When Vancouver residents Kelly Oriard and Callie Christensen took their Slumberkins educational children’s brand onto the ABC business pitch show “Shark Tank” in late 2017, they were seeking a $175,000 investment to expand their manufacturing operation.
The “Sharks” decided not to invest, but the co-CEOs vowed to keep growing the company organically, with an emphasis on direct-to-consumer sales. A year later, they’re showing no signs of slowing down.
At the time the “Shark Tank” episode aired, the Slumberkins brand was around 18 months old and had a staff of seven, working out of a small space in the back of a commercial garage on Fifth Street in downtown Vancouver.
The staff has since grown to 11, and in May the company moved into a new 2,000-square-foot office on Washington Street. Then in July, the Jim Henson Company — best known for the Muppets — announced that it would produce an educational children’s series based around the Slumberkins characters.
The company made more than $550,000 in sales in 2017, and Christensen and Oriard say they were on track to grow that number by more than 100 percent in 2018. They’re also dealing with much larger investment numbers than they were back on “Shark Tank.” A November public filing with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission shows the company recently secured a $476,000 investment.
Despite the rapid growth, Oriard and Christensen say that 90 percent of the company’s sales are still direct-to-consumer, and they’re in no hurry to change that. Many of the customers find the online store through social media, and Christensen says she and Oriard enjoy being able to use the Slumberkins Facebook group to connect directly with their customers.
“Millennials and Gen-Z moms and shoppers are really resonating with authentic brands,” Christensen says. “We’re moms, and we’re navigating this parenthood struggle with our community, side by side.”
Oriard and Christensen have been friends since high school, and Christensen describes the origin of Slumberkins as a “complete side-hustle experiment” that they began making together while they were both on maternity leave in 2016. They learned how to sew and began selling their cuddly creations at craft fairs and through the online marketplace site Etsy, then later through their own website.
Drawing on their professional backgrounds in education and family therapy, they teamed up with illustrator Theresa Thompson to create a series of board books to bundle with the dolls.
Each animal has its own book that focuses on a specific emotional skill — Sloth is all about relaxation, Bigfoot focuses on self-esteem and Unicorn models authenticity — and the books include interactive portions with the goal of giving parents something to read with their children to help them build those skills.
Most of the plush dolls retail for $36, plus $9.99 for the books or $42 for book-and-animal pairs.
Christensen attributes the success of Slumberkins to the product launching in the right time and place — the books and dolls give parents a useful tool at a time when she says more parents are trying to take the lead in their children’s emotional development.
“We really aligned on the importance of social and emotional skill building in youth,” she says.
Oriard and Christensen were both newcomers to the business world, having previously built careers as educators; Christensen worked for Evergreen Public Schools and Oriard worked at Portland Public Schools. But their “side hustle” grew quickly, and by late 2017 they realized that the company had become a full-time occupation. They quit their jobs shortly before their “Shark Tank” appearance.
The expansion has come with plenty of challenges, including inventory management as production increased. As recently as November, Christensen says, they found themselves with a completely sold-out inventory due to higher-than-projected demand for the board books on Black Friday weekend.
The original roster of Sloth, Bigfoot, Yeti and Fox has now grown to nine animals, each with their own emotional skill. Oriard and Christensen say they typically start the design process by discussing a new emotional skill that they want to promote, and the appropriate animal usually becomes clear.
One of the upcoming animals will be developed in partnership with the Portland-based Dougy Center to address the issues of grief and loss, Christensen says, which have been one of the frequent requests from parents who bought other Slumberkins.
“We do have some huge things coming in the pipeline,” Oriard says. “(For) 2019, we’re targeting over 100 percent growth again. We’re ready to take that on.”
Jumping to TV
Although Oriard and Christensen say they have plenty ideas for more creatures, they’re going to try to keep the lineup capped at around 12 so that they can focus their attention on the growing business, including one of the biggest new aspects: the TV production deal with the Jim Henson Co.
“We’re scheduled to start pitching in January and February to networks,” Oriard says, likely targeting online services such as Netflix. “It’s a surreal moment, to be FaceTiming with the Henson people.”
The Henson Co. has been working on creating test puppets and animations for the future show, and in the meantime Oriard and Christensen have been working to create a “bible” for the series — a 30-page master document that the writers will be able to use to keep the backgrounds of the characters and world consistent.
That means Christensen and Oriard have had to go back to their creations and develop fleshed-out histories in backstories for each one, going far beyond what appears in the original books, setting the stage for new and more varied stories.
The expansion of the company’s media presence inevitably means that Oriard and Christensen have to rely on others to help with the development. The dolls and illustrations have to become fully animated characters with their own voices and stories. But the creators say they’ve been happy with the Henson partnership, and they’ve been able to rely on the company’s expertise without feeling like they’re losing any control over their creations.
“It’s really important who you partner with when you branch out,” Oriard says. “We’ve had a big part in the process of creating the look and feel. It was very easy to fill in the blanks for them.”
The TV show will represent a major step forward for Slumberkins, but the creators say they have equally ambitious plans for the dolls and books, and want to see the brand become a household name.
When asked about their biggest goal, Oriard doesn’t hesitate.
“Slumberkins on Ice,” she says.