Two moms, Julie Kerwin & Dawn Nadeau, noticed that while there were a range of action figures, like Spiderman & G.I. Joe, that appealed to both a 4-year old boy and a 40-year-old man, there was no strong, able-bodied female equivalent for young girls.
The few female action figures that were on the market were hyper-sexualized in form, designed for the adult male collector. They wanted to create figures that were “Less Hooters, More Heroine”.
Sleeping over it one night, Julie woke up with the answer, “It’s not superheroes, it’s superpowers.” Why not put the child at the center of the narrative? Make her the superhero and the figures her superpowers.
IAmElemental launched its first collection of 7 fierce female action figures last year: Bravery, Energy, Enthusiasm, Industry, Honesty, Persistence & Fear. Young girls, the collector community & the girl power contingent responded with fervor. Their Kickstarter reached its $35,000 goal in 2 days and eventually raised $162,906 from 2520 backers.
They were named to TIME Magazine’s 25 Best Inventions of 2014.
In this interview, Julie, the creative force behind IAmElemental, gives us the behind-the-scenes on the focus, partnerships & hustle that went into creating their first collection. How they zoned in on a forward-thinking design, 3 areas where they spent their money, how they got their first press & what they learned about their target audiences from the Kickstarter.
You owned an independent music label and were managing an indie rock band. Tell me about the moment when you felt you had to start a company that creates fierce female action figures.
I had always been a little bit jealous of J.K. Rowling because you’d hear the story of how she created the concept for Harry Potter on a train ride. In that one train ride the entire world of Harry Potter had come to her. I remember thinking – how does this work? How does this creative idea come to life in just a moment? But that’s exactly what happened with IAmElemental.
We were talking about the notion of female action figures and girl power. We were discussing this idea of why the superhero, Spiderman for instance, appeals to a 4-year-old boy & a 40-year-old man, but there was no similarity in the female action figure realm.
I was reading a lot of books by Angela Duckworth, Jo Ann Deak and all of these experts who were talking about the notions of grit being more important to someone’s success than intelligence. Or the idea that boys and girls are as different from the neck up, as they are from the neck down.
All of these things were swirling in my head. I joke that I went to sleep one night, woke up, and the idea was born like Athena out of my head. But it’s not really a joke, it’s what happened.
My husband and I were talking about it the night before. I woke up the next morning and I said, “I have the answer. It’s not superheroes, it’s superpowers.”
That very morning I took the Periodic Table of Elements, wiped out all the elements and started writing in powers. The powers were Wisdom, Creativity, Bravery, Strength, Honesty. I called up Dawn and I said, “I have the answer.”
I started buying domain names. I think I bought 30 domain names, trying to find one that fit. I bought IAmElemental.com that day and it stuck.
So you have the idea, you have a burning need to do something about it. What’s the first thing you do?
The brainstorming just went crazy. I was writing down ideas everyday and compiling all of these ways in which we could express this concept and present it to girls. For example, from the very first day I had the idea of making the shields as charms.
We started building out the ideas and thinking about it in a very large way. At a certain point we stopped and went right back to the beginning, starting with the figures.
How many months were you doing this research & brainstorming?
I would say that we started brainstorming in October and then we spent our first money in July.
The first money – what was it spent on?
It was spent on branding. We searched for a design firm to help us with it. We felt that once we knew exactly what IAmElemental looked like, we could move forward from there. The first investment we made was in our logo and our business cards.
So you focused on branding even before you had your first figure down. Was this before you reached out to your design partner Eleventyplex?
We had spoken to Eleventyplex around the same time. I found them on the internet, believe it or not. I watched a video that Tim Conroy, the owner of the Eleventyplex, had done. It struck me that he was someone who might be able to help us. We started talking to them in July, and by late summer we were well into the design of the seven figures.
I’m not an artist and it’s hysterical to look at what we were drawing! We had decided to use real female heroes as the muse for our series so we chose Joan of Arc. Our early sketches were these hysterical drawings. Women dressed in armor and looking very traditionally like you would imagine Joan of Arc. Those were the things we would send off to Eleventyplex. I’m sure they were laughing at us behind the scenes! But that’s how crude our initial concept was in its execution.
What was the first iteration of the 7 figures like?
We bought lots of action figures, particularly from Japan. We used to call it Pandora’s Box! We had lots of examples of hyper-sexualized figures, so we knew exactly what we didn’t want. But we also started to think about what we did want, in terms of articulation and aesthetics.
While you were investigating and researching the figures themselves, were you also thinking about your end customer, at this point, and getting any type of initial feedback from them?
