I was swimming a couple of years ago when I got a vision for a revolutionary toy that would celebrate the athletic identity in girls and young women. It seemed simple at the time — a family of female athlete figurines — so I decided to go for it. After all, I worked for EOS Worldwide, where the E stands for “Entrepreneurial.” How hard could it be?
As a former rugby and softball player, I’ve experienced more bumps, bruises and concussions than I care to count. But nothing compares to the knocks I took while trying to bring this “simple” idea to market. I could easily write a book about the experience, which has ultimately been one of my most rewarding journeys. But instead, I’m going to focus on three things I learned that might help the growing number of women who are now becoming entrepreneurs.
Insight #1: Discover your “why” early.
When I was a girl, my mother desperately wanted to get me a Cabbage Patch Doll. But they were too expensive and hard to find, so she hired a seamstress to create a knock-off version that she could give me for Christmas. It was a loving gesture, and I tried really hard to like the thing, but I just didn’t. I didn’t like Barbies, either, for that matter. And as a budding athlete, I couldn’t understand why every sports-related figurine, magazine and poster featured only men. Nothing made sense.
Along the path of creating what eventually became SPORT BIGS™, I’ve known that this journey has been about making the toy that I and other girls like me never got — not because no one thought to give them to us, but because they simply didn’t exist. But it’s about more than that. As a woman athlete, I’ve felt the sting of inequity my entire life. My high school basketball team had to use a sprinkler room as a locker room and use the “bad” gym while the varsity and JV boys teams got to enjoy the nice, new facilities. Those conditions still exist today on the grassroots level. While at the top level, only 4% of sports-related media covers women’s sports, and women teams and athletes receive only 1% of sponsorship dollars. It still doesn’t make sense.
You’ll always learn new things along the way, but it’s important to know your “why” as much as possible when you begin your entrepreneurial journey. Understanding where your drive really comes from helps build resilience along the way. I knew that I wanted SPORT BIGS to celebrate and elevate the female athlete identity. Seeing it as a movement as well as a toy got me through my fair share of rough patches. Which brings me to …
Insight #2: You’ll be tempted to take your ball and go home. Don’t.
As a former softball player at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!), a celebrated starter on the USA Women’s Rugby Team and an elite Aqua Bike athlete, perseverance is in my DNA. When people say that I’ll run through brick wall, I always think Yeah, because I have to. But entrepreneurship presents a different set of challenges.
Like any Visionary, I saw the end game of my toy idea more than the details. I envisioned an amazing toy in the hands of millions of girls who would finally be able to play with something that celebrated the female athlete. Did I think about the complex differences between plush toys and figurines? About how the size of a toy affects its packaging and shelf viability? About where to source cotton and how much you need to create an exaggerated-yet-believable muscular female figure? About how to communicate with manufacturers in China, or sue a software developer in Ukraine? Um, no.
Challenges on the field are expected. You’ve seen them before. You know how to deal with them. And you know when the game ends. In entrepreneurship, the challenges can feel overwhelming and never-ending, and winning can sometimes feel almost impossible. I’m thankful that I had my athletic training, because I could have given up dozens of times. Wherever you show resilience in your life, bring that spirit to the entrepreneurship table. You’ll need it.
Insight #3: It’s “who, not how.”
In one memorable rugby game, I kicked the ball to myself, ran through the opposing line, grabbed it, scored, then kicked the extra point. I’m a team-player, but I also tend to “put the team on my back.” A huge part of my SPORT BIGS journey was learning how to temper this instinct. Because when I look back at all the times I hit a wall, I didn’t break through them by myself. I always got help from somebody else.
As Dan Sullivan says in his book Who Not How: “If you are like most people, the first thing you do when you imagine a bigger future is ask yourself: ‘How do I achieve this goal?’ A much better question is ‘Who can help me achieve this goal?’” Having now lived that advice, here’s a brief outline of the “Who’s” who have helped me:
• When I was struggling just to flesh out my concept, my brother hooked me up with his wife’s best friend’s cousin, who happened to be in the business of incubating toy ideas. Invaluable.
• When I was stumped during the design phase, that person connected me with a bodybuilder in Cincinnati who designs 3D toy figurines, who then talked me through my concept. Critical.
• When I was stuck trying to design a plush toy that no one had ever attempted before, the 3D designer hooked me up with a 2D designer/seamstress who worked out of her basement in Kansas City. Amazing.
• When I couldn’t get into the New York Toy Fair, a client told me that his wife was responsible for all the toy concepts sold at Sea World, and she got me in. Door literally opened.
• From that experience, I joined Women in Toys and signed up for their mentorship program, which led ame to a toy expert named Irene in Hong Kong, who came out of retirement just to mentor me. Game-changer.
• When I was crying like a baby in a corner of my bedroom and moaning that I was a complete failure, my wife Tracy literally and figuratively picked me up. (I can’t think about that without bawling again.)
You’re going to need lots of “Who’s” on your entrepreneurial journey. So when you get stuck, don’t try to figure out yet another way to put your team on your back. Think of who you can add to your team.
In Conclusion …
I’ve put a toy into the world that I hope will literally change the face of sports and open new opportunities for young women and girls. But in the spirit of “it’s the journey, not the destination,” it’s equally important to share the story of its creation to help future entrepreneurs — especially women entrepreneurs, who, frankly, are still forced to dress in the sprinkler room.
Is there a happy ending to my story? Yes! SPORT BIGS are now on the market, and there’s even a video of Megan Rapinoe opening one modeled on one of her best friends. Despite my aversion to Barbies growing up, I couldn’t have brought SPORT BIGS to the finish line without Mattel’s Ruth Handler Mentorship program. And the plant that wound up manufacturing my toys? The same one that did Cabbage Patch dolls when I was a kid. You can’t make it up.
Correction: Yes, you can. And you should.