When former strategy consultant Mary Jo Feeney entered, stage right, with her small Boston toy company, Playstages Inc., in May 2000, she wanted to add some drama to her life. Her idea? High-quality plastic stages that come with 16 multicultural, pull-string puppets called "Minikins" and are aimed at boys and girls ages 6 and up.
But in this heady age of technology, is there still a market for old-fashioned theater and puppetry? Will today's savvy and sought-after tweens want something that was cool when Mozart was alive?
Yes, Feeney says, because there's a lot of room for open-ended educational toys that let kids create their own content and tell their own stories. "This may be the oldest form of media in the world," she says. "It's a universal concept."
Feeney, 40, built a prototype and conducted focus groups in late 2000, and eventually secured angel funding to invest in product development, initial inventory and marketing. She had to pull a lot of strings, however, to find investors willing to fund a risky toy venture. "There's an old saying on Wall Street that the two types of businesses you don't want to invest in are restaurants and toys," she says. "You really have to be determined and push because you're going to face a lot of rejection."
Playstages began shipping its products last September. Instead of seeking distribution through large retailers right away, Feeney saw an untapped market in education, where the school day is getting longer and children are participating in more after-school programs. She decided to sell to school districts, day cares and community centers she found at educational conferences. This strategy saved her the risk of planning far in advance for retailers.
"Toys may be one of the hardest things to forecast," Feeney says. "There's predictability and manageability in the education market." Playstages' products are already found in 200 school systems in 39 states.
But Feeney needs to broaden her distribution to hit the big time. In addition to her growing direct sales business, she's building additional distribution through specialty retail stores, catalogs and Web sites (she recently signed on with Imaginarium.com), and hopes to make headway into European markets just in time for the holiday season. She's also working on cheaper knockoffs of her own products, which are priced too high ($129.99 to $400) to attract cost-conscious retailers such as Target and Wal-Mart. "Cost is everything," Feeney says.
Playstages debuted in February at the Toy Industry Association's American International Toy Fair in New York City, an annual trade show that brings together nearly 2,000 importers, manufacturers, agents and distributors. Feeney says she received "tremendous response." And Playstages won the Toy of the Year award last November from the parents-oriented publication FamilyFun Magazine.
Playstages projects sales of about $1 million this year, and Feeney and her four employees are developing additions to the Minikin line as well as software that lets kids create their own dramas. Feeney isn't sure whether she wants to sell out eventually. For now, her goal is to be a $100 million firm within five years. But why stop there?
"$350 million would be great," she says. "We want to be a brand." And, maybe, just maybe, set the toy world on its ear again.