Not a Pivot, More a Plunge: A Startup Story Shifts
Early last year, I found myself unexpectedly accepting a Rising Star award at the annual Women in Toys gala. Unprepared and overwhelmed, I delivered an acceptance speech that can best be described as a comedy routine/confessional: lots of laughs at my own expense. Ironically, the biggest laugh of the night followed the one line that wasn’t a joke. “We’re not really a toy company,” I announced to a room of 600 toy company executives who were recognizing me for the work I do designing and producing toys: female action figures, to be exact. And I meant it.
Up the Ladder
Our 2014 Kickstarter was met with an avalanche of press. We were at the forefront of a cultural zeitgeist, and our toys were named one of TIME Magazine’s 25 Best Inventions of the Year. We were the crowdfunded startup that proved there was an untapped market for thoughtfully designed, well-made female action figures that weren’t hyper-sexualized, that would appeal to young girls (and boys). The big toy companies raced to join us. Mattel’s DC Super Hero Girls followed 18 months later, and Hasbro’s Star Wars Forces of Destiny figures weren’t far behind.
And, yet, it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns. Despite our positive reviews, we heard some complaints. Occasionally, we were accused of being lazy for failing to provide a backstory. In the IAmElemental universe, our action figures aren’t Superheroes, they’re Superpowers. Each one has a definition and a power intended to be used as the jumping-off point for story creation. This decision was deliberate. When we first launched, we felt that there weren’t enough examples of stories where females were the protagonists and the ones saving the day. We wanted kids to be active agents in the telling of those stories.
Having said that, we have always recognized the power of storytelling. While we don’t need research, plenty exists that says it is important for both girls and boys to see vibrant examples of strong, healthy female protagonists across all types of media. So, we always had stories brewing. Although my COO, Veenita Bleznak, didn’t join the company until the month after our Kickstarter ended, she happened to be at my home for dinner in October of 2012, shortly after I came up with the idea for IAmElemental. Firing on all cylinders, my mind racing with the possibilities, I cornered her on the couch and forced her to listen to the many content-related ideas that were literally pouring out of me.
On the Board
I wasn’t the only one who saw storytelling potential.
From the very beginning, we were regularly approached about expanding into all sorts of media. The list would make your head spin. To say that it was overwhelming is an understatement. Jump in too soon, and you could drown in your own ignorance. Wait too long, and risk losing the wind in your sails altogether; leaving you trailing hopelessly behind. Unfortunately, when it comes to content creation, there is no way to dip a toe into the water. You have to take the plunge, or get off the diving board… the wrong way… down the ladder.
Luckily, I had a guardian angel to guide me through the process; a childhood friend (my maid of honor, if you can believe it) happened to work in children’s television – in animation, no less.
“You can’t take any of these meetings,” she told me. “You are going to have one chance. You can’t make a move until you figure out what you want.” She was right. I didn’t know what I wanted. So, I waited.
In the meantime, I educated myself. I signed up for industry newsletters. I watched children’s television panel discussions on YouTube. I familiarized myself with production companies around the world. My son and I watched a seemingly endless stream of animated show preview videos. And, all the while, the list of media companies looking for new content continued to grow.
Every six months or so, my guardian angel and I would meet for lunch. I’d give her a progress report, and wait with bated breath to see whether or not my metaphorical gatekeeper thought we were ready to explore the content development stage yet.
In the meantime, we kept pushing forward with the figure line. Our first set of seven 3.75” Courage figures was followed by our 6.5” Courage Core Power figure, and our first TOTY (Toy of the Year) nomination for 2017 Action Figure of the Year. This was followed by our second set of seven 3.75” Wisdom figures, and a second TOTY nomination for 2018 Action Figure of the Year. Next up? Our 6.5” Wisdom Warrior will be revealed at Toy Fair in February.
My guardian angel advised us well, and we took our time to find a partner who loved and understood our mission as much as we do. Because, while our action figures are strong, healthy females, the message of empowerment that we’ve embedded in our figures is universal. It’s an important distinction. IAmElemental celebrates both the power of women and the Superpowers that reside inside us all. No matter your gender, everyone has the capacity to be a real hero and choose to use their powers to be their best selves.
This past November, we announced a partnership with The Jim Henson Company to develop an animated television series targeting children aged six to 12; a show about powerful females that the whole family will be able to watch together.
Three and a half years after our Kickstarter campaign, we are still moving the needle and working to disrupt the market. Because, what I said at the Women in Toys gala is true. At the end of the day, we really aren’t a toy company. We are a mission-based company, embedding a message of empowerment in all that we do.
Development is just the first step of what will be a very long journey. But, we are grateful to have been given the opportunity to work with the wonderful team at the Jim Henson Company to bring both our figures and our message to life. The right partnership was worth the wait.
Julie Kerwin is Chief Elemental Officer at IAmElemental, a privately held toy company creating the first-ever female action figures designed specifically for girls (and boys!). Founded in 2013, the company’s strong, healthy female figures invite kids to develop their character by playing with “The Elements of Power.”
IAmElemental launched Series 1/Courage via Kickstarter, and was named by TIME Magazine as one of the “25 Best Inventions of 2014” and “Top 10 Toys of 2014.” The company was named a 2017 and 2018 Toy of the Year finalist by the Toy Industry Association. In November 2017, the company announced a partnership with The Jim Henson Company to develop a new animated children’s television series based on its popular female action figures. Learn more at www.iamelemental.com.