No, we really weren’t. We are moms with kids. We have kids in our homes and as a result, a daily interaction with kids who weren’t ours. We knew there was a hole in the market and how we wanted to fill it. So there wasn’t a lot of testing, quite frankly. We were our target audience.
What was your first big challenge while designing and developing the figures?
Tim Conroy was wonderful and embraced the idea that we presented to him. He liked the notion of superpowers and the message we were sending.
But the first challenge that we really hit was that even though he internalized our idea, it was very hard for him to escape what he was used to. And so it took a little bit of finessing to get him and his team to understand that – that bum is just not appropriate. That’s not where we are headed.
Even when we had figured out the-breast-to-hip ratio and it got to a point where we were all happy, the bum just made me insane! It was an ongoing joke. They kept sending these wonderful images and ways to translate our ideas. And I couldn’t see it because all I could see was this big giant butt crack.
And we kept saying, “Bridge the gap.” If you really want to know what our first big challenge was – it was the big butt.
When you’re working with a design partner to translate your vision, how does that partnership work for you?
I love it.
We have an interesting situation because we are not in the same state. We do weekly conference calls, exchange emails, and have a shared Dropbox. Part of it is dumping visual cues into Dropbox, all the time. For example, this is the direction of the hair we want to go with. Here’s how I want us to think about Persistence’s cape. Here are some examples.
It was a wonderful give and take. Tim, Haz and the whole team really pushed us forward and educated us. It’s also not standing on ceremony. Being able to say, I love this or let’s keep working on that. Or them saying, “Listen, Joan of Arc is great, but you are not doing a period piece. You have to bring a little more forward thinking into this.”
We’ve really pushed one another. Flexibility is one of our super powers.
Even though we stayed so unbelievably true to our early concept – to the point that when we look back on our deck that we’d show designers, we’re amazed at how it’s almost exactly what we said we were going to do – we could never have imagined what the 7 figures would ultimately look like.
It sounds like you found a great partnership with Eleventyplex. Did you attempt working with other designers before them?
I’m a researcher, so let’s not pretend I didn’t have a list! I think we sent one or two other emails. But Tim was our first actual conversation. We spent a good 5-6 hours in phone calls with him, fleshing things out, before we even had a contract. He was very, very generous with his time. And I think he was inspired by the idea and could sense our excitement.
I read somewhere that after you had your initial designs, you reached out to people for feedback. Can you give me an example of feedback from someone you sought out, that influenced the design?
We weren’t really looking for them to influence our design, per se. The team we had with Eleventyplex was very insular and we created those figures as a group.
Obviously we were showing them to our children. My 9-year old was intimately involved in the design. He had a great time telling me what he thought and discussing it with me. From that perspective, we were very much in-house.
When we started reaching out to people, we asked our friends to go to their children and talk about the powers themselves. We wanted to get a sense of whether or not this message resonated with children. The fascinating thing was that without having a figure or even a picture of the figures, just the idea of the superpowers, was incredibly inspirational. It created a lot of wonderful conversation between parents and kids. The kids were really excited about picking a power!
That’s when we realized we were on to something. Wow, they don’t even have a figure in their hands, and they like the idea – that was really significant to us.
What were the kids telling their parents?
They were raising this notion of – who am I? I was able to get across the monkey bars, I’m Persistence.
One of my favorite stories is about a young a girl who was adopted from China when she was a toddler. When her mother asked her to pick a power, she first picked Energy. Her mom said, “Go and dress up like Energy because I’m going to take a picture of you with your Energy sign.”
She went into her room and was there for quite a while. When she came out, she was wearing the clothes that she had been wearing when her mother had met her in China. It had been years and they barely fit her. But she had gone to the back of her closet and found it. She walked out of the room and said to her mother, “I’m Bravery.”
It was a very profound moment for them and also for me, hearing it.
That’s a very touching story.
Coming to production. From what I’ve heard from talking with makers of physical products, production is often the hardest part. You have to find the right production partner and that’s not easy. For your action figures, there are 17 parts that go into making a single figure. There’s a range of colors you experimented with as well.
How did you find production partner(s) in China, who you felt you could trust with mass-producing the figures?
That’s a great question.
Another girl power company to come out of Kickstarter was Roominate. They have been wonderful about sharing their knowledge with us and they gave us the name of their factory.
About 6 months after we started with Eleventyplex, we reached out to them. At the same time, we had reached out to 2 other companies, one of which fell away. The company we ended up working with, was with a gentleman named Stanley. He was so responsive.
