From sewing patterns to monsters and sleeping aids
Six years ago, Stephanie Gerharz started a blog to give her hobby, sewing, a showcase. She developed her own sewing patterns for cuddly toys and bags and offered them to other amateur sewers. From this idea, she – together with her husband, Michael Gerharz, a presentation coach and computer scientist with a PhD – developed a professional creative think tank for the toy industry. Among their most successful products are the Twonsters (licensed to Schmidt Spiele), Furlocks (licensed to Simba Toys) and the "Schlafmützen" (or "Sleepyheads", licensed to NICI). We talked to Stephanie and Michael Gerharz about their beginnings, the stumbling blocks they encountered on their way to success and the future of their company aprilkind.
Spielwarenmesse®: From a blog to a successful start-up. Stephanie Gerharz's personal passion for sewing forms the basis of a company that today offers witty items to toy shops. It all started with the "Twonsters", which are distributed by Schmidt games. But I'm sure there's a lot more than can be said about both the founding myth and the product range?
Stephanie Gerharz: The Twonsters were the springboard into the toy industry for us. In the meantime, we have found other first-class partners in Simba, who distribute the Furlocks, and NICI, who market the "Sleepyheads", and next year, we will add Coppenrath and Spiegelburg to that list.
Michael Gerharz: How did that come about? Well, we've always done what we thought was fun. Even as a child, Steffi breathed life into many crazy and lovable creatures made from textiles and other materials. At some point, we began to show our designs on the Internet – first in our own blog in the form of tutorials and sewing patterns, later via a publisher and finally in our own online shop. However, with the predecessor of the Twonsters – the sewing instructions for "Monstazzz Moody" – we were confident that they had the potential not only to conquer the children's rooms of amateur sewers, which is why we licensed them to Schmidt Spiele.
After this initial success, we put the "Sleepyheads" and the Furlocks onto the market with the aid of NICI and Simba respectively. Both products got off to a flying start in the retail trade and were soon sold out. We had apparently hit a nerve and so we worked with our partners on a cautious but sustainable expansion of the product ranges.
When did you take the step from hobby to a company?
M.G.: We did that before we entered the toy industry, with our own eponymous 'Do-it-yourself' label. Three things made aprilkind stand out: unusual designs with a wow effect, the high design standard of our sewing instructions, and an absolute focus on customer satisfaction. At that time, we had discovered a gap in the market for easy-to-follow sewing sets, and we exploited it so that we were soon able to establish a good name for ourselves in the industry.
Was it a costly learning curve?
S.G.: Of course. After the success of the Twonsters, we started a final do-it-yourself project: "Loop" from aprilkind. This was a quick-and-easy sewing set that came with the promise that everyone could actually sew their own designer loop scarf within 30 minutes. We had a great product, one which we were proud of, and got someone to develop an elaborate advertising campaign. It's just a shame that Loop was a total flop.
We have examined the reasons for this very carefully and have learnt from it. At that time, we realized how important it was to focus on what we thought was fun and what we were really good at. Production, marketing & sales, these are things that others can do much better than we can. That's why we have concentrated more and more on our strengths: developing market-ready concepts from crazy ideas with unusual designs, a coherent story and an educational value. So the flop was ultimately a blessing for us.
How do you perceive the trade structure of the toy industry? Are toy shops open to your innovative products?
M.G.: The market is completely saturated with cuddly toys. Many of them are barely distinguishable from each other. These days, if you want to reach customers, you need to offer more than just cute figures. You need a genuine back story. And as the parents of three children, we know just how important it is for parents that their children play with high-quality educational toys. And that's precisely what we offer companies. A coherent concept with a striking back story, loving design and educational value.
Our partners as well as retailers and end users, are delighted that great products are being created beyond the major, never-changing licences.
Are there further distribution cooperations or are they being planned?
S.G.: With Simba, NICI and Schmidt Spiele, we have found three excellent partners with whom we can plan on a long-term basis and who are constantly developing the product range. But we are, of course, also working on new ideas. Next year, there will be a new aprilkind product in cooperation with Coppenrath and Spiegelburg.
We are going to expand the "Sleepyheads" range with the licensing agency glam. Very soon, there will be collectible figures, night lights and mobiles from Bullyland and fabrics from EmmiLove. Further products are in the pipeline.
Are you also planning things on an international scale?
M.G.: Our products are already being sold internationally. We are open to further cooperation deals, even in the international arena. However, we're not rushing into anything. And why should we? We're happy with our partners and are looking forward to productive and successful cooperation with them. We will enter further partnerships if and when it suits us. When we – and especially our concept – are compatible with our partner. We think this is enormously important. Only when both sides have been absolutely won over by an idea and are dying to carry it out can a good idea also become a successful product.
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