No matter how big your business gets, there's always room for more.
In this special episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll hear from the entrepreneur who won Shopify’s 3rd Build a Business Competition and is now a mentor for the upcoming Build a BIGGER Business Competition.
Debbie Sterling is the founder of Goldie Blox, creator of awesome toys, games and entertainment for girls, designed to develop early interest in engineering and confidence in problem-solving.
Learn all about her journey and how she quickly started and scaled her business in just 4 years.
...And so in addition to the quarter million dollars we had raised on Kickstarter, we did an additional over half a million dollars in sales on our Shopify website.
Tune in to learn
- How to network to improve the success of your Kickstarter campaign
- How to create easily sharable assets for influencers
- How to keep on retelling your story in different ways
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
- Store: Goldie Blox
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Recommendations: Shopify's Build a Bigger Business Competition
Introducing Shopify's Build a BIGGER Business Competition! 🚀
Bigger Competitors: Eligible Shopify merchants, and those who switch before February 28th, who have made between $1M and $50M USD in 2016 can enter to compete in the first Build a Bigger Business competition. Over 5 months, they'll compete for highest growth in sales, highest percentage growth, and in 6 other categories.
Build a Bigger Business Academy: All participating merchants will get special access to Shopify’s Build a Bigger Business Academy, including business mentors and exclusive resources.
Bigger Prizes: The grand prize includes a business getaway to Fiji with Tony Robbins, the opportunity to ring the Opening Bell at the New York Stock Exchange, a million dollar marketing package, 24 months of Shopify Plus, and more.
The deadline to enter is February 28th, so sign up today! If you're not eligible, stay tuned for our flagship Build a Business competition, which will be relaunching later this year.Enter Build a Bigger Business
Felix: Today I’m joined by Debbie Sterling from GoldieBlox. GoldieBlox creates awesome toys, games, and entertainment for girls, designed to develop early interest in engineering and confidence in problem solving, and was started in 2012 and based out of Oakland, California. Debbie is also a winner of Shopify’s third annual Build a Business Competition and will be a mentor in the newly launched Build a Bigger Business Competition, which we’ll get into in a bit. Welcome, Debbie.
Debbie: Thanks for having me.
Felix: Yeah. Tell us a bit more about GoldieBlox, and what are some of the popular products that you sell?
Debbie: Sure. Yeah. GoldieBlox started in 2012. The very first product was a storybook and a construction set combined, starring Goldie, a girl engineer character. As you read along with the book Goldie builds a belt drive to help her dog chase his tail, and with it you get the pieces to build a working belt drive with axles, peg board, and wheels, and kind of parts inspired by common household objects. When we first launched that product in 2012 it pretty much exploded the internet almost. It went viral practically overnight. We became infamous for disrupting the pink aisle.
Now today we have over 17 different inter-compatible construction toys that come with storybooks. We have chapter books launching this year. We have apps that teach great STEM skills, like coding. We have online videos, and soon, hopefully, we will have an animated series.
Felix: Awesome. Sounds very exciting. When you first started the business what was your background? How did you get into this idea of creating a product like this?
Debbie: My background was I studied engineering and product design at Stanford, and then when I graduated actually I didn’t go into engineering. I went into design, and I got my first job as an intern at a graphic design and branding agency. I worked there for a few years really learning how big brands connect with their consumers, so some of my clients were T-Mobile, and Organic Valley Yogurt, and even the New York Knicks. After that I had what I like to call my quarter life crisis, where I felt like I wanted more meaning in my life.
I sort of quit my job and moved to rural India, where I did volunteer work for about six months. After that I was hoping that that would kind of become this sort of beacon of what to do with my life, but I think after I got back from that I was even more confused than when I left. After that I went and took a job as a director of marketing at a jewelry company. It was funny, actually. In college, in my engineering degree, one of my favorite classes was a jewelry making class. It was sort of like engineering on a micro scale. I thought maybe that’s my passion, but after a few years there, again, I learned a lot, but I knew it wasn’t the thing I was born to do.
