News / #birth
While I was designing the Margo toy, colorizing the “Are You Kidding?” storybook, designing the Gardenagerie logo, and even selecting the color of our tote-bag for the fair, I always was wondering, “would a little boy like this?” It’s really important to me that our products are gender neutral. I think it’s just as important that little boys have opportunities to play with toys that foster compassion and nurturing as it is for little girls. There are plenty of toys for girls that promote a princess-like passivity, just as there are plenty of toys for boys that promote aggression and even violence. We like to think of Gardenagerie toys as an alternative to both.
Sometimes when people first see our Margo toy, they’re reminded of “Puppy Surprise.” Originally marketed in the early 90s, this was a plush toy that came with babies inside. The “surprise” element was that each toy came with an unknown number of puppies inside. But another element some people found surprising was the way the puppies were born. There was a pouch inside the plush toy holding the puppies, and this was accessed through a velcroed opening in the belly.
The toys were very popular and have recently become trendy again. There are now a whole line of “surprise” pregnant animals such as puppies, kitties, ponies. But unlike at least some of the original 90s puppies, most of these new plush toys are aggressively feminized. Where the original toys were often brown or tan, like real dogs, most of the new surprise toys are pink, purple, or rainbow-colored, with lots of ribbons, stars, and hearts. There’s even a pink, glittery, unicorn Pony Surprise plush called Starburst, with pink, lilac, and purple babies.
While I’m sure these plush toys bring joy to many of the little girls who receive them, I wonder how many young boys miss the opportunity to play with a toy that gives birth because the toys are just too…glamorous? I also wonder whether these toys misguide children a bit about birth?
Because, in addition to the glitter and rainbows, there’s that velcro caesarian section that the children use to get the babies out of the momma. Is it really necessary to hide from kids how babies actually enter the world? We live on a farm and our kids have all been present for the births of baby animals. They’ve watched kittens, lambs and kids born without being disturbed or traumatized.
I’ve got nothing against caesarians - I’ve had two myself. But on the farm (or even at the Miracle of Birth Center at the State Fair), baby animals come out the end. It’s nature. Although caesarian “surprise” toys might have taught my children how they had actually entered the world, I wanted to keep it closer to what we’ve experienced on the farm. As a homeschooling parent, I think it’s important to teach the facts in an age appropriate way, whenever possible. So it was important that the plush Margo not have a cesarean.
Last Monday I met with some pretty fabulous people: Becky from Lowertown Pop and Maria and Kevin from STYLED RETAIL. Because Gardenagerie was selected to be part of the Lowertown Pop event at the Union Depot in April 2017, we were given an hour of consultation to discuss marketing strategy, storytelling, networking, etc. All things that a newbie entrepreneur like myself needs help with. It was worth the four-hour drive down to the Twin Cities, and I was so energized to spend an hour with people who are really excited about Gardenagerie and what we are offering. After this meeting, I’m feeling validated. Polar opposite from how I felt after Gardenagerie’s Kickstarter Campaign failed a couple of years ago. But sometimes failure can be a good thing.
When I first designed the Margo-and-her-babies toy, I tried working with a broker on the West Coast to get the product made. The cost to get the first run of toys produced was pretty steep, so in April of 2014 we launched a Kickstarter campaign to crowdsource money for the “Are You Kidding?” book and toy. The opening day of that campaign went well, and we got a lot of support from family and friends. But then the campaign fizzled and failed. Crowdfunding a toy through Kickstarter isn’t the same as raising money for a new tech gadget. And some people probably wondered why we were asking for so much money, trying to cover those steep start-up expenses.
I took it personally when the campaign finally ended, far from our all-or-nothing goal. I blamed the Kickstarter’s failure on the product idea, when in reality it was a logistical and marketing failure. The Kickstarter fail was depressing, humiliating and embarrassing. It seemed to me like there was no interest in the book or toy, in spite of the fact that many people had tried very hard to drum up support for the campaign. Sometimes it’s hard to see the positives when you’re feeling overwhelmed by the negatives.