He was reading everything that we sent him with such a careful eye. Once the Kickstarter took off & we knew we would be going into production, Dawn happened to be in Asia for another work-related event. She met with him, just to make sure that he was all we already believed him to be.
Our partnership has been absolutely fantastic too. Despite potential language barriers, time differences and the fact that almost every single thing has been done via the internet, we have this very tight, excited, hardworking, enthusiastic team.
Did you at all check out resource like Alibaba in your search for a partner?
We did not go on Alibaba. I think Alibaba is an amazing resource. It’s one of those things that’s shrinking the global experience where, before Alibaba how would anyone find a factory in China?
Having said that, there is something to be said for recommendations. But I also know it’s not really an easy proposition to go around the world to see the factory.
I spoke with someone recently who started a consulting firm where he does what the market requires (Jotham Burnett from Thayer Consulting). He acts as a conduit between creators and factories . He helps them find factories and good partners, without having to travel themselves. You have all of these makers, like us, hitting Kickstarter. Many of them don’t have the contacts or recommendations that we had. This is probably another way to do it.
That’s a great tip, thanks.
When working with a production partner, amongst other things, they need to know the Minimum Order in advance. Going into your Kickstarter, with no orders, how did you plan it out with your production partner? Is there any money exchanged at that point?
That’s a great question. In our case, we looked at Kickstarter as “testing the hypothesis.”
We knew the cost of our moulds and we knew the price per item, based on a fairly limited run that we had to do, to get an idea of what it was going to cost us. But we didn’t put any money. There was no money given up front prior to the Kickstarter. There really was this sense of will it or won’t it hit. We really didn’t know.
Forgive me for a little aside, but when the collector community engaged with us at the very beginning of Kickstarter, we were invited to do a podcast. It was our first press. But it was collector-related, not parent-child related. Part of the excitement among the collector community was that we had come out of nowhere. We were a big surprise to everyone. We joked that we were living in our own little hobbit hole, designing this idea that we fervently believed in, but we had no idea how the public would respond!
We spent as little money as we could, leading up to Kickstarter. Almost all of our money was spent in essentially 3 places. One, was the branding of the company. The second was the design of our figures because we knew how important that was. And the third, legal fees – trade marking and doing all of the things we needed to do to protect our product – which cost an enormous amount of money.
Other than that, we spent zero dollars.
What were there 2-3 specific things that you did to reach out to your target audience leading up to the Kickstarter?
When we were heading into the Kickstarter, our target audience was a parent-child audience. We were designing a toy for children – that really was our driving force.
Once we launched, we ended up with three target audiences; two of them unexpected. That’s really when things exploded.
What happened is that because we were forward thinking in our design, the collector community responded. They were not our target audience. We are thrilled to have. We love them.
That’s what can be so exciting about a Kickstarter campaign. You don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen. We were obviously reaching out to all of our friends in anticipation of the launch, asking them to hold up signs with their children. But to be honest, we didn’t have a Facebook page or a Twitter page until after we had launched.
The third audience to respond was the girl power contingent. They came out in droves and that was really where we were getting a lot of our initial press. This notion of “Less hooters, more heroine.” It’s one of those things where a lot of people had never thought about the hyper sexuality of the figures in a very conscious way until we showed them by comparison. It sparked so much conversation. I think that was where the organic growth happened.
Let’s just take the collector audience. How did they first become aware of IAmElemental? Was there a press piece someone did? Did you reach out to certain blogs with the link to the Kickstarter? Can you give us a sense of that?
My husband sent an email to a local online news website. Two days after we launched, we had coffee with this lovely reporter, Emily Frost, who wrote an article about us for DNA Info. A week later I was on Bloomberg news. What we realized is that being in New York City, even though it was a local article, so many reporters reached out to us after that. It all came back to that first article.
As far as the collector community, I think that their personality lends itself to being early adopters and they are very communicative. There were a couple of early collector fans who spread the word for us and then it grew.
We ended up doing a press release – a PR Newswire announcement – about midway, which also helped a lot. But that would be the extent of it.
Tell me about the moment when you found out about being named to TIME Magazine’s 25 Best Inventions of 2014.
It was incredible. It felt much bigger than either of us. That this idea and message we had put out in the world, had resonated on such a level, was incredible.
IAmElemental is releasing its next figure, a 6-inch Courage figure at Toy Fair next month. It is a fusion of all seven powers in The Courage Series. They are also knee deep in the design of Series2/Wisdom which will have 7 new Superpowers and a new Muse!