The founder of GoldieBlox offers three important lessons she’s learned on her startup journey thus far.
By Debbie Sterling (CEO & Founder, GoldieBlox)
Like most new college students, I entered my freshman year majoring in “undecided.” When exploring the class options at Stanford University, I couldn’t help but remember my high-school math teacher encouraging me to give engineering a try. At the time, when I pictured engineers, I thought of train conductors and mathematical geniuses. Despite all this, I decided to take a chance and enrolled in Mechanical Engineering 101 my first semester. It didn’t take long for me to realize that engineering is an amazing outlet for creativity and innovation. It was a perfect fit.
As I learned more about the industry inside and outside of the classroom, I couldn’t help but notice the glaring gender disparity in the field of engineering. After some research, I found that only 14 percent of engineers are women despite engineering and technology being two of the fastest growing fields.
I decided to do some research and discovered the gender problem in STEM happens long before college. In fact, girls start to lose interest in math and science as early as eight years old. If you take a walk down the pink aisle of any toy store you’ll begin to see why: girls are encouraged to play with princesses, pop stars and pink decorating kits while boys are handed spatial-skill developers in construction kits, puzzles and brainteasers.
At that moment I remember thinking “our girls deserve more options,” and so I launched GoldieBlox to help inspire the next generation of great innovators.
Do Your Research
As I started to develop GoldieBlox, I knew creating a pink construction toy wasn’t nearly enough. I decided to hit the books and research early childhood education and girls’ strengths and interests. What I found was that young girls are far more avid readers than boys, and tend to learn more effectively through storytelling. I decided to leverage verbal skills to develop spatial confidence by harnessing the power of storytelling to get girls building. The result was a book about Goldie, the girl inventor. As kids read along, they’re able to build what Goldie builds using the pieces provided. Narrative, I soon learned, gives kids a sense of “why they’re building, what they’re building,” and that’s more or less missing from other construction kits on the market.
Take a Chance (or Several)
In the fall of 2012, I took a chance and launched GoldieBlox on Kickstarter with a goal of raising $150,000. Within four days we met our goal, and within 30 days more than 5,000 supporters had contributed nearly $300,000. The response was overwhelming. In a matter of days, emails were pouring in and suddenly I realized we had toys to ship. There was just one problem: we hadn’t made any yet. Realizing I had a company to grow, I decided to enter (and won) Shopify’s Build-A-Business competition. The grand prize was a Shopify website that eventually lead to tens of thousands of pre-orders. Within a few short months, we had sold more than $1M of product.
We also took a chance in entering Intuit’s Small Business, Big Game contest last year. GoldieBlox competed against more than 10,000 small businesses, and ultimately made history as the first small business ever to have a commercial in the Super Bowl. Watching the commercial air was a dream come true. Taking risks and giving it your all is the lesson we’ve walked away from these experiences. Even when it feels like you’re up against insurmountable odds, try anyway – we did and it’s made all the difference.
Seek a Mentor (Teamwork Makes the Dream Work)
Through Shopify’s Build-A-Business competition, I met Tina Roth Eisenberg, my mentor, who taught me a lot about launching and running a business. She helped me strategize, and most importantly, prioritize. GoldieBlox developed rapidly, so I sought her guidance in sifting through all of the opportunities while staying focused. Tina reminded me to pause and reflect upon our successes, and to step back and celebrate the moment at times when I felt the most overwhelmed.
A year later, I found another mentor in Maxine Clark, CEO and Founder of Build-a-Bear, when she reached out over email to introducer herself. We hit it off, and Maxine has become a valuable adviser to GoldieBlox. Her amazing story and success with Build-a-Bear is not only inspirational, but comes with tremendous knowledge of what it’s like to be a woman starting her own company within the toy industry.
Building something new from scratch is never easy. At the end of the day my advice is: never be afraid to put yourself out there, share your passion, and keep going. If you believe in what you’re doing you’ll ultimately find success.