Finally the light bulb went off one day when I was hanging out with a group of friends. We had started this club called Idea Brunch, where we would get together over breakfast and brainstorm big ideas to change the world. In one of those my friend, who I studied engineering with, attributed her interest in engineering to growing up playing with her older brother’s hand-me-down construction toys and sort of lamented the fact that, you know, those toys were for her brothers, and that girls grow up with dolls, and maybe that’s part of the reason why so few girls are interested in engineering, and math, and science. The moment she said that, it sounds really corny, but I knew. I just knew that it was what I was born to do. From that moment on it became my obsession, and the rest is history.
Felix: Now, was the launch of the business through Kickstarter, or did you have something going on with the business, the product? Were you selling products prior to Kickstarter?
Debbie: Nope. I launched the business on Kickstarter in 2012. I put a campaign with a goal to raise $150,000, which was a lot of money, but it was what I needed to be able to go into production. I lunched that campaign in September of 2012 The amazing thing is that I actually hit the goal in only four days. During the campaign I thought, “Well, this is going really well. How am I going to be able to get orders from people after the campaign ends?” I went ahead and actually started a Shopify eCommerce website, really just so that once the Kickstarter was over I would still have a way to collect orders.
Felix: Right. Makes sense. When you were launching or preparing this launch on Kickstarter how much did you have prepared in terms of the product? Was the product ready to go for the most part? Did you have marketing and PR ready to go to promote the campaign? How much did you have prepared?
Debbie: Going into the Kickstarter, I mean, I had spent months and months building prototypes in my living room and testing them with kids. The moment I decided to go up on Kickstarter was when I had a prototype that I knew girls lived playing with and I really believed strongly in. At that moment I reached out to manufacturers, and I found a factory in China that made other construction toys that I knew of that were high quality. I wanted to see if they would be the right partner to make a prototype of my toy. That was the first biggest check I ever wrote in my life. I had to pay them $5,000 to make a looks like prototype of the toy.
I did that, and at that point I was almost entirely out of my life’s savings that I had put into building GoldieBlox, and so going into the Kickstarter I had the one $5,000 looks like prototype from the factory, as well as all of these videos that I had taken of kids playing with my prototypes, just to sort of show how much girls loved it. The other thing I did going into the Kickstarter is I had spent months kind of reaching out, and networking, and trying to just meet as many people as I could who could offer me advice, mentor me, or just help promote the cause, so people who might have large audiences online, who I knew believed in girl empowerment and STEM education. I had this whole database of people who I reached out to when we launched the campaign asking them to share it, and they did.
Felix: Yeah. I like that kind of preparation, where you are just networking. You’re not actually trying to get them to say, “Yes. I will blast this out when you launch,” but just trying to get out there, trying to build a network of people, but then once you do launch, because they already understand your mission and support your mission, they’re much more likely to help support spreading your Kickstarter campaign.
Felix: Now, you were mentioning that you were doing a lot of testing prior to this, before launching on Kickstarter, by developing, iterating through prototypes, and letting kids play with it. Talk to us a little bit more about this process. How many iterations are we talking about? What was that testing process like when you were trying to get that feedback?
Debbie: Yeah. It was a really fun process. I would say there were probably hundreds of iterations of those prototypes at the beginning. The key I think to success there was really deploying a rapid prototyping methodology. I think that the mistake a lot of entrepreneurs make is just investing a ton of money right away, or maybe all the money they have, into really fancy, pretty looking, expensive prototypes. The problem with that is once you’ve invested money in them, even if you start testing and kids don’t like it, you try to convince yourself that they do, because you spent all that money. I think, you know, what was really great about the early testing days was that these prototypes were literally made out of cardboard, clay, ribbon. I went to flea markets. I went to used teacher material supply stores. I went to the hardware store, very inexpensive prototypes.
I even sketched and wrote little stories in my own sketchbook, and people kept saying, “You should hire an illustrator. Hire an illustrator,” but again, that costs a lot of money. By doing the drawings myself I was able to really figure out how to draw instructions that kids could follow. So much of it I was able to just iterate on the fly, because I did it in a really kind of cheap, and quick, and dirty way. The other thing that was really helpful in this process was when I tested it with kids I went into their homes, rather than renting out some focus group facility or anything like that. I just showed up with my prototype in my backpack, and just plopped down in people’s living rooms, and observed kids playing. I didn’t sit there kind of telling them how to play or what to do. I just tried to restrain myself as much as possible, so I could just sit, and observe, and see what might really happen in real life, had they bought this from a store.
