her first friend Shen the Panda and his wardrobe, then moved on to writing and illustrating the books, and finding all the right people to help get us from a lightbulb over our heads to a product on shelves. That all took about 10 months.
Q. What were the top two or three most significant obstacles you had to overcome to achieve success, and how did you do it?
A. The first major obstacle was actually Zylie's name. Her original name was "Sophie the Traveling Bear," but our attorneys said we would have trouble trademarking a "common" name like Sophie. So we went back to our trusty kitchen table, threw a bunch of Scrabble letters across it, and starting making up names. Zylie and a few others naturally floated to the top, and we asked every friend we knew to pick their favorite. Zylie was the clear winner.
We hit another hurdle with production, but after finding a great consultant who had relationships with several factories in southern China, we found a great manufacturing partner and set about creating the Zylie line. There are always issues in starting up that you don't anticipate--like trying to find the perfect fabric for Zylie's blouse, or figuring out how safety-testing affects lead time, or our cargo ship being diverted to Singapore out of the blue--but we endured. It's all about finding the right people who you can trust early on.
The third major roadblock was our packaging. 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 just spent the past 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!
Q. What is the most disappointing thing that you have to live with as a business owner?
A. For us, seeing sub par products gain traction merely because of an expensive T.V. advertising budget is heartbreaking. But we see the tides shifting, and more and more small companies and startups are able to gain ample footing with their customers without going the traditional marketing route. Television advertising still holds a huge amount of influence over what kids want, and we and smaller companies like us are hoping to change that paradigm and allow for better-designed products to make their way to kids everywhere. At least, that's what we hope we can accomplish!
Q. If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
A. One of our big early missteps was investing too much in an overly ambitious interactive web site, before we truly knew what we wanted the experience to be. Approaching a project like that without the technical know-how and without a crystal-clear vision for what you want it to be (which, thanks to my younger and more tech-savvy cofounder, we have solved and are pursuing in earnest), it's hard to find the right talent to create something that ambitious. We've noticed that even big tech startups here in New York City have been having trouble attracting top tech talent to their teams, so you can imagine what it's like for a toy startup! We ended up scrapping the whole thing and trimming it down to focus on how to tell our story, Zylie's story, and simply showcase the Zylie collection in a beautiful way. Check it out! www.zyliethebear.com
Q. What were the top two or three best pieces of advice you received and from whom?
A. The absolute best piece of advice I've gotten as an entrepreneur, as we repeat it a lot around here at Zylie HQ, is that 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.
Q. What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment in the toy industry? Why?
A. I think a lot of what we do flies in the face of the conventional wisdom of "what sells" in the toy industry, and we're proud of that. For instance, our mission is to create far more value for the child AFTER they unwrap their toy, with new content, characters, stories, accessories, and ultimately games and contests through our website and mobile apps. What we were told is that "depth" is too hard to merchandise, and that we wouldn't get "credit" for what the consumer can't see on the shelf. But we think that stinks, and is a bad deal for the parent and child. So I'm not sure it's an "accomplishment," but it's certainly our mission. And we're pretty gung-ho about it.
Q. What unique quality makes your product better than your competition?
A. Besides the depth that I discussed above, we find that when children get Zylie (or Shen), they have this instant emotional connection with them, both as a cuddly toy and as an exciting character. Once they read (or have read to them) the stories, then their imagination kicks in, and that's where we see the really awesome side of our products. That connection of the emotional, physical, and imaginative play experience is what we strive for, and we just don't see much of that in our industry. And quite simply, there are a lot of young kids out there who really don't like dolls, but like to dress and play with their stuffed animals as real characters. But no stuffed animals have the shape or quality that allows them to do so. So our 5-jointed, anthropomorphized characters allow that sort of play, and we've got an excellent fashion designer that creates really unique looks for them, which is really fun.
Q. How do you hope your product/s will affect children's lives?
A. Our tagline is "Adventure with Style and a Smile," and we try to embody all aspects of that. The most important piece is Adventure, because we love inspiring kids to look at every day as an adventure, whether they're traveling around the world like Zylie, or just going to the park with friends. There's always an opportunity to learn something new, see something for the first time, or discover something awesome. Being curious about the world and how things work is part of Zylie's inquisitive personality, and we're already seeing kids embodying those qualities. And our other characters have traits that kids can relate to; for instance, Shen the Panda is a rockstar drummer, who also does martial arts. So he's got this cultural side to him that speaks to kids' interested in music, for example. We hope our characters and stories help inspire that sense of adventure, in whatever way it speaks to them. And of course, everything we make is stylish, and we always want to have fun and smile with everything we do, and we hope that's the effect our toys have on children.
Q. What does your company have planned for 2013?
A. Next year will be a big year for us. Our big huge announcement is that we're launching our third Adventure, where Zylie, her little brother Theo and their new friend Shen the Panda venture down under to Australia, meeting Kiki the Koala along the way. We'll be debuting Kiki and her storybook at Toy Fair, along with a bunch of exciting new content. We'll also expect to be rolling out some limited edition "looks" for Zylie, Shen and Kiki in collaboration with several awesome fashion designers throughout the year, and some fun activities to enhance the Zylie play experience that will be available through our website. We're also working on some fun promotions and in-store events for our retailers to help introduce more people to Zylie and help tell our story.
The Adventures of Zylie and Friends is a new award-winning collection of lovable plush characters, fashionable outfits, and educational stories. The line follows Zylie, a young bear from Manhattan, on her exciting adventures around the world where she meets new friends, collects new outfits, and learns about new countries and cultures. The characters come packaged in their own Adventure Kits, complete with 18" 5-jointed plush bear, signature outfit, accessories, passport, and a storybook from the series. Awards: 2010 Oppenheim Toy Portfolio Platinum Best Toy Award; 2010 Dr. Toy Best Picks; 2010 Parent's Choice Approved; 2010 NAPPA Rising Star; 2010 Creative Child Magazine Top Toy of the Year Award; 2011 PAL Award
Writer'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