The prototype toy we’d bought from the broker sat on my desk for nearly 2 years. Then one day in January of 2016, I found myself sitting and looking at the plush Margo with her 2 babies. My first thought was “That is the cutest toy ever made.” The depression, humiliation and embarrassment had all faded away. It was time to try again.
This time around I avoided the middle man. I did a ton of research, sourcing manufacturers. Initially I wanted to have the toys made in the USA, but I quickly found out that this is not as easy as it seems. There are very few plush toy factories in the USA and when I contacted them they either were just not interested (I couldn’t tell you why because they didn’t even bother to return my phone calls or emails) or they couldn’t produce a low MOQ (minimum order quantity) for a reasonable price. A couple of manufacturers also took issue with the complexity of our particular plush and opted to pass, or offered to have the toy made in China and act as the middle man. No thanks — been there done that.
So I started looking into China on my own. After about a week of online research, I selected a half dozen plush toy manufacturers and emailed inquiries. Every manufacturer I contacted responded with quotes within 48 hours. Emails were positive and timely. People may be uncomfortable hearing this, but it was an easier and a far more pleasurable experience tracking down a source with China than in the US. And since I was now dealing with the manufacturer rather than a broker, the cost of getting Margo and her kids manufactured was about half what I would have paid the first time around.
Don’t let anyone tell you it’s too hard dealing with a manufacturer on the other side of the world. I’ve developed a great relationship with my sales contact “Sara” in China. She has spent hours (sometimes 2 hours at a time!) on Skype with me chatting about the details of the manufacturing process. Sara has worked hard to win my business, holding my hand from halfway around the world through every step of the process. We went through several prototypes for the toy, book, and a carrying bag, and Sara kept working on my behalf until I got just what I wanted. Shippers and Customs people were also very encouraging and helpful — just like Sara, it’s in their interest to help you succeed.
The new and improved Margo toy we introduced in the summer of 2016 is larger and softer, and we can offer it at a better price. The book is a hardcover instead of a paperback. And we added snaps to both momma and baby toys. So now not only does Margo give birth, she nurses. There was no nursing involved in the Kickstarter toy. I really love this addition and it would have been missed if the Kickstarter would have succeeded.
Our first shipment of toys and books arrived around the beginning of August. It was a smallish order, to test the market, but receiving a couple of pallets of shipping boxes from China was exhilarating and scary. As we unpacked the boxes, I thought my dreams were coming true, but would people be interested? We opened our online store Aug. 10, 2016, the same day we packed our supplies and set up a booth at the Beltrami County Fair. So how did it go?
The majority of people who see the toy or the book seem to really like it. At one point during the fair, Dan thought we should change our name from Gardenagerie to “Oh For Cute!” (a typical Minnesota-ism) because it was the reaction we got from people most frequently. Farmers liked it, but educators and people in health professions loved it. Once in a while, someone giggled nervously, averted their eyes, or expressed some uneasiness. But mostly, the response has been positive. Our online experience has been similar. Lots of likes and shares on social media, and occasionally someone thinks it’s a bit inappropriate. Honestly, I never thought I was creating a toy that would create controversy. But, I’m okay with that. You can’t please everyone. And it has been great watching people we don’t even know challenging critics and defending the appropriateness of a birth and nursing toy for young kids. If something like Margo had existed years ago, I would’ve bought it for my kids in a heartbeat! And that’s the driving force behind the “Are You Kidding?” toy and book.
After a little over a month, we can say our hopes have been exceeded. Margo had a great first month. THANK YOU to everyone who has ordered from us! Our inventory is getting low, so I reordered a larger batch to be manufactured, which we expect to have before the holidays. However, if you’re hoping to give someone an “Are You Kidding” toy and/or book this holiday season, you may want to go ahead and order it now. We have about a quarter of our original supply left.
The County Fair was a blast! Margo must've given birth a thousand times over those 4 days!