By doing that style of research it was incredibly helpful. Each session I went to I learned so much, and basically my plan was I’m going to keep doing this, and I’m not going to stop until I have fixed the problems that I have seen, and until I have success, after success, after success of a test. Those first research tests, they didn’t go well. I had girls screaming, and crying, and running out of the room, because they were so frustrated, but rather than give up I just tried to dig deeper and like, “Why were they frustrated? Which part really bugged them? What parts, if any, did they like?” Then I’d go and just make tweaks to it, until again, by the end I felt really confident in the products that I have.
Felix: Do you remember any actual large revelations from this testing process that made you decide to make significant changes to the product?
Debbie: Yes. There was tons of them, but one in particular that I love telling the story is one of the things that was important to me in developing the character of Goldie, the girl engineer, was that I didn’t want her to be a genius. This was inspired by work that I had read by a woman named Carol Dweck out of Stanford, who has done all this research into understanding why so many girls get intimidated by math. What she found was that from a young age girls tend to think that in order to be good at math you have to have a natural born ability, you have to be a genius. A lot of girls think, “Well, I’m not a genius at this. I don’t get it right away, and so I’m going to give up.” When they’re told that actually math ability is not something that you’re born with, but something that can be learned, this idea of a growth mindset is really important and has been successful.
I wanted Goldie to influence a growth mindset in kids, and so I wanted her to fail. In the first story that I wrote of GoldieBlox in the book she builds a machine that doesn’t work. I did that intentionally, because I want her to fail, and then I wanted to show her not giving up after failing, and trying different things, and then getting it right. I started testing this storyline of Goldie building a machine that fails, and I started noticing in all of the testing sessions that the girl and/or her mom and dad would get stuck on that page. They’d build the machine, and it wasn’t working, because that was intentional, and they would get so frustrated. They would sit there and try everything they could to make it work, so much so in fact that they wouldn’t turn the page to learn that in fact the machine wasn’t supposed to work, that it was a failure.
It was funny, because I wasn’t expecting it to happen, but I realized, “Oh wow. I set up these kids of failure, and they don’t want to move forward.” I had to actually rewrite the story, so that I was still showing that Goldie wouldn’t give up and try lots of things, but I couldn’t do it in a way where I was setting the kid up to fail, because that just didn’t work.
Felix: Yeah. I like that story, because not only you encounter an issue that was important to you or you wanted to make sure this message was clear, and the way it was implemented maybe wasn’t the best approach. Rather than just scrapping it all together, you tried to find a different way to make sure that that message was still clear. Now, when you were going through these iterations how did you know that that last prototype was the one that was ready to go live on Kickstarter?
Debbie: Well, along the way every test there would always be something to improve on, like that example before, the failure moment and having to rewrite that, or in other instances we had a build where at the end of the story kids would build something in the shape of a star. I noticed that about half, if not more than half, of girls would get really annoyed, because they wanted the star to be symmetrical, and the pegboard holes didn’t allow for that. I had to make a new pegboard with asymmetrical holes, so that the star could be symmetrical. There were just all of these things that kept coming up, and I knew that the prototype was ready when, you know, I just kept testing it and I no longer faced any obstacles, because all of the issues with it had been fixed.
Felix: Makes sense. When you launched on Kickstarter you were saying earlier that the goal was $150,000. You were able to break through that goal within the first few days and ultimately end up raising nearly double your goal at $285,000 from over 5,500 backers. Talk to us about the promotion behind this. First of all, how were you able to raise $150,000 in just a few days?
