How GoldieBlox Disrupted the Toy Aisle
By Lisa Wirthman
From a humble Kickstarter campaign just two years ago to a game-changing Super Bowl ad to a girl-powered Thanksgiving parade float, GoldieBlox founder Debbie Sterling is disrupting the pink toy aisle.
After discovering that many girls lose interest in math and science by the time they turn eight, Sterling started toy company GoldieBlox in 2012 with a mission: inspiring a new generation of female engineers. She’s off to a strong start.
A Stanford-educated engineer, Sterling grew frustrated with the lack of women in her field: only 13 percent of engineers are female, according to 2010 statistics from the National Science Foundation. So she started her toy company to introduce young girls to building and engineering concepts—as well as potential “STEM” careers (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
Girls are taking notice: GoldieBlox toys have won several awards and made their way onto the shelves of Toys ‘R’ Us, Amazon, and more than 1,000 local retailers worldwide. For her efforts, in 2014 Sterling also won the Tribeca Disruptive Innovation Award (TDIA), which celebrates innovators who break the mold to create significant impact. With her success in tackling gender stereotypes in the toy industry—and in STEM fields—Sterling offers plenty of lessons on how to disrupt the status quo.
The theory of Disruptive Innovation was first introduced by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen in 1997. The first lesson, he says, is to create simpler, cheaper, more accessible products. Sterling built her first GoldieBlox prototype by hand with spools, ribbons, wooden blocks, clay and Velcro.
She also wrote and illustrated a storybook to accompany the building set. “I came up with a really simple idea: spatial plus verbal—book series plus building set,” Sterling said in the Kickstarter video to launch GoldieBlox.
Sterling also kept her branding straightforward by picking a well-known character to represent her toy. Goldilocks was widely familiar but also undefined by the market, making it easy to adapt the character to the product’s story lines.
New Is Better Than Improved
The second lesson of disruptive innovation is introducing a new concept rather than trying to improve an old one. By breaking the mold, innovators can decimate industry leaders who focus only on making good products moderately better, according to Christensen.
From the start, Sterling pointed out that many construction toy companies—from Legos to Lincoln Logs—targeted girls by putting the same products in pink boxes. “While it’s true that girls do like pink, I think there’s a lot more to us that that,” Sterling said in her Kickstarter video.
So she focused her marketing on disrupting all things pink—a direct attack on companies relying on color-coded toys and gender stereotypes to reach girls. Sterling also tapped into a feminist backlash over Lego’s “Friends” line for girls, featuring pink construction sets with a hot tub, a beauty parlor, and an outdoor bakery rather than the adventure themes—and primary colors—offered to boys.
After winning a small-business contest for a 2013 Super Bowl ad, GoldieBlox created a commercial where girls gathered up all their pink toys and blasted them off in a rocket—built, of course, with GoldieBlox.
Focus on the Product
Consumers will adopt disruptive products, but only if they get the job done, said Christensen. Sterling spent a year researching girls’ interests before making her first prototype.
“Parents don’t want to spend $50 for something that is going to sit in the toy box,” said Adrienne Appell, an analyst with the Toy Industry Association. “At the end of the day, the kid is the critic.”
Sterling discovered that girls enjoy storytelling, so each GoldieBlox set comes with a story about Goldie, a girl inventor. Girls read along and learn to build simple machines to help Goldie overcome obstacles.
Sell to a New Market
Disruptive goods and services are marketed to non-existent markets first, typically with little profit, which Christensen calls the innovators’ dilemma.
Instead of going to a toy fair, Sterling took GoldieBlox directly to 100 girls for hands-on testing, making it instantly accessible to her target market. And when faced with industry naysayers who said her toys wouldn’t sell, Sterling launched a Kickstarter campaign to prove a market existed. She reached her goal of $150,000—enough to fund a minimum production run of 5,000 toys—in just four days.
Sterling also launched Internet videos tackling stereotypes about how girls play. GoldieBlox co-opted the Beastie Boys’ song “Girls” for a 2013 video that went viral just in time for the holiday shopping season and created an attention-grabbing dispute over song rights. GoldieBlox eventually apologized and stopped using the song. But the publicity brought a spotlight to its mission and created demand for its toys.
“The lesson learned is that anybody who has a great idea can come up with an innovative product,” said Appell.
Sterling is stirring the pot once again. This time she’s taking on Barbie with a new action-figure doll named Goldie who wears a tool belt and promotes brains over beauty. Girls can like princesses, Sterling believes, but they can also build their own castles.
Lisa Wirthman writes about business, sustainability, public policy, and women’s issues. Her work has been published in The Atlantic.com, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Fast Company, Investor’s Business Daily, the Denver Post and the Denver Journal.
This article originally appeared on Northwestern Mutual Voice on Forbes.com.