Hey, I’m Catherine, Rachael’s co-founder at Tiny Earth Toys! I’m here to answer the burning question we’ve been asked by customers, friends, and family.
We founded Tiny Earth Toys to reduce toy waste, increase access to high-quality wooden toys, and provide a rich educational experience for children. I joined a few months after Rachael started testing the idea of a toy rental subscription when we had just 200 customers. We grew the business to thousands of customers, with the support of an amazing community.
However, the biggest issue we were consistently working on was renting toys profitably. It was incredibly expensive to refurbish toys, ship them back and forth across the country, and acquire the best inventory. AND we were already charging a premium price over alternatives. While we believed we could improve our margins to operate profitably over time, the results weren’t happening soon enough and we were running out of cash. We still have a deep belief that rental could work locally and are very encouraged by what we see happening with Joylet in the mid-Atlantic and Loop Baby in New York and San Francisco.
We realized that we could not continue as a national toy rental company without a significant amount of capital to back us. So we weighed our options carefully with our mission, customers, investors, employees and community in mind. We determined we could
- Change what we were doing
- Try another circular solution
- Shut down the company
We knew we could not let down ourselves or our community by giving up at this point when there is still so much work to do to reduce the problem of Tossable Toys (our industry’s version of Fast Fashion).
So we reflected on our strengths:
- A sustainable toy brand, mission, and audience (you fine people!)
- Customers who cared deeply about sustainability and circularity
- A significant amount of data and insights about early childhood educational toys
The “Aha” Moment
In our Annual State of Play survey exploring ten categories of play last year, 84% of families rated pretend play as “extremely valuable” for children 2-6 years old, only lower than reading and physical movement. This was backed up by research; there are thousands of academic articles written on the importance of imaginative play on social and emotional learning.
Not only did parents value pretend play, they were actively seeking it out. Looking at our website data, it turned out that our number one product in the past few months were dollhouses!
So we dug in even more and launched a massive survey on imaginative play. What we found surprised us. 62% of families have a dollhouse by the time their child is 5, but these products are missing the mark. Brands often use the net promoter score (NPS) question “Which of these do you own and how likely are you to recommend it to a friend” to assess how they are doing, and we asked this about customers’ play structures. The scores are calculated to range from -100 to 100. While Kitchen Sets scored 18 on our NPS survey (not bad), dollhouses scored -12! Poor dollhouses. So, families value pretend play and are searching for dollhouses, yet when they purchase them they are VERY unhappy with them.
People complained in the survey and follow-up conversations about pink plastic houses that did not match their aesthetic and reinforced unnecessary gender stereotypes. Others raved about their homemade wooden dollhouses. Frequently, we heard that the best parts of dollhouses were those that had open-ended structures, could accommodate multiple children in play, and had detailed pieces that were removed from the houses to play elsewhere.
So the data told us there was a huge opportunity in dollhouses. But the world is not just about data. It is also about our experiences and our dreams. And dollhouses happen to hold a very special place for both myself and my co-founder. Growing up, my favorite type of play was imaginative play. As a toddler, I made endless cups of tea for my parents in my play kitchen. Later after school, I would play as a princess, a teacher, a Hogwarts student, or a horse. A dress-up box of my mother’s old clothes, various accessories, and fabric pieces inspired hours of fun for my brother and me.
My dad built me a dollhouse when I was two years old. It was the only woodworking project I have ever known him to do, completed with a friend who was building a dollhouse for another child. They came up with their own designs and carefully built, sanded, and finished the three-story wooden homes to perfection. My dad still complains that everyone who looks at the dollhouse only notices the tiny shingles that my grandfather added later. Admittedly, the shingles are pretty cute.
Unfortunately, my dollhouse took up a lot of space in the living room with little use for many years. I had a set of plastic people that I mostly played with outside of the dollhouse on the floor. The house was beautiful, but I was not very interested in playing inside it. When I was about eight, I got into collecting accessories and furniture for the house, from craft store pieces to odds and ends. Still, I didn’t engage with the structure itself once it was arranged to be “just right.” The sense of order that a child can pursue by decorating their dollhouse is valuable, but I missed out on the value of imaginative play that I enjoyed with my play kitchen or dress up. My dollhouse was beautiful but could have been more functional.
Another key emotional insight came more recently. Our CEO Rachael shopped for a dollhouse for her younger daughter this past Christmas, and I watched her hesitate to purchase one because she wanted something open for multiple children to play with, wooden, and high-quality. She was so frustrated by what was on the market and even after purchasing one for her daughter, knew it was missing a lot of key elements she wanted.
Together we feel deeply passionate about this category of play for our children and for the children we once were. We decided that we would do everything we could to live up to the hopes and expectations parents had for dollhouses and imaginative play.
Our mission has always been to keep toys in use and out of landfills. The stats are startling. 90% of children’s toys are made of plastic and used for 6 months before 80% end up in landfills, incinerators, or the ocean. To avoid the problem of “Tossable Toys”, toys should be:
- Open-ended or malleable to many purposes for a range of ages
- High-quality so they can be kept in use by multiple generations or multiple families
- Made of sustainable materials
But, dollhouses have contributed to toy waste as they are increasingly made from pink plastic structures or feature less than appealing designs that children don’t play with. Both of which force parents to move them out of the home.
Finally, all children benefit from imaginative play, not just girls. For too long dollhouses have been an overly gendered experience and yet we we hear from many parents that they want accessible, gender-inclusve experiences for their children.
Dollhouses can be a powerful tool for imaginative play, whether that is acting out your own family’s routines or those of a different world.
We don’t think you should have to spend hundreds of dollars on an item that takes up space in your living room and does not get used (like my dollhouse did for at least a few years, beautiful though it was…) and take up that much space in a playroom for something your child doesn’t use.
We want to deepen the value of imaginative play, so the most important part of our design is that it is functional. We are creating interactive accessories for our dollhouse with features like pulleys, cranks, and tiny pieces (3+ only) that engage a child’s interest. A child can go beyond placing a sofa in the living room - what if they could pull out the sofa to make a bed?
A large structure should earn its place in your home. We are inspired by modular furniture that can be used for multiple purposes so that in small spaces (or any space) it maximizes utility. Our dollhouse will be modular to convert into different structures, whether that’s a castle, a car garage, or a rocket. Then, when a child ages out of the toy, it can become a beautiful bookshelf.
Thanks for joining us on this journey and for your patience through our evolution!
P.S.: My dad considered making dollhouses for Tiny Earth Toys, but I’m going to give him a pass on this one so we can make more than one per year (or one per 60 years). We will strive to make ours just as high quality though, and put just as much love into them.
P.P.S.: You can join the Tiny Spaces waitlist here.