Debbie: It was unbelievable. I did everything that I could in advance to try and stack the deck, if you will, to be successful, but you just never know what’s going to happen. Like I said earlier, setting up those databases of contacts was critic. Months leading up to the campaign I kind of wrote my dream list. Who are the people in the world, like who are the best people in the world who can help me, or who would be excited or interested in this? I wrote down people like Sheryl Sandberg, people like the founder of Pictionary, people like Melinda Gates, I mean, really just going out there, thinking of the people who are just the top of their industries for STEM education, girl empowerment, business, toys, entertainment, and I started plotting out, “How could I get ahold of these people?”
Most of them I was not connected with on LinkedIn, or Facebook, or anything like that, but I would notice that, “Oh. I have three connections removed.” I just started meeting with and offering to take out for coffee people who might help me get to people who could be helpful. For three months straight I just put myself out there and met and talked to as many people as I could. I was just running around, going everywhere. Every time I’d meet with somebody I’d show them my prototype and my plans and try to get advice. Then at the end of the meeting usually they would connect me with, you know, five to ten other people who I should talk to. Then I would follow through on those. I spent a lot of time putting myself out there, meeting people, and just, again, keeping them in the loop on what was going on, so by the time I launched I was able to launch with sort of this grassroots community of people who were launching it too, alongside me.
When I reached out to all of those people on launch say I gave them really easily shareable assets, so like, “Hey.” I made it so easy for them to share. They didn’t have to do any work. I said, “Here’s a Tweet you could send. Here’s a Facebook post you could send. Here’s pictures. Here’s imagery.” Some people I even said, “Hey Could you connect me with so-and-so?” I would literally write the email for them to send, so that all they would have to do is just copy and paste it. That was a strategy that really helped. In fact, when we launched our Kickstarter Sheryl Sandberg actually became one of our backers.
Debbie: That was a huge victory. Many people followed suit, like Craig, who’s the founder of Craigslist. He was a Kickstarter backer. When people like that share it the word really starts to spread.
Felix: Yeah. That’s amazing. I like your approach of making it as easy as possible for anybody that can help you, because they might truly believe in your mission, they might truly want to help, but you’re probably one person or one task on their list of 100 every day. The easier and removing all the friction you can is only going to help you out. Speaking of removing friction, this idea that you had about now that the Kickstarter campaign is funded, it’s successful, we don’t want this buzz to essentially die once this campaign ends, you decide to create a store. At what time during this process did you have your Shopify store set up?
Debbie: We set the store up so that it would go live right when the campaign ended.
Felix: Got you. How were you driving the traffic and the attention from Kickstarter over to your store?
Debbie: The first thing we did, which was really obvious, was just on the Kickstarter page we put up a big message that said, “Well, this campaign is over, but if you still want to pre-order GoldieBlox, you can go to goldieblox.com.” Then after that honestly we were so busy just trying to figure out, “Okay, how do we manufacture these toys that have all been pre-ordered?” that we weren’t busy doing a lot of outbound marketing to drive sales to our store, but what we ended up doing that was really smart was the Kickstarter video, we also published to YouTube, and something really unexpected happened.
About a month or two after the Kickstarter campaign had ended a writer for Upworthy found our Kickstarter video, and he shared it on Upworthy, and that Upworthy post went viral. Because the Kickstarter had ended, the only place to go to to buy GoldieBlox was our Shopify website. In addition to the quarter million dollars or so that we had raised on Kickstarter, we did an additional over half a million dollar in sales on our Shopify website.
Felix: That’s amazing. When you were driving the traffic to the Shopify store your were taking pre-orders at that time as well? I’m assuming you didn’t have any items for sale just yet.
Debbie: No. We were still figuring out how to make them, and so we were still taking pre-orders on our Shopify website.
Felix: You weren’t like terrified at that time where it’s like, “So many people are sending us money, and we don’t yet know how exactly we’re going to make them, get them to the end customer”? What were you feeling at that time?
Debbie: Oh my god. It was very stressful, because the good news is we had the cash to take the prototype from the factory from a looks like prototype to a works like prototype, and we had promised that we would ship out the first orders in February, so we had some time. The challenge and what I had underestimated, and what I’ve heard from everyone who make physical hardware, every one underestimates how long it takes. It’s especially challenging because were were creating a construction toy that is supposed to get girls interested in engineering, and if it doesn’t fit right, they’re going to be frustrated and we’ve essentially defeated the purpose.
