Everyday Icons: The Toymakers

We sit down with two entrepreneurs who design the toys that children's dreams are made of.

Clementines, meet Audry Hill, one part of the dynamic duo who founded the start-up 


. The company, headed by Hill and her best friend Gauri Nanda, is home to the interactive children's toys that are now revolutionizing the way we think of playing with our children (and industry leaders are taking notice). We recently had the chance to sit down with one half of this dream team to talk about how she navigates a male-dominated industry and manages to squeeze in the personal aspects of life most important to her.

Toymail is a revolutionary, interactive smart toy that has the ability to connect children to essentially to everyone important in their lives. What was the inspiration for this intelligent product and design?

Toymail is basically a global Walkie Talkie. You can be anywhere in the world and use our app to send a voice message to a kid through our toys, the Mailmen. Kids can reply back right from the toy, and those replies are stored on the app, so you can access that conversation forever.

The idea for Toymail came to us as we were working on another connected toy, one that would stream bedtime stories. In the middle of prototyping that, we realized we were on to something much bigger, which was enabling users to create content for toys (and by extension, making toys become something new every single day). We tossed around so many ideas about building out this crazy content platform but eventually we honed in on messaging. For one, it was the easiest place to start and it also just hadn't been done well yet for children. What we are doing is really so simple. But the Internet of Things is still such an inchoate phenomenon - certainly this technology is not something you currently see in most everyday objects, much less in toys. That's why we wanted the form in some way to call out the function. In designing the Mailmen we had two goals, one for people to pick up this mailbox shaped toy, read "Toymail" and get that it is all about messaging. Secondly, we wanted each of the Mailmen to stand alone as a design object and a physical toy. Animal figures have a great way of straddling that fence. We sketched out hundreds before settling on the five that we eventually tooled with (and we knew when we were getting that wrong or right depending on how my own discerning tots reacted to the prototypes). The last thing we wanted to create was a bitty laptop or entry level cell phone. We wanted kids to see the Mailmen and not be able to resist putting their hands on them.

You are pioneers in a male-dominated industry; how has the reception for Toymail been from your peers?

There is no question that the toy and hardware spaces are male-dominated, but the reception has been overwhelmingly positive from our peers. It helps that Gauri is a respected product designer with a proven track record. I doubt that as a mother of three who is halfway through midwifery training I would have been taken as seriously without that lady at the helm. We do feel sort of hyper-aware of our gender is when it comes to certain things - raising venture capital, or gaining purchase on a big startup incubator, like Y Combinator. The average startup founder is a 23 year old male. That's who people are investing in. It's intimidating being in a world where you are often the only woman in the room. But ultimately, it's just something you can't think about. You need every scrap of confidence you can muster to be an entrepreneur.

You two were friends long before you started a business together.  How do your skillsets complement each other?  What are some tips for our Clementine entrepreneurs who are considering going into business with a close friend?

The thing that makes us great friends also makes us ideal business partners, and that is that we have a shared vision. There is not only significant overlap in our design sensibilities, but in how we understand the world. So together, we come up with good ideas. And really we are good at a lot of the same things. Gauri is more ambitious, to be sure. I am maybe a little better with people.

I don't know that the average close friendship could withstand the formation of a startup or small business. As founders, you are under an enormous amount of pressure because you've either invested a serious amount of your own funds to make the business happen, or you've taken someone else's money to do it and have to answer to them. You might make your own hours, but you are always on the clock because you can only go so long without a paycheck. It's hard for friends to hold each other accountable under those circumstances. So I guess the advice is, know what you are getting into. Then go into it with someone who you know is smart and will work as hard as you do. Obviously, you have to be okay with the ugliest parts of their personality, because inevitably you will see them. And you have to make sure you nurture the friendship as you do the business.

Gauri and I spend the first several minutes of every work day connecting as friends. And we feel okay doing that because we know in the end those few minutes will only grow our business. We have come up with product ideas on company jogs.  We developed our branding concept while visiting a chicken farm. The web design we spent so many painful weeks mocking up fell into place one single night when we sat down together with a bottle of mediocre wine. Some of our best work has been done while we were just hanging out because that is when we inspire each other.

Audry, you are also a mother of 3!  What do you hope your endeavor teaches your children about business and pursuing their passions? How have they responded to Toymail?

My kids saw the Mailmen start out as little sketches, then materialize into physical objects that other kids are using all over the world. If nothing else, I hope they get that the human imagination is real and powerful. I want them to appreciate the risk I took starting a business, and not be afraid to do the same one day. I also wanted them to respect my work as a designer but there is no chance of that. Sadie already told me my job isn't difficult at all because I draw animals all day and that's something kindergarteners do.

As for their response to what we've made, I can say that my kids genuinely like Toymail. They love getting messages from me, their aunt, and Gauri. And perhaps more than that, they love recording themselves saying "butt" over and over with the occasional "poopy" thrown in.

What are a few everyday items you both cannot live without?

I can safely say that if she didn't always have serrano peppers and chocolate in at least two different forms within an arm's length, Gauri would lose her will to live. Now, as for me, there isn't a single everyday item that my children would not wrest out of my hands to repurpose for their own use or otherwise destroy, so I make it a habit not to get attached to anything. The notable exceptions would be coffee as thick as sludge, large caches of pirated HBO series, and frozen blueberries (to ward off Alzheimers). I also can't go a day without calling my mother.

The mission of connection is something we can all relate to – how do think Toymail helps children stay connected to their community (vs. connected to a device)?

So many connected devices for kids isolate them behind a screen. Toymail uses technology in a way that fosters connections between families and kids. What we have built is a platform that starts with messaging, but these toys are as intelligent as the Cloud. There literally is no limit to what these toys can say. Soon, Toymail will allow you to read your kid their favorite bedtime story, take them on a virtual scavenger hunt, teach them a foreign language, or sing them songs.  Our technology animates toys in ways that we once imagined our own toys coming to life. And that experiential, open-ended play is what turns little brains into incredible machinery. The average connected device just doesn't do that; in fact, connection is counter to its aim.

Your company is relatively new--what is the best piece of advice you have received thus far?

This is the best piece of advice, whether your work is raising your kids or running your startup: When you wake up in the morning think about what is the most important thing to get done in order to feel happy by the end of the day. You have a lot of to do, and it won't all get done. So start there.

What is one piece of advice you can offer aspiring, female entrepreneurs?

Don't overanalyze your options, be decisive and take action. Sometimes you make something you think people want and it turns out they don't. You have to adapt, even if that means scrapping a shit ton of the work you have done. If you don't know how to do something, figure it out because you have to do everything for yourself to succeed in a startup (this isn't at all hard and usually just means e-mailing somebody at another startup about manufacturing or warehouses or fundraising or whatever). Don't think about how squishy you are getting spending all that time behind your computer screen, because that's the inevitable consequence of putting in enough time to make your business work. And finally, when you reach the end of your work day, do yourself a favor and don't read Paul Graham essays. Watch Portlandia instead.

Clementine Daily’s mission is simple: to help modern women embrace a sweeter everyday. How do you fit within that mission?

Gauri and I are pretty serious about making our everyday sweet. Shortly after we met in college, we decided to carve time out of each day to watch "Days of Our Lives." When renovating her Carol Gardens apartment, given the choice of either shower or tub, Gauri chose tub. We regularly take two breakfasts (one sweet, the other savory). We believe it should be mandatory for all adults to take a daily nap. We decant anything that comes in an ugly bottle, like Scope, into pretty blown-glass ones. It doesn't get sweeter (or crazier) than that.


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