On a recent flight home, I spent over an hour browsing a children’s play website, completely enamored by sets like Design Your Own Superhero Cape and Invent Your Own Insects. After sharing Seedling with everyone I know, despite few of my friends having children, I wondered why the brand struck a such a meaningful chord with me.
This week I had the pleasure of speaking with Phoebe Hayman, Seedling’s Co-founder and CEO. Our conversation quickly revealed why I was contemplating purchasing my own kit. Nearly a decade in, the Los Angeles and New Zealand based company prides itself on being a catalyst for uninhibited play rather a toy distributor. Seedling is about empowering children to create moments, not things. In today’s featured interview, Phoebe discusses how the team’s goal to raise mini-entrepreneurs shapes the company’s dynamic culture.
Phoebe defines Seedling’s mini-entrepreneurs as children who are “able to make decisions, live with the risk, learn from the outcome, and move on to the next project." She applies the assertion to her team by equipping the now 70 individuals with the creative freedom to uncover, suggest, and test new ideas. “We aim to design the company in the way the kids see the world,” Phoebe says. “They are excited about the possibilities.”
In the same way that kids want to be trusted, Seedling empowers team members with a blank slate to chart their own path. “We believe that your idea is better than ours. We’re simply giving you the tools you need to make it a super cool experience. We respect that you can make decisions and want to see where your ideas go. It’s about process over outcome," she continued.
Autonomy to make on the ground decisions is the most effective way for your team members to understand how the consequences of their actions influence the organization as a whole. The questions Seedling utilizes to stimulate the process are similar to the ones they consider for their kids. For example, when designing a superhero cape they ask children: What is your character like? What does your superhero stand for? Once they make the cape, they’re prompted to a comic book studio where they can create a comic strip for their hero. Seedling puts kids in the driver’s seat acting as a “supporting mechanism” that operates in the background. “We want them to develop a character beyond the product,” Phoebe says. “It’s really important that they make something that is useful and shareable. It’s up to you how involved you want to be to keep the story going, and how far you want to take it.” The alignment with the company’s product team is palpable; Especially when it comes to iteration, improvement, and relevancy.
We see ourselves as a play company and everyone can play. There is a child in all of us.
Phoebe’s assertions lend to the critical recognition that our society doesn’t place adequate value on uninhibited creativity. An artist herself, she views art as a never ending problem-solving exercise that constantly challenges her thinking. Questions about refining colors, shapes, and deciding when a piece is finished, translate into the challenges she faces as a founder. Similar to a product feature or an update, everything can be improved.
The most successful artists solve problems.
At Seedling, Phoebe is adamant about releasing products, gathering feedback, and iterating accordingly. “The great thing about business, as opposed to art, is that your customer will tell you. Our brand is defined by our community. That’s as complicated as it gets. It’s a nice straightforward success element.”
Every time the team gets it right, the leaders actively acknowledge the milestone. The recognition ensues in a combination of customer stories and team celebrations. Amongst their favorites comes from a young girl in Japan who saves a dinner set she created with her uncle who has since passed. “It’s powerful and exciting to see our products touch people’s lives in such meaningful ways,” Phoebe says. “The magical moments are when you’re watching kids in their moment of pride, and you can feel that they’re empowered and excited to show you what they made. Even the parents are amazed by what their child can produce when given complete freedom.”
Phoebe studied installation art in college and relies on the personal obsession to inform Seedling’s office design. “As an entrepreneur, I’m solving the problem of how to be creative in society," she says. "I apply that to the inside of our company." Seedling arranges spaces that match team members in a way that makes it simple to collaborate and share ideas. In particular, they aim to pair individuals who have different skill sets and can drive each other to uncover new solutions. The process is evolutionary and requires a keen eye and participation from the management team.
Tangible practices to achieve this are conducting one-on-one meetings with your team members where can you ask if they feel heard, what their goals are, and how the organization can best support them. This provides you with a constant pulse of how individuals are feeling and performing in the company; Enabling you to interject when needed. The most important aspect, according to Phoebe, is becoming “more intuitive over time.” The most telling way to cultivate the muscle is to ask as many questions as you can.
“As a leader, there are a lot of things to overcome when you’re learning about people. It’s like any relationship. You have to learn how to ask questions where people tell you the truth; What they really think, not what they think you want to hear,” she affirms. To maximize transparency, Seedling hosts anonymous discussions where team members can submit questions to be answered and discussed. “We have to know what everyone really thinks so we can understand how to improve the brand and develop the product," she affirms. "Maintaining effective communication and shared knowledge is the only way to be a high-performing team."
The challenges of hyper-growth influence every individual on your team. While over-communication is always wise, it’s equally important to master the balance of sharing the right amount of information versus belaboring your team with unnecessary stress. According to Phoebe, transparency changes at every stage of the company. It is especially challenging at Seedling as team members are deeply passionate about the mission. “When you love something you want the best for it. It makes every decision a little more painful in terms of getting it right. Everyone has something on the line," she reflects. "The caring is important to me. At the same time, I don’t want the team to feel that pressure constantly.” The key is to avoid sharing for the sake of sharing and solely impart knowledge that is necessary to reach your desired outcome. This creates an environment where team members are individually set up for success and capable of thinking creatively and constructively about tasks they can control. Phoebe revisits this responsibility daily by asking herself these questions:
- Does this person have what they need to succeed?
- Are we asking them the right questions?
- What is a true and accurate expectation that we can have around this project?
She uncovers the knowledge during her one-on-one’s where she encourages team members to set the expectations for their conversation. “I want team members to set the expectation for me rather than me assuming it for them. It’s about what they want to drive and where they want to drive it.”
While Seedling is firmly rooted in their goals and values, the company leaves room for unexpected opportunities. A recent example is their partnership with Target, which makes Seedling kits accessible to children around the country. “There are situations when you are on track working towards a goal, then an opportunity like Target comes along. You can’t say no to that,” Phoebe asserts. “I do all of our final interviews, and I always tell people: Your biggest stress is going to come from too much opportunity and prioritizing what needs to happen tomorrow.”
This is particularly pertinent for Seedling as their customers “always want the product yesterday," Phoebe says. "The pressure is very tangible. It makes us want to do more, move faster, and improve things as much as possible." The team makes it a habit to step back, evaluate a new and promising opportunity, and align their expectations with it. They’re currently having these conversations around their upcoming collection with Disney, which will create products that empower children to interject themselves into their favorite stories. Instead of embodying characters from classics like The Little Mermaid and The Jungle Book the goal is for kids to create their own identities.
The true essence of Seedling is to make yourself the story.
Seedling’s collaboration with Disney is a massive milestone for the brand. The connected way they’re approaching it, “weaving it through kids own experiences,” is demonstrative of both the company’s founding mission and current goals. “Seedling is a new company every year,” Phoebe says. “We are here for the change we want to see happen around children’s free time, what it means to be creative, and how we value creative thought.”
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