Going from that looks like prototype to a works like prototype ended up being a series of trips where I had to fly back and forth to China and just for the first time really understand the challenges of injected molded plastic and getting all of the parts to fit perfectly. It was a total nightmare, but we managed. We managed to make it work. We were only one month late. My advice to anyone would be just make sure you take the time to get it right, and however long you think it’s going to take, double, if not triple, that. Ultimately people weren’t that upset that we were only a month late. Honestly, even if we had been six months late, I think that they would have been okay, so long as the product came out of a high quality, which ours did.
Felix: Yeah. Relative to other Kickstarter campaigns, one month late is practically on time compared to what you do see in other campaigns.
Debbie: Yeah. It’s true.
Felix: We were saying earlier about how you were a winner in the Shopify’s third Build a Business Competition. Was this the result of those nearly half a million dollars, or I guess half a million dollars after a Kickstarter campaign, or were there other ways you were driving traffic to your store too to become a winner in the competition?
Debbie: Certainly the video going viral on Kickstarter helped, but that wasn’t the only reason why we won. We also really understood the importance of growing a community on social media, and we had a Facebook page that we were growing, and it was really just a place where like minded people who were excited about our social mission could go. We would share relevant articles and things going on. We still do this to this day, but Facebook also became a huge, kind of unexpected marketing vehicle for us and also sent a ton of traffic to the site.
Additionally, we were really putting ourselves out there, making ourselves available for press. Another large driver to the site was all of the press articles and interviews that I was doing, as well as public speaking engagements that I was doing and going on panels, again, just really putting myself out there, sharing the story, sharing our research, sharing why it was important. All of that activity helped GoldieBlox win the Build a Business Competition.
Felix: That’s amazing. Maybe you can talk to us a little about the prize, because every Build a Business Competition there’s a prize associated with it. For your year what were the prizes?
Debbie: My year there was a cash prize, but the most exciting part of the rewards was a trip to New York City where we got to be mentored. That year I got to go and meet Tina Roth-Eisenberg, Tim Ferriss, Daymond John, Noah Robischon, and sit down with each of them, tell them what was going on with GoldieBlox, my hopes, my dreams, my vision, my challenges. Each one of them spent time with me, kind of just letting me pick their brain and giving advice. I’ve maintained relationships with all of them over the years, and they continue to be helpful, and their advice, even just from that session in New York, has stuck with me to this day. That was the most invaluable part absolutely is the mentorship, which is why when Shopify reached out to me, asking me if I wanted to pay it forward and become a mentor, I was just elated.
Felix: Yeah. We’ll talk about that in a second. Do you remember some of the most valuable business advice that these mentors gave you that are maybe general business advice that can be applicable to others?
Debbie: I remember my meeting with Noah Robischon from Fast Company really well, because at the time we had just won’t he Shopify Build a Business Competition, and because of that there was a lot of press happening, and the company had so much press. You know, I hadn’t thought ahead to, “Well, what’s going to happen when the stories come out and you’re not so newsworthy anymore?” Noah and I sat down and really kind of figured out, “How do we maintain a steady drum beat of press, and stories, and new news to keep the company relevant?” It’s not something that you think about when, you know, you’re in the middle of such a PR frenzy, but it does happen. Noah and I have kept in touch, and he’s usually the first person I go to or think of as a sounding board to try to try to figure out new stories to tell to keep the company relevant.
Felix: Yeah. Maybe you can talk about that a little bit. How do you sit down when you try to think about, “How can we tell this story in a different way?” in a way that will get the press excited to continue talking about your business?
Debbie: Yeah. You have to just think of different angles, and you also just have to think about what have I learned? You have to listen to your customers, and hear what they’re asking for, and always evolve your product, and make sure that you’re meeting their needs. As long as you do that, there’s always new things to announce and new things to talk about, but you also need to pay attention to the macro trends going on just around the world in general. In a time where maybe GoldieBlox didn’t have a new product to announce or a new feature there might be a general larger trend story going on for, example, maybe a new thing going on with STEM education, maybe the White House making an announcement about STEM education. Then all of a sudden GoldieBlox is relevant within the context of that larger conversation, so it’s just sort of thinking bigger than yourself of, “How else do we insert GoldieBlox as a thought leader or as relevant to larger trend pieces?” It’s easy to just think about what’s going on within your four walls, and it’s helpful to kind of broaden the perspective a bit.
