Don’t take everything so seriously…seriously. People will more often than not tell you exactly how they feel. Once a woman at a holiday show I was selling at looked at the doll then looked at me and said in a sarcastic tone, “Santa in his underpants? Now that’s just what the world needs.” and then walked away. You have to learn to compartmentalize that stuff. It’s also dangerous to completely ignore it. Maybe she has a point. Time will tell.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kevin Pierce. Kevin is the founder and owner of 320 Toys LLC, a plush toy company that produces the Santa Clothes®, The Countdown to Christmas Doll. He was born in 1967 and raised in a loving home along the bank of the Merrimack River in Haverhill, MA by his parents Dic and Roberta Pierce along with his four older siblings. It was his parent’s homemade Christmas tradition that inspired him in 2017 to create 320 Toys LLC, named after his childhood address 320 Water St. He holds an MFA in fine arts and has spent over 20 years as an award winning art director and motion graphics designer working at several TV stations in the Boston Area and related companies in the broadcast field. He lives in Andover MA, with his wife Christine and their two young daughters.
Thank you for joining us Kevin. What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
Growing up, my parents were bombarded with us five kids asking every night in December how many days were left until Christmas. In 1966 their solution was to make their own Santa Claus doll with 25 articles of clothing. Together they hand sewn the doll and all of the clothing. They would string the clothes on with clothespins across the fireplace on December 1st and each night, it was one of our turns to dress him. We could tell how many days were left by counting the clothes left on the clothesline. By Christmas Eve Santa was fully dressed and then all of us would place small fake presents that we wrapped ourselves, in his sack, sort of like a wish for what we hoped we would be getting from Santa in the morning. Throughout my life my parents always had a dream to produce the idea commercially but it just never became a reality for them. I would often casually mention the idea to friends, co-workers and people I’d meet. Nobody ever said to me “well that’s a terrible idea.” A common response was often “It’s better than that elf that I have to move every night.” A friend once asked me how I’d feel if I didn’t do it now and someone else became successful with it later on. That stuck with me. I started to realize that there is a market for this type of tradition and that nobody has thought of using Santa in this way. There really aren’t any Santa Claus toys that kids can play with and hug. Most are decorative figures that stand in a window or by the fireplace and kids are told not to touch them. I also began to realize that my daughters are going without the tradition that I grew up with. When they saw the first prototype, they just smiled and would not stop hugging him. It was just such a genuine moment of joy that I knew this was going to go somewhere. They demanded their own when I got the first ones in.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
Truthfully, I had no idea what I was getting into, but I leaned on people that I know who do. I think I have cashed in a lot of favors and gotten some great advice. I have not been shy about asking stupid questions that I don’t know the answers to. One of my friends who is an entrepreneur beat the idea into my head to not “fall in love” with the idea. It really is only about 20% of everything involved in a business.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
You have to honestly ask yourself if you can live with this idea for the long haul. Live it and breathe it and keep up the enthusiasm for it. I wake up every single day with Santa on my mind. I can see how that might drive some people mad say in June. If the answer to that is yes, then I would say that you are going to make mistakes on the business side and have days when it seems impossible. That is when the love for it kicks in and can carry you a little. This tradition was such a part of my life growing up in my family that to let it die with us just seemed like a shame.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
Sense of humor has always been key for me. Santa in his undies brings with it a certain laughable element. Most people’s reaction when first seeing him is just precious. I really love when things in life have a sense of familiarity but also have a twist that you didn’t see coming. I keep reminding myself that most people have never seen this before. I have received some amazing emails from customers expressing how much they and their kids enjoy the Santa Clothes tradition. That gives me a sense of encouragement to soldier on.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
I love the idea of creating something with the potential to end up in people’s homes across the country and elsewhere. Hopefully he will become a tradition for lots of families all over. I think that would be a hoot and what a way for my folks to sort of live on after they are gone. This crazy idea that they had in 1966 with young children now spreading to other new families 50 years later is rewarding in so many ways.
I am a pretty social and talkative person so working out of my basement with nobody else around to run ideas by and discuss my decisions with is difficult at times. All of my weaknesses get exposed pretty quickly. No one is good at everything so when every aspect of the business depends on you it can be overwhelming. Impromptu lunch dates with friends and podcasts can straighten that ship out most of the time.
