In the summer of 2011, Pegah Ebrahimi and Alice Wang were at an FAO Schwartz, buying toys. Though neither is a mother, Ebrahimi had nieces and a nephew to buy for, while Wang’s cousin had a young son. The two MIT graduates and entrepreneurs had been contemplating launching a business for renting test prep books, and now found themselves wandering FAO Schwartz specifically in search of learning toys—puzzles, games, and the like that teach kids skills. There were so few. At that moment, Ebrahimi and Wang hatched the idea for Spark Box, which they call a "Netflix for toys."
Kids tire of toys; it’s a tale older than Toy Story, older than The Velveteen Rabbit. But when it comes to toys specifically formulated to help kids grow and develop, they tire of them for a very particular reason: Certain toys suit a child’s growing brain and body at certain stages. As a child grows, it makes sense to buy a series of toys in quick succession; what doesn’t make so much sense is having those old, discarded toys cluttering up a living room. "It became clear that parents don’t want to keep toys around when they’re not useful anymore," says Ebrahimi.
Spark Box joins other "box of the month" clubs (like Trunk Club, for instance). After signing up on the site, you tell Spark Box a bit about your child, and then Spark Box hand-picks four or more toys to send you. You can choose to have a fresh box sent every four, six, or eight weeks, depending on your preference (and budget; fresh toys every four weeks is $35 a month, while the eight-week plan runs $23 a month). Wang says that about 90% of customers opt for the six- or eight-week plans. Spark Box officially began in January of 2012, and by the year’s fourth quarter, the company broke even.
The rental-by-mail model may have worked for Netflix (for a while, anyway), but with something as intimate and personal as toys, can it really succeed? I ask Wang and Ebrahimi the inevitable "slobber" question—which they tell me they get a lot: Do we really want our kids playing with toys that someone else’s kids might have been drooling on? "Our toys are way cleaner than what you find at the store," insists Ebrahimi, explaining the five-step sanitation and shrink-wrapping process the toys undergo between owners. "Parents find our toys to be a lot more sanitary. They don’t wipe our toys, but most toys bought at a toy store they wipe down."
And what ever happened to the notion of sentimental value, I ask? After all, I sometimes encounter a toy in a chest or on a shelf that I’ve long outgrown, but would have hated to have shipped off to the anonymous Internet, only for it to find an all-too-brief home somewhere else. What of the "Rosebud" factor?
Says Wang: "None of the toys are stuffed animals for that reason." Spark Box toys are for the part of each parent that's focused on cognitive rather than emotional development; most of the puzzles and games are made of decidedly non-cuddly rubber, wood, and plastic. Still, if a kid does strike up an attachment against all odds, "We definitely do whatever the customer wants at that point," says Ebrahimi. You can hold onto the toy for an extra round, or buy it off Spark Box for a 30% discount off of retail. (All other Spark Box toys eventually ultimately go, à la "Toy Story 3," to inner-city New York public schools.)
If it all sounds a little sterile—brainy, rubberized toys getting disinfected and shrink-wrapped before they can worm their way into a child’s heart—consider that Spark Box doesn’t necessarily recommend that its toys be the only ones you buy (or rent) for your child.
And consider, too, that other cultures have decidedly different notions of fun. Wang grew up in Communist China, she says. When her parents gave her gifts, they tended to be books of math problems. "I never had toys growing up," she says.