Felix: Yeah. That makes sense that you don’t always want to just tell your story exclusively. You want to find ways to kind of latch on to the general vibe of what the world is talking about or what your industry’s talking about. That makes a lot of sense. Let’s talk a little bit about the Build a Bigger Business Competition, because this is a little bit different than the Build a Business Competition, which is going to be relaunched later this year, but the Build a Bigger Business Competition is a bit different. It’s for stores that are generating over $1 million in annual sales.
I want to mention some of the awesome prizes that come along with this one. You get the opportunity to ring the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange, which I think is an amazing experience. You get to spend five days Tony Robbins, brand an advertising strategy from one of the world’s leading creative agencies, Sid Lee, a public relations strategy from global public relations agency, Allison & Partners, and then a bunch of special access and content from the C2 Montreal Conference in May, and of course throughout this you have awesome access to mentors, like yourself. Talk to us a little bit more about your thoughts on the kind of role that you want to play as a mentor to entrepreneurs that are entering this competition.
Debbie: Well, I’m so excited to be a part of it. It feels particularly close to home for me, because my company won the competition four years ago, and so it’s really exciting to come back in and speak as a mentor, because I’ve obviously learned so much in the last four years, but I also just feel like I’ll have so much in common with everybody there. I think the theme of building a bigger business is really exciting, and that’s really what I’ve learned since I won the Shopify Build a Business Competition. It’s the types of things, honestly, that back then the mentors who I met with were talking about, that were sort of ahead of where my head was at, things that I didn’t even realize I was going to have to struggle with, so things like how do you build a company culture?
I remember when I went to the Shopify Build a Business event company culture wasn’t anything that was even on my radar. All I was thinking about was getting the products manufactured and shipped on time. To be able to sit down with someone like Tina Roth-Eisenberg and have her ask about my company culture, and I looked at her like she had five heads, it wasn’t something that was on my radar. Afterward, sure enough, building company culture, that’s something that becomes extremely important very quickly, because once you’ve brought your product to market you can’t grow if you don’t have a workforce that you can inspire and retain, and they’re the ones that are really driving the business forward. I’m just excited to sit down with companies and see where they’re at in their journey, and as somebody who may be just a couple steps ahead, be able to talk them through maybe what’s on the horizon and give them that heads up.
Felix: Awesome. Now, what about for you and GoldieBlox? Where do you want to see your business go in the next year?
Debbie: My vision for GoldieBlox from the very beginning has been to build a global franchise around this girl engineer character. From that very first prototype I made in my living room of Goldie building a spinning machine to help her dog chase his tail, my dream is for Goldie to span all kinds of mediums, from cartoons, to video games, to apps, to toys, to merchandise, to real life maker labs, sort of in the same way that the Disney princess franchise has sort of touched every girl around the world as she grows up and has become a rite of passage. I want GoldieBlox to do the same thing, but instead of inspiring girls to be princesses, I want to inspire them to be makers.
Felix: Awesome. Sounds like a great mission. Again GoldieBlox, which is at goldieblox.com, G-O-L-D-I-E-B-L-O-X.com. Thank you again so much for your time, Debbie.
Debbie: Yeah. It was a lot of fun. Thanks of having me.
Felix: Here’s a sneak peek of what’s in store for the next Shopify Masters episode.
Speaker 3: They wanted us on there for entertainment value, and we weren’t looking for investors that sounded antithetical to what we were trying to do, but the marketing aspect of it was amazing.
Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the eCommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today visit shopify.com/masters to claim your extended 30 day free trial. Don’t forget, the deadline to enter Build a Bigger Business is February 28th. Visit shopify.com/babb to apply today.
Ready to build a business of your own?
Start your free trial of Shopify today!