I often tell myself. “Kevin, you are good at some things and not so great at others. Respect what you have gotten done thus far but please call “Joe” for advice or Google this particular sticking point before you lose your mind”
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
My entire career as a designer has been spent creating work for companies where it was just one piece of a larger picture. I didn’t have to worry about budgets, marketing strategy, payroll or anything else. When I started 320 Toys LLC, it was all staring me in the face. I had to oversee the manufacturing, marketing and design and think about every penny that is spent and earned. Starting out I didn’t have the capital to hire anyone. My experience working in marketing became invaluable. I sunk my self into all aspects of design ,from the doll and packaging to the website and all promotion materials. The financial end never came easy for me. That has been the most challenging part.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
Many times. It’s really the stress that I’ve put on my wife Chrissy and our family while I got this up and running. I’d think, “Who do you think you are? Thinking you can just break into an industry that you have no experience in?” Then I’ll read or hear another successful person say something similar and I just realize that this uncomfortable feeling is par for the course of trying something new and it really can drive you if you let it. In the end I have what I have learned in the process and that wasn’t going to happen if I sat in a cubicle all day working for someone else. Support from family and friends is so important. I don’t want to gloss over the importance of having the people in your life be supportive. Unless they are secretly hiding in a corner at a party whispering “He’s lost his mind with this Santa doll thing. When is someone going to tell him?” Hopefully that hasn’t happened…yet.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
In the beginning I didn’t want to spend a lot of money for a prototype, so I found a woman on Craigslist who was a seamstress who made dolls as a hobby. I had pretty good sketches for what I wanted but I completely underestimated the margin of error. A few weeks later I got photos of her first try and before that it never crossed my mind how creepy Santa could look until then. He more resembled an old Charles Manson than Santa Claus. Since I wasn’t looking to scare children, I asked, actually I think begged is a better term, a friend of mine in the toy business for any references of actual plush toy designers that would be willing to work with me on my prototype. Lesson learned. There are times when you just need to bite the bullet and go to a professional and pay them what it takes. We all do this in our lives, but I think I took the design stage for granted and soon learned how important it was that he look amazing.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
I generally respect people who do many things to benefit others but keep a fairly low profile. When it becomes more about the person than their contributions I get put off by that. (Which is why I am finding this exercise a little on the embarrassing side.)
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
My company is still growing so I can’t do as much as I’d like but I realize that I’m lucky to produce something that generates smiles. At Christmas time I donate a number of dolls to the Tufts Medical Center in Boston MA, where my daughter Violet was born in 2008. She was a micro preemie and spent five months there when she was born. NICU families of premature babies get to take one home when they leave the hospital.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why?
1. Don’t take everything so seriously…seriously. People will more often than not tell you exactly how they feel. Once a woman at a holiday show I was selling at looked at the doll then looked at me and said in a sarcastic tone, “Santa in his underpants? Now that’s just what the world needs.” and then walked away. You have to learn to compartmentalize that stuff. It’s also dangerous to completely ignore it. Maybe she has a point. Time will tell.
2. It will be easier and harder than you think. Sometimes something that seems like an uphill climb just comes together and sometimes the simplest thing becomes a sticking point. It was very intimidating trusting production of my product overseas where I could not see the progress day to day. The doll came out great. For the boots I sent an actual children’s shoe as a general template for them to reference. Some time passed and I hadn’t seen anything until a few weeks later the manufacturer expressed a difficulty matching the font from the famous shoe brand that was on the sole of the shoe. It seemed obvious to me that I didn’t want someone else’s brand name on the shoes.
3. Manufacturing takes longer than you think it will. As a seasonal toy, I never gave much thought to the international rush of products coming in from China for the Christmas season. Manufacturers take care of the larger manufacturers before small companies with a smaller production run. Not only does the actual production take months, the overseas shipping is often more than 40 days. To have certain delivery for Christmas I need to have everything set by March which means as soon as Christmas is over, I’m already lining up for next year.
4. No one knows your product exists unless you tell them-PR is key. As much as I believed in my product, the world was not aware of it. Asking friends and family to spread the word on social media and among co-workers and friends is so important. At first I called some personal contacts in the press. I used up my list really fast. I decided to work with a professional Media Relations/PR Firm. Sheryl Raskin from Out There Creative Media. The founder has a background in broadcast television, is highly connected and has an amazing track record with products.
5. Start simple but always keep thinking of the next step, My parents idea was a full 25 day advent style tradition. I realized very early on from a production standpoint how ambitious that was to come out of the gate with. I decided to make Santa Clothes a 12 tradition. The 2 weeks before Christmas seems to be the peak fever kids getting super excited so I opted to start simple with just the 12 days. I am looking to offer the addition clothes to expand to a 25 day tradition. This year I have solved some issues with the box that the product had last year and there are also plans to offer a sleigh to keep Santa in.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Don’t compare yourself to others today, but to who you were yesterday.”
This sentiment reminds me that everything is about growth and not just about getting to a destination. There is always someone further up the field than you and they didn’t get there by worrying about where you’re at. This became really important in the early stages of my business. It’s easy to get lost in the fog and feel like you’re not making progress, but I look back at not too long ago when I was stressing about what I was even going to call this thing, how am I ever going to get this made and does the world even need this? I have to stop now and then and look at where I am vs 2 years ago and it motivates me to push on even harder. If I just look at other popular toys and say to myself, “well I’m never going get to that level” that doesn’t produce any benefit for me.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
The filmmakers the Coen brothers. They symbolize the idea that if half the world loves what you do and the other half hates it, you’re doing something right. They have a way of shining a humorous light on some dark places. That’s a gift. I imagine sitting at a bar and not saying anything at all and I’d still be laughing for hours afterwards. Or on the contrary, it’s possible I’d be walking home in the rain, thinking that they were complete jerks. Either way, I’d be good with that.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.