Not Just for Girls – Behind the Business with Boy Story’s Kristen & Katie Johnson
Kristen and Katie Johnson don’t believe in restricting children’s play based on gender.
When the sisters realized there was a huge lack of and demand for male dolls, they started their own company that designs and sells high-quality dolls that look like real boys, giving all kids the opportunity to play with dolls that they can identify with. While many older people don’t agree with their products, they’ve found great success with Millennial parents who are looking for more gender-equal ways to raise their kids.
I talked to Kristen and Katie about their business concept, the reaction to their dolls, and the importance of social media and community to their business. Check out their story below!
Tell us about your business in as much detail as you can. What is it that you do and who are your customers?
We are sisters, Kristen and Katie, and we founded Boy Story, a company that introduces 18” boy dolls called Action Dolls to the toy market. The dolls have ball joints for extra poseability and each model has a unique face mold and sculpted hair. Kristen is a mom of two boys and, while pregnant with her second child, she wanted to buy her older boy a doll. But a same-age doll, not a baby doll. After some very frustrating searches, it became apparent that the selection of boy dolls was terrible. She began to research and realized that a whole lot of parents were looking for a cool boy doll for their kids. There were lots of girl dolls on the market but hardly any boys, and definitely a lack of reasonably priced but high-quality dolls similar to American Girl, Madame Alexander, and other collectible dolls.
That problem got Kristen’s wheels turning and she couldn’t let the idea drop. The problem was that she was working full-time as a lawyer and living overseas. She asked Katie, who was a designer, whether she might be interested in developing the idea. Katie jumped on board and brought the idea to a reality, where the company was ready to launch on Kickstarter.
In April of this year, Kristen quit her job as a lawyer and Boy Story launched a Kickstarter. It was met with resounding support and exceeded its fund-raising goal. Six months later, the dolls are in production and hitting retail shelves!
Our customers are kids, parents, grandparents, doll collectors, and other gift-givers. But, of course, our favorite customers are the kids who love to play with these dolls. We have really challenged some serious stereotypes in the marketplace and you know what? Kids don’t care! They just want to play and they seem thrilled that they have a bigger choice in their play. Girls love the dolls as a companion to their current collections and boys love the dolls because they are just plain cool and look like them. We think these dolls are breaking down some old stereotypes and we like to say that you have to break down the barriers in order to share the sandbox.
What made you choose this path? Is it a family legacy or are you a pioneer? Did you go to school for it or are you learning as you go?
For Kristen, she chose this path as a culmination of fighting gender stereotypes in her own professional practice of law, seeing her sons subjected to gendered toys from birth, and a passion for human rights and equality. Katie absolutely loves to bring joy to children and also loves to be creative, so this was the perfect blend of the two. For us, we are pioneers. It hasn’t been easy and we’ve received a ton of support but also been shot down by criticism from people who don’t think boys should be playing with dolls and who tend to stick to old stereotypes. It’s very encouraging, though, that most millennial parents not only love Boy Story, but they also are actively seeking out the opportunity to increase their kids’ choice and freedom in play. They are tired of having marketers tell their kids that certain genders “should” be playing with certain types of toys. They believe that toys are toys and kids should be free to play. So they have been hugely supportive.
The business brings together both of our skill sets. Katie’s design skills have been invaluable as we’ve developed our doll designs, clothing, branding, marketing, and packaging. She also has excellent organizational skills and is relentless in always finding the answer to problems. Kristen has taken her legal skills and business savvy and applied it toward her own business. She is strategic and can handle a mile-long to-do list.
They say that to be successful you have to be passionate, so share what drives you every day. Why do you love what you do?
We both believe very strongly that we are actively contributing to positive change in our world. We are taking a lot of the talk about gender equality and diversity and making it real. We are encouraged daily by the children who light us up when they let their imaginations take charge and play freely.
Has it been smooth sailing or have you overcome adversity to get where you are?
Anyone who tells you a start-up is “smooth sailing” is either lying or crazy! It’s hard work! We have had many challenges, including Kristen’s job transition, unexpected expenses, a warehouse that changed its business model last minute and abandoned us, negotiating freight, and marketing. It’s all challenging. But we have also had some encouragement and successes. Our Kickstarter brought together community support in a way that completely humbled us. We were so touched by the way everyone coalesced around our business. We take things one day at a time, trying not to be overwhelmed and keeping the focus. It’s hard also to start up and not want to do a million different things at once. So many people have suggestions for where we might take the business and, trust us, we have a huge list of things we’d love to accomplish. But it’s baby steps, and we always remind ourselves of that.
