Debbie Sterling never pictured herself a social entrepreneur.
Yet, her company GoldieBlox has sold over 1 million apps and 1 million toys, empowering a generation of young girls to pursue engineering and technology careers in the process. What follows are 6 lessons the Shopify Build-A-Bigger Business mentor shared with me.
Looking to take your business from big to bigger this year? Read on.
1. Do Your Homework
You don't disrupt gender stereotypes and entire toy store aisles on a whim. In Debbie's case, she spent 9 months researching her idea before taking it to market.
"I read every article on gender differences, children's play patterns, male and female brains.. I even reached out to neuroscientists at Harvard and elsewhere about the role of play in brain development." She even begged friends to babysit their kids.
If that's not market research, I don't what it is.
2. Not Everybody Has To "Get" It
Armed with months of research and a prototype she was confident in, Debbie took to the New York Toy Fair. But her enthusiasm wasn't enough to convince mainstream toy buyers.
"Construction toys for girls don't sell" they all said. So a friend encouraged her to take her idea to a small, social entrepreneurship conference instead.
She was hesitant, but went anyway. "Even though the toy fair people didn't get it, that didn't mean it wasn't a valid idea" she said.
"The moment I became an entrepreneur is the moment I got up [on that stage at the conference] and spoke in front of those hundred people. I put myself out there and welcomed people to join my mission instead of just doing it alone."
After her presentation, she was met with a standing ovation and a "line around the block" of people eager to join her cause.
3. Do It For A Good Cause
Encouraged to go the crowd-funding route by conference attendees, Debbie took her idea to Kickstarter. But she didn't want to rely on hope as a strategy. So she started asking.
Problem is, most people feel weird asking other people for money. Not Debbie. She didn't have any qualms about the requests. "I would say 'Hey, I want to give little girls an advantage. An advantage I never had' and, because of that, I didn't feel weird asking."
Prior to starting her outreach campaign, she built up a database of everyone she knew -and people she wanted to know- in an organized effort to get in front of many of them as possible.
The purpose was "to get feedback, to get them to share it or get them to give" she said.
4. Create A "Playbook For Sharing"
Being able to quickly scale has played a large role in her success.
Debbie attributes this ability replicate virality across several mediums (toys, videos, apps and more) by making it as easy as possible for other people to share in the excitement. "We write up sample Tweets, Facebook posts, content.. we give people a playbook for sharing."
"We recently launched a coding app with the intention of getting girls interested in coding. Part of that strategy was figuring out what the hook or angle was.. sound bites that get people interested. Well, a lot of the design was around cupcakes. We're hiding coding in the cupcakes. We made it educational, but we made it so much fun that they didn't even know."
For her VIP influencers, she sent them cupcakes on launch day.
She also created a bunch of "social media assets with cupcakes and pictures of kids with cupcakes.. we invited some of our customers and fans to come in with their kids and take pictures with cupcakes. We were able to provide those to the press, along with screenshots, a video that showed the gameplay... we created a lot of great, shareable assets."
5. Pursue Every Possible Advantage
Debbie never narrowed her focus too much though. Every possibility presented an advantage. "We entered every contest we found out about. We entered everything. We had a lot of success, but we were still hustling to get every possible advantage. As an entrepreneur, you have limited resources. So all you can do is hustle and go after everything."
"Most of what you go after, you won't win. But that's exactly why you have to go after as much as you can." It paid off. In 2013 Goldie Blox won the Shopify Build A Business competition. It was a game changer.
6. Don't Think Big, Think Bigger
The mentors shared plenty of wisdom with Debbie. Much of it was a wake up call.
"Roth Eisenberg talked all about company culture. It was something I hadn't even thought about because, at the time I was just trying to fulfill all of our Kickstarter orders!" she joked. "It was really helpful just to even start thinking about that." Daymond John worked with her on developing a licensing strategy and making the brand much bigger than toys.
"The big opportunity would be in building a franchise around the world's first girl engineer character. We didn't just create toys, we created a character that little girls wanted to be like. A character that, one day, could be as big as Barbie or Dora The Explorer. A character that could exist on toys, apps, videos.. That's what building a bigger business is."
Noah Robischon at Fast Company became a really great mentor to Debbie as well. "One of the other challenges of building a bigger business is, maybe you've had some success before, but how do you stay relevant?" The idea of long-term relevance was an eye-opener for her as well.
"The best way to keep innovating is to keep talking to your customers about what they like and what they want to improve. The more you know what they think about the more you can improve your product, the more stories you have to tell. Whether it's a new launch or a new feature. Or maybe it's even an Op-Ed that you write because you've learned so much. There's always new things to talk about if you're always listening for things to improve on."