So commands Squishable.com, the homesite of over-sized plush animal-balls. Founded in 2006, Squishables have exploded in popularity and grown from an initial narwhal to more than 40 designs (mallard, red panda, Cthulu, etc.), with an exuberant and involved fan-base choosing the newest additions themselves. One of the founders, Zoe Fraade, met with me to talk about their astounding/adorable success.
LD: So how did Squishables start?
ZF: The epic question. Well, it’s me and a business partner, who’s my other half, running it, and this is actually the third or fourth business we’ve started together. We worked in Thailand after a series of government jobs in 2005 and after we were passing through Hong Kong and found a manufacturer. When we got back to the states, I was working for a finance company and he was working in research and we were bored, as usually happens, and one day we were sitting in
a coffee shop trying to think what we should do about this boredom and said, ‘Remember that manufacturer we found in Hong Kong?’ And the rest is squishy history.
LD: So you started selling items from their line of toys. How did you start designing your own?
ZF: Basically, we’re nerds. We are big, fat, hairy nerds. And so the only place we could possibly think to advertise were all these web comics - Something Positive, Questionable Content. We started to become popular with all these web comic communities and a site approached us to do a custom design and led to us doing the narwhal. We realized how freakishly adorable we could make things if we wanted to. Whereupon we got rid of the rest of the stuff. I did all ten of the initial designs in the same day. Early on the trick was you get yourself really high on chocolate chip muffins – literally, just eat two or three of them – then you write until it wears off.
LD: What have been your biggest problems in the six years since you launched?
ZF: We have had growing very quickly issues, which I guess is a standard problem for a lot of startups. I think we’ve managed to sidestep a lot of the problems traditional entrepreneurs face because we were profitable from day one. We each put in two thousand dollars for our start up – we’ve never had to worry about capital. Growth has been a lot faster since we went to
wholesale about two years ago. Suddenly we kind of skyrocketed – we were like “I guess we should hire some people and start acting like we own a company instead of just coding in our pajamas on the couch with our dog.”
ZF: We outsourced anything that can be outsourced. The fact that we have this huge community backing us now, which is awesome, means we actually outsource a lot of our social networking in a weird way. All R&D is crowd-sourced, so we never have to risk launching something that people don’t want.
LD: So you have your fans and customers vote to decide the newest Squishables. What does that look like?
ZF: We actually do it two different ways. The more traditional way we’ve done it is we have a list and people can vote items up and down. Recently we’ve actually started experimenting with doing more like a playoff style kind of thing, which was incredibly successful but very intense. People were nearly coming to blows, friendships were ruined kind of thing. I’m honestly not joking.
ZF: Yeah, the last one was sugar glider versus sloth. There was blood, there was serious blood.
LD: It’s impressive how involved your fans are. Over 500,000 followers on Facebook, over 3000 on Twitter – how do you account for that?
We take our nerd-dom very seriously. If you’re thinking of people as friends instead of as fans – and I suppose this kind of carries over into the news area as well, if you think of your readers as friends you want to share things with instead of the masses you’re bestowing your wisdom upon – you’re trusting your readership more, giving them a lot more credit. I once designed a phoenix that looked like a turkey. It did not do well, and people told me so.
LD: You’re also an adjunct professor at ITP at NYU – data journalism, interactive design, etc. What lessons from Squishable would you pass on to budding entrepreneurs?
The best piece of advice I think I’ve had for people thinking about start ups, and this goes for nonprofits as well, is to go off and work for a while in corporate America first. Learn how they do things – learn how it should be done – because you can’t just rebel without knowing what you’re rebelling against. If you don’t know how it’s supposed to work, then you’re just messing around.
LD: As a fellow nerd myself, I have to ask – who’s your favorite Doctor?