We all know that crazy happens. What’s the wildest thing that’s happened on the job?
Well, having our warehouse bail right before our first shipment arrived was pretty crazy. It was also another example of community support, because we ended up having to rely on others to help us and we had some amazing people jump to the rescue before we ended up with a massive load of dolls and no place to store them. We’ve also had some delays in getting our dolls, especially before the holidays, which has been super frustrating. We wanted to get our dolls tested for European standards, which we did, but it apparently takes 3 times longer to get those tests completed than the US standard tests. So we ended up with major delays that pushed our production and ultimately pushed back our delivery times. Thankfully, we have a huge shipment that made it in time for the holidays and made it to a reliable, friendly warehouse!
What do you do with your time off? Are you familiar with that concept?
Time off?! Well, it’s pretty intense now, we must say, but we both try to maintain personal space in our lives. Kristen loves to cook, read, and spend time with her family exploring the beaches in Florida. Katie has recently picked up off-shore fishing and loves to spend time with her friends and at the gym. It’s all about balance and taking breaks when you need them. No one can work 110% of the time and expect to maintain their sanity and enthusiasm.
This is the age of the social network. How important is social media to your business and how do you make it work?
Social media is huge for us, especially because that’s how we market and find others who are interested in socially-conscious businesses and gender-equal products. We have recently been collaborating with another amazing company, Mitz Accessories, that makes gender-equal clothing. We’ve realized through that work that there is a huge demand for information on similar products and companies. Recently, we have launched a gift guide called Equal Goods that specifically focuses on this. All of that came about through social media. We interact with lots of relevant organizations and bloggers through social media. It’s really invaluable.
Why did you realize that you were going to embrace e-commerce?
It was completely natural for us to want to sell online. We did not want the expenses of a brick and mortar store and we knew that we were marketing to a somewhat niche (but growing) audience. It’s much more natural for us to find customers interested in our products throughout the United States and Canada via social media and online marketing, rather than trying to open a shop. Since we are making one type of product, it also makes more sense for us to sell that product directly online. It’s too specialized for its own store at this point.
How did you find Shopify and why did you decide to try them out?
Shopify was recommended by several other small business owners we knew. We looked at it along with a few other options (such as Woo Commerce) but ended up finding an amazing design and development company that was comfortable with Shopify and had a great proposal that we believed would work well for us.
What does this enable you to do as a small business owner?
Shopify is great because it’s super easy and user-friendly but also customizable enough for our needs. We love all the apps and ability to integrate with Facebook, Mailchimp, and Google for marketing.
How are you involved in your community?
Our community is not only our locality of Tampa – it’s also the small toy stores that are in other small communities and the different groups of people interested in making their world a better place. Small toy stores and boutique kids shops are amazing. They are always run by hard workers who believe in community. They bring people together not just to shop, but to play, learn, and interact. Lots of small shops have maker spaces to help kids improve their creativity and use their imaginations. We are protective of our brand to make sure we always give the best prices to these small businesses and encourage local community shopping.
What does supporting local mean to you?
It means using our local resources as much as we feasibly can. It means taking the time and energy to support small businesses when they are having events and sales and making sure to build them up and encourage shoppers to get to know their local shop owners. It means taking our kids to the small bookstore around the corner to spend time and purchase books. It means developing the community that recognizes one another at farmers markets and local charity events. It means prioritizing people and quality products over pure profits. We are members of ASTRA (the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association) and meet a ton of amazing small businesses (both retailers and manufacturers) through that group.
What does the future look like for you and your business?
It’s so difficult to predict where we will be in the future. We can say that the next year looks like a ton of work as we get our name out there and hopefully get into as many small toy stores as possible. We also want to make sure we expand to get our dolls into the offices of occupational therapists and in schools, who are often looking for diverse toys but struggle to find them in the mainstream offerings. We hope that the future will be sustainable and allow us to bring on a few employees, especially to continue marketing, sales, and design development.
Do you have any advice for aspiring business owners just starting out?
Keep your chin up. It can be really hard sometimes, especially when surprises come your way. We have found that sometimes we have expectations that aren’t really realistic and so we have to pause, re-adjust our goals or expectations, and keep going. We’d also highly recommend having a budget and trying to stick to it. Try to anticipate all of your costs for the year (even if you have to guess things) and make sure you have a plan on how you are going to pay for those costs.
Build in some room for error, as there will always be some mistakes. And know that you aren’t superhuman, you sometimes get frustrated, and you sometimes need a break. Keep your eyes on the goal and work hard toward that, breaking things down into specific achievable goals if you can.