A few years back, a woman I had just met asked what I did for a living. She promptly took out her phone and looked at the Baby Paper website. She scrolled to the store locator and said, “this is impressive…you are in so many stores!”.
Honestly, I never thought about that. As a small manufacturer, I am always feeling “small”. My trade show booth is often overshadowed by larger vendors with more products and bigger marketing budgets. I fight for shelf and inventory dollars with specialty retailers. I work on smaller margins because my cost of goods, freight, supplies, etc are higher than a bigger vendor and I have to keep prices down to be competitive.
But her words that day fueled me to continue on the path I set forth. The foundation of my business centers around supporting local brick & mortar retailers. I learn a lot from them. They are resilient, creative and extremely hard-working. They put their all into their businesses. The Pandemic has only served to solidify their resolve to succeed. They are an inspiration and the value in learning from them is greater than any business class one can take.
For me, it took the Pandemic to veer from my business model of wholesale only and to begin selling direct to the consumer. It was a matter of survival to move merchandise.
But my heart is still with the specialty retailers.
Several years ago, I joined two specialty retailer associations, BRIXY & ASTRA. Through these organizations, the bond between Retailers, Sales Reps, Affiliates and Manufacturers is solidified. We spend time with one another at trade shows (or on Zoom)…getting to know one another, listening to what the others have to say and working towards a common goal – to allow specialty retailers to grow and survive.
I am honored to have been selected to be on the board of ASTRA. I really never thought that a board comprised of so many successful business owners would find such big value in my Baby Paper brand (my obvious talents aside). The appointment brings me back to the reflection of someone looking at my business from the outside in.
A group of us small manufacturers who sell to retailers are starting a group to help us navigate big decisions, to find solutions to our common problems and to work towards growth. We do need a name for our group, but for now we are just calling ourselves the Small Manufacturers Group (we need to work on creativity for sure).
Small businesses do have a big impact. Hopefully most of us will still be around so you can watch us grow!
Baby Paper as Shark Bait Our Shark Tank audition experience
No, you are probably not going to see Baby Paper on Shark Tank. We did peak the curiosity of the casting members enough to get to round two, which in Shark Tank speak means that they asked for a video.
The journey began with an email from Comcast Business announcing a last minute decision by Shark Tank to hold a casting call in Comcast's new storefront in Chicago. I arrived for a 10:00 a.m. door opening at 6:00 a.m., only to find the line already wrapped around the building and into the neighborhood. The instructions said that the first 500 people would obtain a bracelet which would grant a few minutes in front of a casting associate. Oh, the relief when I was given the golden ticket (bracelet).
The whole process is very organized (I guess they've done this a few times). Potential contestants are brought in, in groups of 50. The Casting Director then gives instructions and insight into what to expect once you are granted your few moments.
He was brutally honest and actually very funny in telling our group that the odds are slim that any of us will make it past this point. He basically said, enjoy this today and assume that you won't hear from us. We were also treated to what was equivalent to a live commercial for Comcast Business.
If you know our product, you know that we do not sell direct to the consumer nor are we interested in selling to big box retailers or direct to Amazon. We believe in supporting local merchants (they can sell on Amazon). We fully support organizations such as ASTRA and Brixy that work hard to help keep our neighborhood stores in business.
When my number was called, I was ushered behind a curtain, where a makeshift casting room was set up. There were several casting associates at a long table and eager entrepreneurs doing their best to set themselves apart. You are literally just feet away from another contestant while making your own pitch.
I stood before a very weary associate, who had just been given some lunch. She looked at me and asked if I minded if she ate during my pitch, which of course, I didn't. I gave a brief description of Baby Paper and how it came to be. I mentioned our commitment to local merchants and she looked up from her salad to comment on that. I gave my soapbox speech about the need to support local businesses so that they can support our communities. She said thank you and I was released.
As instructed by the Casting Director, I assumed that my journey began and ended that day. I did love talking to the others in line and figured it was definitely not a run-of-the mill kind of day.
So, when the phone call came I was in a bit of shock. Just seeing the email with the news "Congrats on making it to the video submission round" was cause for celebration. That and a lot of scrambling to get a video done professionally and quickly.
According to the rules in the extremely long email, and tucked at the very bottom of said email, was this line:
"From this point forward you are not allowed to discuss your status with anyone. THIS IS VERY IMPORTANT…Absolutely NO blogging, tweeting, facebooking etc."
