A Mom Turns Child’s Play Into a Global Business

One woman’s company reimagines toys for kids worldwide.
(Photo: Courtesy Seedling; illustration: Jessica De Jesus)
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Dec 3, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Bekah Wright is a Los Angeles–based journalist who specializes in travel, entertainment, and lifestyle.

Any parent knows that kids constantly imitate the behavior they see around them. When Phoebe Hayman saw her children mimicking what she was doing, she also saw a business idea. She started assembling kits for her toddlers that brought together toys with play activities, which made them feel like they were doing the things they saw, such as gardening or sewing. Soon she began to wonder if other parents also felt that traditional toys were lacking.

Seedling products. (Photo: Courtesy Seedling)

Convincing a local New Zealand toy store to sell her kits, Hayman left several behind, promising to pick them up if they weren’t bought. Two hours later, the store called: The kits had sold out, and she was asked if she could bring more. The next few weeks were an adrenaline rush as the demand for kits escalated. In the blink of an eye, Hayman had a full-fledged business, and in 2007 Seedling made its debut.

The momentum continued. Hayman signed up 150 retail stores, national galleries, and art museums to sell Seedling toys after the company’s first gift fair. But Seedling faced a problem: It only had enough stock on hand to supply 10 stores. With family and friends pitching in, Hayman’s living room became a packing and shipping hub until 3 a.m. every morning. It was during this time that Seedling began working with UPS to manage the logistics of delivering its products around the world.

The global growth brought additional hurdles as Seedling began exporting to 20 countries and offering products in 14 languages. “[The toy industry] has the most difficult compliance regulations in the world in all of our markets,” Hayman says. Also, as hundreds of U.S. stores—including Nordstrom, Barnes & Noble, and Pottery Barn Kids—began carrying Seedling toys, she realized it was time for Seedling to strengthen its American presence. To do so, she heeded some good advice: Merge with complementary U.S.-based start-up P.S.XO, which had a foothold in the U.S. toy market. After the merger, Seedling opened its Los Angeles–based office in 2013.

Once Seedling was in the U.S., a supplier recommended that it establish an exclusive relationship with UPS. “Being new in the U.S., it was really important to prove ourselves,” Hayman says. “UPS is consistent with customers, delivering 99 percent on time, having no customer issues and no problems handling last-minute needs, giving us confidence in our shipping.” Having a dedicated UPS representative has proved invaluable for accomplishing fixes, such as rerouting packages mid-transit.

Art wall. (Photo: Courtesy Seedling)

With Seedling’s global operations running smoothly, Hayman has had time to reflect on the company’s beginnings. “If we’d just taken buyer or industry feedback on the product, it probably wouldn’t have launched,” she says. “The consumer was our ultimate test.”

Paying attention to customer feedback has been key, and so has being intuitive about what the business needs and trusting one’s instincts. “I’m a firm believer that the business will tell you what it needs next,” Hayman says. “With every big step, we simply see where the issues lie—do we need more people here, more skills there—and take that step with it.”

Hayman has seen her products in galleries and upscale department stores in Paris and New York. But for her the true thrills have come from seeing the delight on the faces of those for whom the products were designed—children. These “endorsements” are the seal of approval that Hayman values most.