Mary Beth Minton, Cofounder, CEO of Zylie & Friends is a woman who means business!
Tell us about your business
We make a line of children’s toys and media that teaches kids about the world and inspires creativity and adventure. The line is based on a series of stories we’ve created that tell the tale of a traveling bear as she journeys around the world on adventure after adventure. The physical toys are a cross between an 18″ fashion doll and a teddy bear, and come with outfits, accessories, passports, and storybooks. Additional stories and related family content will be available in the Passport section of our website, which can be accessed using the unique code included on each character’s passport, and is launching at the end of September. The toys and stories are suitable for children ages 3-11 and are available on our website, in select specialty retailers, and we just launched an exclusive version of the collection in partnership with FAO Schwarz that is available in all Toys R Us locations around the country.
Please tell us what being a business owner means to you and why you became an entrepreneur in the first place?
I started Zylie because I believed there was a severe lack of excellent children’s products available, and especially products or stories that inspired kids to explore and create. We wanted to make something that got kids excited about more than popular culture, and got them interested in science, art, engineering, and discovery, all through a lens of world knowledge and adventure. Being an entrepreneur, to me, means having the opportunity to tackle a challenge, and the chance to create a great product that serves a purpose.
What or who has been your greatest influence in business and why?
I think lately I’ve been inspired by what Elon Musk has been able to achieve in the face of so much opposition, and just the sheer magnitude of the problems he’s trying to solve with Tesla, SpaceX and Solar City. While we’re not making rocket ships or cars that drive us towards a more sustainable future, we’ve tried to go about creating products and experiences that inspire kids to hopefully aspire to become more like Elon and others like him. But my son and partner, Matt and I are constantly inspired by other entrepreneurs doing great things. When we started we were jazzed by what the guys at Method Products were doing, and I’ve always been inspired by what Pleasant Rolland was able to create with American Girl Doll. All of those people faced so much skepticism and doubt from the industry and friends alike, and yet they prevailed. That type of persistence to succeed in building something meaningful is what has kept us inspired every day here at Zylie.
What would you say is your greatest professional accomplishment to date?
Well I think getting to where we are today is a wonderful accomplishment in my mind. Having started with absolutely zero idea of how the industry worked, what was possible and what was not, and to have now built a brand that is in partnership with the largest toy retailer in the world, about to appear on QVC, having won more awards than most back when we had but a few prototypes, and to have made something that kids find awesome is really rewarding. We’ve got miles to go, but I’m really proud of what we’ve built so far, and I hope we have the opportunity to continue to build more and more.
What’s the best advice you have received in business that you wish to pass on to our readers?
I don’t know who said it, but I have a post-it note that has been hanging by my desk for a while that reads, “Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will.” And that kind of goes along with something Richard Branson is famous for, his “Screw it, let’s do it,” mentality. I’m a big believer in having a go at something if you really believe in it, and we try to use that mentality in most things that we do with Zylie.
What has been the most effective marketing initiatives or programs you have used to promote your business?
We’ve had really great success with the parenting blog community. They’ve been instrumental in helping us communicate our mission to our early adopters, and then as we’ve begun to expand they’ve been really helpful in giving valuable feedback, and in some cases contributing insight and content for the media we develop to make Zylie a more rewarding play experience for families. I think that channel was effective because we had a lot to say early on, and hadn’t really honed it down to a concise point yet, so a format like a review or an interview was really helpful in conveying all the parts that make Zylie such an interesting product. We’ve also seen some good results from grass roots campaigns, the most substantial of which we’re launching this fall which is a writing contest for kids to compete to literally write Zylie’s next adventure storybook. We think it will be massively successful, and can’t wait to see all the creative and imaginative submissions from children around the country.
What one thing have you learned as a small business owner that has served you well over the years?
I’ve learned two things that are kind of competing lessons. One is to try and organize your systems, data, and workflow in such a way that makes both the management and analysis of your business as seamless as possible as early as possible. When you’re first starting out there’s a million things flying around, and you’ve normally got something that’s called “Spreadsheet Hell.” If you can start to formalize your operations early on, you’ll be in a much better position as you start to scale up. And these days, cloud-based and open-source software can basically provide small businesses and startups with enterprise-level systems for like, $29/month. It’s incredible.
The second lesson I’ve learned is to do some things that don’t scale. This was advice that was given to the founders of AirBnB by the head of the incubator program YCombinator, Paul Graham. His advice to those three gentlemen was to go door to door in New York City to try and get people to list their space on the platform. That’s not a strategy that works when you’re big, but to start out, getting those early people to be advocates for you, however you can get them, is hugely important. So we’ve always taken that advice to heart, and have tried things that don’t scale. So we still try to answer as many phone calls and emails we get personally to learn from our customers and fans. We still try to go to as many stores as possible to do demos ourselves. We write postcards and letters to customers, and add personal touches to things wherever possible. Because that’s our advantage as a small company over a large one. A large one has employees who punch out at 5pm, and who don’t have a personal interest in the success of their company. We care more, and we see that as a major asset.
Are there any resources or tools you’d like to share with other small business owners that have helped you run your business? If yes, please describe (and include links if available).
There’s a great list of all the best online tools for startups and small businesses at http://startuptools.pbworks.com . There’s also a plethora of information about all sorts of aspects of business on Quora, usually written by the people running or working at the companies you might aspire to be like or compete with. There’s also some great conversations going on at Hacker News (http://news.ycombinator.com ) and Branch.com. There’s also a great resource called Levo League (http://www.levoleague.com/ ) that provides networking events, great content and a supportive community specifically for women entrepreneurs and professionals. I think the more you realize there’s a community of people just like you out there willing to help, the better your chances for success.
Do you have any new projects coming up (or have you just completed a big project ~ reached a milestone, etc.)? If so, please tell us about it.
We’re really proud to announce the partnership with FAO Schwarz, which will be bringing Zylie and Shen (Zylie’s panda friend from China) Adventure Kits to all Toys R Us stores around the country. We’ll also be appearing on QVC with an exclusive offer to their audience during the Gifts for Grandkids show in October, and are launching the Create Zylie’s Next Adventure Writing Contest in mid-October as well. We’re also really excited to be launching the Passport section of our website, where families will be able to access exclusive Activities, Stories, Games, Parent Guides, and other helpful content to make the most of the Zylie play experience. That section goes live at the end of September at www.zyliethebear.com/passport.
What do you do for fun/relaxation?
I’m an avid rock climber, so when I do have free time you’ll find me gearing up for that.
What is Number One Business Goal you plan to accomplish over the next year?
We’re aiming to build our website into a top destination for “adventure-themed” content for families, and we also plan on launching our third adventure in the series, which features Kiki the Koala and the book Zylie’s Adventure Down Under.
You want to write a book on TBD…we’ll see how this turns out first!
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
I think the most important lesson I’ve learned in business or in life is that persistence is key. Sticking with something is really the only differentiating factor between failure and success, and that can only be accomplished through hard work and determination. If there were a shortcut, everyone would do it.
What’s the best way for our readers to connect with you (feel free to include the links to your social networks and websites)?
I’m always up for a chat on the phone, I can be reached at 866.925.2842, extension 2, and on email at firstname.lastname@example.org .
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