It’s not too often that a toy–not a video game, but a physical toy that small children play with–is greeted with rapturous excitement by adults. But when Debbie Sterling, a Stanford-educated engineer, decided to create a series of engineering-inspired toys for girls, the Internet exploded. When Sterling launched her GoldieBlox Kickstarter campaign in 2012, she was armed with little more than a prototype toy set and book that she made herself. Now, GoldieBlox is a full-fledged company, with a line of toys, a spot on the shelves of Toys “R” Us, and many thousands of customers. Here’s how Sterling grew her company from scratch, overcoming countless obstacles along the way.
In 2010, Sterling looked around at the toy landscape and decided that there was room for an iconic engineering-focused female character. “I tried to come up with a character that could be an instant hit. Goldielocks is this character that was never used by Disney. It’s this undefined character that could give an instant level of familiarity to compete with all those big names,” she told Co.Exist a few years back. Her idea: A character named Goldie, who lives in a “a crazy engineering house with gears and moving parts everywhere.”
The first GoldieBlox prototype, which Sterling hand-built in the spring of 2012, consisted of wooden blocks, a wooden frame, thread spools, clay, and velcro. The rough draft of the first GoldieBlox book (accompanying the toy construction set), called GoldieBlox and the Spinning Machine, was written by Sterling in a week. The story revolves around a “spinning machine” that Goldie is trying to build, with the ultimate goal of spinning her dog and a number of other characters around in circles. The construction set comes with pegboard, wheels, axles, blocks, a crank, a ribbon, and washers.
Instead of waiting for a polished product, Sterling put her prototype in front of kids in the Bay Area to see how they reacted. “Instead of spending months painstakingly writing this book and making a prototype, I made something as quickly as I could to put in front of target user,” she says. “I was worried the prototype would be too rough, but on the contrary, kids will tell you what they think.”
Too many people hawk products on Kickstarter, and then can’t deliver when their campaigns go gangbusters. Sterling was prepared–or so she thought.
Her first step was taking her homemade prototype into CAD, sketching it out online. Initially, Sterling had wanted to make the toys out of wood in the U.S, but ultimately realized that wood expands and contracts too much in the heat to be viable in a construction toy that requires pieces to fit together perfectly.
But the hunt for a foreign factory didn’t last long. Sterling’s last job before GoldieBlox had been at a jewelry company, and the head of production there had spent decades in the toy industry prior to the jewelry job. As a result, Sterling was able to quickly get a lock on a factory in China that could do quality injection-molded plastic for the toys–and to ensure that it treated workers ethically. “That’s one of the hardest steps usually, finding that first factory,” she says.
The smallest production run that the factory would do was 5,000 toys, which was too much to fund on her own. So Sterling made her Kickstarter campaign to get enough money to invest in tooling for the toys.
The campaign raised nearly $286,000, and Sterling had her production run. Then, three weeks after the campaign ended, her Kickstarter video was picked up by Upworthy from this Co.Exist article, which promptly helped it go viral. Tens of thousands of people pre-ordered GoldieBlox sets through Sterling’s e-commerce site, which she never expected would get much use so early on.
Instead of 5,000 orders, the first production run ended up being 40,000 orders. “The factory was able to do it, but it’s pretty scary,” she says. “The reason we had to it do so quickly is that we promised to ship the toys a few months after the Kickstarter campaign ended.”
Fortunately for Sterling, that production run narrowly averted a big technical issue with the toys. “I flew to the factory before shipping to double check everything. Seeing them all being assembled, I stood there crying almost, I couldn’t believe it,” she recalls. “I grabbed one of the first toys assembled, opened it up, and I remember taking one of the axles and trying to stick it into the pegboard, and it was way too tight. We had gone back and forth on that probably about 20 times. Literally I almost fainted. Thank God I was there.” The factory was able to make a last minute fix with the toys.
After the campaign, GoldieBlox continued to get lots of publicity–some good (getting a commercial in the Super Bowl) and some mixed (settling a lawsuit with the Beastie Boys for using their song “Girls” in a commercial without permission). It was time to grow the company.
“We started growing from just me to an amazingly talented creative team,” says Sterling. “I made mistakes along the way in terms of people I brought on board. In some areas, it took a long time to find the right fit. Now we can do things I only dreamed in my head.”
In the summer of 2013, GoldieBlox made it into Toys “R” Us, right next to Barbie and all the other toys in what Sterling refers to as “the pink aisle.” Then, in early 2014, the company won a competition to be featured in a Super Bowl commercial, which brought increased interest in the next two GoldieBlox products (GoldieBlox and the Dunk Tank, GoldieBlox and the Parade Float).
Once again, GoldieBlox had to do initial production runs in the tens of thousands. But this time, there was a problem with the design of the blocks found in the toys. “We were getting either rave reviews or people being frustrated about fit of the blocks. There was variation in the blocks, with some fitting well, some not,” says Sterling. GoldieBlox immediately redesigned the blocks, and replaced every toy in its warehouse to include the revamped design. When GoldieBlox sent the new blocks to customers, they came with a letter from Goldie explaining to kids how the blocks were redesigned from having a circular point of entry for axles to an octagonal shape–essentially, turning the company’s failure into a learning experience for its young customers.
Having to replace every item in a warehouse is tough enough for a large company to swallow, but it’s even more difficult for a young company just getting off the ground. But opting to take care of a manufacturing issue like that–one where some customers didn’t have a problem–inspires trust. For a company with customers that will likely come back again and again for more toys, that’s important.
GoldieBlox is already churning out new toy sets, including GoldieBlox and the Movie Machine, and a larger kit called GoldieBlox and The Builder’s Survival Kit. Sterling’s advice to freshly minted entrepreneurs: “If you’re too nervous or afraid to put something out there for fear it won’t be perfect, you can’t move forward. Just keep improving it.”