Needless to say, that by the time I read through the video instructions and legalities, I was halfway through a bottle of wine and had already texted, emailed and shouted about my accomplishment. Within hours, and through a modern age telephone game, I was not only into round two, rumors were flying that I was already headed to LA for my debut. In reality, only the video and Baby Paper samples were headed to LA! We even had "Mr Wonderful" custom Baby Paper made (see picture below), but apparently Kevin O'Leary isn't into Fidgeting.
That's about where the story ends. The reality is that Shark Tank isn't a good fit for a product like Baby Paper and Fidgety Paper. The Sharks want to take products to the mass market and large retailers because the numbers are bigger, the advertisers are richer and the wow factor is greater.
We have met many of the entrepreneurs who have made deals on the show. Never for one moment doubt that they are all out there still working hard. Hats off to them for their persistence and drive to succeed.
You can check out the edited version of the audition video (we removed all financial information). A very special shout-out to Xpress Video Productions for producing & editing the video on a moments notice and to Building Blocks Toy Store for letting us use their store! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zQ1FhOfjme8
UPDATE: While our cause was very noble, and we held out as long as we could, the Pandemic changed everything. Small businesses everywhere pivoted to survive. We were no different.
New products arrived just as the US was shutting down. Orders from retailers were canceled and it appeared that we had no where to sell our new goods. We had received so many boxes, that we had to use a yard stick to turn our lights on and off.
So, we looked around and made the very tough decision to open a seller account on Amazon and a direct to consumer e-commerce site. We only sell limited products on Amazon and our consumer site is within the same MAP pricing as our retail partners.
Our hearts will always be with local brick & mortar, specialty retailers. So #ShopLocal whenever possible. Our store locator is powered by LOCALLY! so you can easily find our products at a retailer near you.
Why We Don’t Sell On Amazon or Direct to Consumer on our Website
When I tell people that we turned down several opportunities to sell Baby Paper on Amazon, I get looks as if I just gave up the winning lottery ticket. I am always met with a shocked, “WHY???”
In a nutshell - we don’t believe in competing with our customers, who are, for the most part, local stores trying to survive in a world gone mad with online shopping. This is not to say that you cannot find Baby Paper on Amazon - you just cannot buy direct from us on Amazon. Many local retailers, in an effort to stay competitive, have their own Amazon stores.
One of Amazon’s most recent attempts to entice us to sell direct was to point out that Baby Paper is sold through third party resellers and that we should capitalize on that market.
So, let me get this straight. Our loyal stores, who have worked hard at helping us build our brand both locally and online, should now have to compete with the very manufacturer that they helped? That is not who we want to be.
While I do understand the allure of shopping on Amazon (I really had to say that, I am a little afraid of them), as a society, we owe it to our communities to support our local merchants. Imagine if your whole neighborhood was filled with shuttered storefronts (which is becoming increasingly common). This would mean a loss of jobs, sales tax revenue and a place for neighbors to gather.
Local merchants get shafted on both ends. Not only do many manufacturers compete with them by selling direct to the consumer, but also the consumers themselves use local stores to “showroom”.
“Showrooming” is when a customer walks in a store and spends the precious time of a knowledgeable salesperson to learn about a product and then buys it online.
We all want to get the best value we can, but it should not be at the expense of someone else.
Please try to shop local whenever possible. If you know you can purchase something online for less - at least give the shop the opportunity to price match.
Having recently downsized and needing to purge years of “collectibles”, I spent a lot of time pondering the items carried with me since childhood and my reluctance to part with “stuff”.
It would take pages of a blog to truly sort through the emotions involved in letting go of belongings and their hidden meanings, so let me focus on what I insisted on keeping and why.
Ironically, many of my must-keep, keep-sakes are all games. After a lot of soul-searching, I realized that ever since I was on my own, I have kept a Rummikub game, several decks of cards, a backgammon set and a pinball machine.
Growing up, I never imagined I would be immersed in the wonderful world of the toy industry. Had life not presented itself with roads followed that led me here, I don’t think I would have realized my need to keep these items. Listening to the amazing retailers, manufacturers and sales reps, I now understand the significance of each of these must-have items.
Each is about happy memories shared with my parents, family and friends. Days-on-end spent playing Rummikub with my mom and her friends in the Florida sunshine; playing cards (gin and poker) with my mom and dad until the wee hours of the night; heated backgammon games in college dorm rooms; and watching my father’s face light up in delight while we played endless games on the pinball machine he bought just before he died.
So, with a deep sense of gratitude – I want to thank everyone in the toy industry. To the incredible local store owners and employees who delight with each new game and toy and who share their joy of play with such enthusiasm; to the manufacturers and inventors who keep bringing new and exciting items to us; and to the sales reps who work so hard to get new products to the market…THANK YOU!
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