Photo Credit Shannon Korta
VANCOUVER, Wash. — Just in case you were wondering, it is not easy creating a side hustle that turns into a full-time career. It is also not easy to create a plush children’s toy that disrupts the toy market while simultaneously teaching children how to express their feelings around death, divorce, and bullying. Nor is it easy to land a spot on ABC’s Shark Tank, or have The Jim Henson Company (of Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy fame) create a new live-action puppet preschool series based on those plush toys.
None of it is easy. And yet, that is exactly what Kelly Oriard and Callie Christensen have done with Slumberkins, an intentional toy company based in Vancouver, Wash. What is Slumberkins? That is a bit difficult to explain because Slumberkins are not the typical cuddly toys found at big box stores. But to attempt an explanation: a Slumberkins is a Bigfoot who teaches about self-esteem; a Narwhal who helps children make a difference in the world; a Sloth who performs sloth-like actives such as encouraging children (and their parents) to slow down and relax their minds; and seven other unlikely creatures who promote specific social-emotional life skills.
In the three years since its inception, Slumberkins has gone from a two-woman team operated out of Kelly’s home to an ever-growing startup with 14 employees. The “stuffies” as they are known in the Slumberkins community constantly sell out, and in addition to keeping up with inventory demands, there is the aforementioned television series. The Slumberkins brand is nonstop.
The Slumberkins office sits in downtown Vancouver where last November employees were working hard to restock sold-out product, take photos for social media, and plan Slumberkins’s latest rollout. Kelly and Callie sat at a table in an all-white conference room. There is so much going on in the office and before we close the door to begin our interview they both check-in with employees, getting status updates on sales and cheering as one of their young and exuberant employees announces another business milestone.
“We are really proud of this” Callie said. She waved her arm to gesture around the office. “It’s crazy though.”
She is referring to the way the company has taken off and how children and their caregivers have bonded with Slumberkins.
To rewind, it all started like this: In 2016 Kelly and Callie (who have been best friends for over 20 years) just happened to have their first babies around the same time, which meant they were on (unpaid) maternity leave. Of that time, Callie says: “we had no money...and we started going on walks with the boys and just brainstorming how to make money as a side hustle.”
Kelly puts it more bluntly: “There were quiet periods where I would put my son down for a nap and then be like what [now]? Wait for him to wake up? Clean? Cook? I couldn’t do that. I was feeling really creative and driven and so I would force Callie to come over and go for a walk.”
It was on these walks that the first iteration of Slumberkins was born: taking inspiration from their son’s lovie’s (some combination of an animal's head attached to a blanket) they decided to turn the traditional lovey on its head by combining unusual characters with the emotional skill building they practiced in their roles as a special education teacher (Callie) and school counselor (Kelly).
The first Slumberkins came in 2016, right when the terms “intentional” and “mindfulness” were gaining steam. The creatures struck a chord with parents who were looking to parent perhaps just a little differently from the generations before them.
“There are a lot of people who go to therapy now who are interested in understanding themselves. And they see value in teaching their children that they don’t have to push their feelings away,” Kelly said.
Kelly witnessed this firsthand in her role as a family therapist. She described how the line of parents seeking help for their children and family would snake its way into her office. It wasn’t just the increase in school bullying, or the demands of standardized tests. It was the fact that children were being confronted with the reality of the climate crisis. It was too much screen time. It was the cyber threats that come from that screen time. It was too many school shootings. It was family changes. And it was the anxiety that comes from having to deal with all of that when you are simply too young to know how to deal with all of that. But the problem, as Kelly saw it, was that parents didn’t know how to deal with all of it either.
Kelly and Callie set up shop in Kelly’s home and while they didn’t really know how to sew, they could thread a sewing machine and buy fabric from the fabric depot. And so they created the first—albeit wonky—Slumberkins, which they sold alongside a PDF formatted children’s stories (digestible stories containing therapeutic techniques to help children improve self-esteem and reduce anxiety written by Kelly) at a local high school craft fair. That day, all 30 of the handmade Slumberkins sold out. Can you believe this? They were exultant.
“They love it! Let’s do more” they said.
Kelly and Callie aren’t formally trained as CEOs and they have zero startup experience. In the early days of Slumberkins, they didn’t know that most companies saved up thousands of dollars in seed money before launching, they didn’t know about product development, and they didn’t know how to mass-produce overseas. But they did know to trademark the Slumberkins name and pursue IP protection and, importantly, they believed that Slumberkins was a good idea. They believed they would succeed. Every little win was treated as a victory, and when faced with opposition they would think: “Why shouldn’t it be us? We can figure this out.”
It is clear while watching the co-founders interact that their relationship is primary to the success of the company. They both display the same drive and ambition that allowed them to play division one volleyball at University and while living in Europe in their early 20’s. When asked how that drive has impacted their company, Kelly says: “I am so focused and I want to take it to the max. That is fun for me.”
“An investor texted us a question the day before Thanksgiving and Kelly went full-on in the response. The investor was like “Happy Thanksgiving to you too”’ Callie said with a laugh.
“When there is a goal in mind I forget about pleasantries,” Kelly joked.
The first year of Slumberkins continued as it started, with Kelly and Callie hand sewing the creatures, and running to the fabric depot each time they sold out online (which was frequently).
In mid-2017 Slumberkins began to resemble what it does now, an organization with the means to mass-produce their products. They achieved this with a helping hand from ABC’s Shark Tank.
While the sharks didn’t invest in Slumberkins, their TV spot, which aired right before the holidays in late November 2017, accelerated their sales 300%. To keep up, they moved out of their home office and moved production overseas.
Slumberkins’s impressive social media following allows the founders to connect with those who buy their products and they are nimble enough to meet the needs of their followers by manufacturing the skill-building toys their community wants. When a resource for grieving families and children became their most requested creature, Slumberkins partnered with The Dougy Center: The National Center for Grieving Children and Families, in Portland, OR. Together, they produced Sprite, a fictitious creature for children going through loss and grief.
Sprite resembles an amalgamation of an angel, moth, and butterfly. According to Brennan Wood, executive director of The Dougy Center, who I interviewed by phone in June, children are meant to decide what Sprite is for them and then use the creature to maintain a connection to their person who died.
“One of our little boys in our program saw [Sprite] and took it out of the packaging and said ‘’its an angel, I am going to pretend this is my dad,” Brennan said.
The founders were determined that Sprite would be a well-backed source; they spent time at the center learning how children process death and how they could best word the language used in Sprite’s book to help children understand that the relationships we have with our loved ones continue, even in death.
Kelly is determined that Slumberkins will continue to help parents and children learn how to process difficult life changes. “We don’t want to shy away from those conversations,” she said.
“This is where people need tools and we want to be there for them and be a resource for people.”
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