In this series, we speak with people who know what desperate feels like. While now blooming into success, these founders share with us their deeply personal financial struggles and lessons learned on their way back to black.
“When you have a household, children in college, and a mortgage, somebody’s got to have a steady source of income,” says Heather Acerra of Galesburg, Illinois. “And in most of my marriage, it’s been me.”
But that reality hasn’t stopped Heather, a full-time human resources head and mother of two, from pursuing a passion on the side: making creative toys for kids that snap and build together. Moulding the pieces for what the 50-year-old now calls LUX Blox proved tricky enough, though Heather says it helped being inspired by architecture and visionaries in early-childhood education, as well as partnering with her husband, Michael, a former teacher who homeschooled their sons. Toss in assistance from a 15-year-old AutoCAD draftsman, plus growing attention for LUX—like that recent USA Today ad congratulating Heather on her $50,000 FedEx Small Business Grant—and it all adds up to a recipe for success, right?
Well, an easy-to-digest version, sure. But plenty of other ingredients went into Heather’s journey, too. Like loans. A drained retirement account. Money from friends and family. And lots of lost zzz’s. “Now it’s just not my own money at risk,” says Heather. “There’s really a lot of pressure—and that’s what keeps me up at night.”
In her words:
The first year, we had a particularly good year. We were plodding along in specialty retail. Then we had challenges because our package didn’t really communicate our product. We weren’t well enough known. When we got into one large retailer, I was very nervous because I knew intuitively we could just sit there on the shelf. What were we going to do? We hired a PR firm, and that’s very expensive—and it’s a crapshoot. We were on the Today show—that drove a huge spike in sales. But that was a one-time thing. And it’s very inconsistent whether you’re going to get picked up for TV. So, we saw that television does work, but we didn’t have the money to pay for that. We didn’t really have a plan or an understanding of how we were going to get the product known.
I still had a full-time day job.
We got into a major retailer’s test stores in 2018; we designed a product per their specifications. We made a huge investment—all my retirement funds, small business loans. We went ahead and bought these new molds, and we came out with new parts that were wheels that double as gears or pulleys, and we were pretty happy with them. (Our whole philosophy is whatever part we make it has to have multiple functions, because we’re not about a million specialty parts.) Then we heard Toys ‘R’ Us was going bankrupt. Not a great time for us to land in a major competitor, where all these manufacturers were now going to be. They were all going to be vying for that space.
There was just so much disruption in this space, and we had a little presence online, but I knew we could master that a lot more. But it was just the two of us, and I still had a full-time day job. I had a woman who had been sort of following me since she saw me at a meet-the-inventor bookstore event. She does after-school enrichment programs and also watches children for parents who are still at work. She loves our product and said, "You need to design sets that really cater to the classroom. Just hang in there and really pivot and really focus on education because that’s where your heart was the whole time." And I was like, "You’re right. Absolutely."
So, that’s what we did. We then spent several months researching classroom sets, looking at the next generation of science as well as the math standards, focusing more on kindergarten through grade eight. We’ve been on a good trajectory. And we’re trying to beef up our presence through some video lesson plans because even teachers would rather look at a video than have to slog through a bunch of written lesson plans. There’s good traction there. There’s also a great affinity for our blocks in the special needs community, including the spectrum community and kids with sensory disorders.
I think everything’s going to work out in the long run.
When my son got into Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music, I definitely wanted to support that. And while he got scholarships, it still wasn’t enough to cover all of the tuition. If that meant that I had to spend retirement money, that was just the way it was going to go. I think everything’s going to work out in the long run. It may be rough, but if this is what I have to do now, I can get that retirement fund built up again.
I’m 50 years old. I can still work for another 20, 25 years. I am a person of faith and I feel like, while I’ve got all these challenges, I know that this toy is really good for people. And when it looked like this was not going to be successful, it just seems then I’d get this boost of hope or energy or this sign that, "No, hang in there. It may be a struggle, but this is really worthwhile and you’re really impacting people.”Illustration by German Gonzalez