20-Somethings Who Still Play with Toys

This article is part of PolicyMic's young entrepreneur series, in which we interview 20-somethings who are running their own businesses and pursuing innovation in today's economy.

PolicyMic (PM): Tell us about Green Town Toys. What does it mean to be an “eco-friendly toy?” Can you give us a couple examples of your best selling products?

Jake Brereton (JB): Green Town Toys (GTT) designs and manufactures two lines of eco-friendly corrugated play structures that inspire imagination, creativity, and fun in children ages 2-8. We offer products that are affordable, durable, customizable, and 100% recyclable. In addition, GTT has designed a supply chain that, from start to finish, uses only American-made products and resources. This allows us to not only support the American economy and the American worker, but also ensure that each product in our line is manufactured from only the highest quality materials that are safe for our customers and their children.

We say that our products are eco-friendly because their overall impact on our environment is minimal, especially when compared to our many plastic competitors. On the front end, GTT are manufactured solely from corrugated fiberboard that contains up to 42% recycled content and furthermore has received certification from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative — an initiative that promotes and enforces proper forest management among loggers and other paper suppliers. As a result, we can ensure that the forests from which our paper originates are being replanted and managed responsibly. On the backend, the fact that our toys are made using a substance that is 100% biodegradable means that they can be recycled in full and, ultimately, no waste is left behind once they’re disposed of. This process is further made possible by our sole use of adhesives and inks that are water-based, thus 100% recyclable as well. The ultimate goal is to create a product that children absolutely love that won’t harm the environment in any way, and I’d say we’ve achieved that!

Our two best selling items are our Citadel and Tot Pod. The Citadel is a fortress that, when fully assembled, is about five feet wide and five feet deep. It’s large enough for three or four kids to play in at once, which makes it ideal for classrooms, birthday parties, etc. In addition, it was designed to completely collapse for easy storage, which allows even those with limited space to enjoy it. We just released a Citadel in white and it’s been an enormous success. Kids love coloring it, customizing it, and making it their own. Our Tot Pod is a very clever octagon table and chair set with chairs that have been designed to slide completely under the table to save space. The table is perfect for doing homework, enjoying snacks, or just about anything else for which children choose to use it. And the chairs for the Tot Pod can easily hold up to 250 lbs., which means they’ll last forever. In fact I keep some of them in my office for when I have visitors…

PM: What has been the most rewarding aspect of your work with GTT and what have been some of the greatest challenges you’ve faced as a small business owner?

JB: I think what has been most rewarding has been the sheer thrill and excitement of building a brand from the ground up; starting from scratch, knowing that the odds are stacked against you, and seeing every day as both an enormous challenge and an opportunity waiting to happen. In the beginning stages of any company, even the smallest decisions can and will have a huge impact on the course of the project, but more often than not you cannot afford to spend a long time deliberating on any one decision simply because time is in short supply. So you make decisions every day, and if you discover you’ve made the wrong decision at any point, you have to correct as you go. But when you finally do get it right and things fall in to place, it’s indescribably rewarding and it fuels the fire and provides you with the necessary confidence to keep moving forward undeterred. The whole process is really a thrill and I feel most fortunate to have had such an amazing experience at age 23.

I would say the biggest challenge is simply selling our product in a market that is already flooded with competitors making a host of similar products. I think, if you asked the majority of individuals what they believed is the toughest challenge for any startup, they would tell you securing funding, leveraging the necessary resources to get the project off the ground, or providing a product or service for which people are willing to pay. And all of these factors are undoubtedly vital and should not be overlooked. However, what I’ve learned through my experience with GTT is that even if you are well funded, surrounded by a great team, and have developed a unique product, the bottom line is that you must find interested buyers willing to open their wallets. At the end of the day, people choosing to purchase (or not purchase) your product is the only thing that will produce healthy cash flow and determine the success of your business. That said, convincing people to spend money on your product, especially if they’ve been buying from someone else previously, can be an absolutely brutal process; a process that requires you to jump through lots of hoops and at times simply play the waiting game, which is something I am not particularly good at. Early on I adopted the “if you build it, they will come” mentality and have since learned the hard way that even a well designed, unique product like ours won’t sell itself. And that was an enormous challenge to overcome, both for me as well as the company.

PM: What prompted you to take on such a large project by yourself? Did economic conditions push you into this, or do you have a naturally enterprising spirit?

JB: It was a combination of factors. I have always had an enterprising spirit (my grandmother and I went into business selling things on eBay when I was in middle school and the rest is history…) and upon my graduation I had planned to do some marketing work for another startup. That job fell through at the last minute so I reached out to several DePauw alums, one of whom offered me an opportunity to work on this project. Several weeks later I found myself designing corrugated children’s products and helping to build greentowntoys.com.

PM: What is the biggest factor inhibiting your expansion? What policies could President Obama pursue that would make it easier for you to take on new workers and generate jobs?

JB: By far the biggest factor inhibiting our expansion is simply a lack of dependable retail outlets. GTT has found a great niche market in small children’s boutiques nationwide, and we’ve had a great deal of success selling to a handful of these shops. However, the vast majority of these stores and boutiques are small, often family-owned operations; business for these stores has been and continues to be painfully slow. As a result, many of these small business owners are spending their money conservatively and only on items they’ve purchased previously and know they can move off their shelves. While this tactic makes sense in a stagnant economy, it has also been extremely difficult to convince stores to spend money on a new brand like GTT. Purchasing new products is always a financial risk, but in 2011 it’s even more risky, especially for small businesses who are feeling the direct impact of the recession. A few months ago, I watched one of the boutiques we were selling to go out of business due to the slow economy. It was really sad, and had a direct impact on the expansion of our business.

In regards to our President and his policies, there is a very clear connection between what is happening in Washington and how these decisions affect the slow economy and dismal consumer confidence numbers we’re seeing month after month. The bottom line is that our economy will not begin to grow until consumers begin consuming again. And between rising commodity prices, skyrocketing gasoline prices, a $14 trillion debt, a housing market in continual decline, and hyperinflation knocking at the door, it’s no wonder individuals nationwide are spending far less of their discretionary income on items that aren’t absolutely necessary for their survival. This lack of spending directly impacts small business owners and companies like GTT.

If the Obama administration is interested in bolstering consumer confidence, and directly and positively impacting GTT and our ability to generate jobs, they should do the following: Stop borrowing $188 million an hour from China and running up the largest debt of any country in history, immediately end the second round of quantitative easing and abandon any discussion of a third round of such disastrous spending, freeze all discretionary government spending at 2004 levels, and eliminate the capital gains tax. Enacting these policies would send a message to consumers that our government is actually serious about turning our economy around.

At the moment, our country is hanging off a financial cliff and when consumers look around they don’t see one positive signal that we’re moving back to safety any time soon. A recent CNBC poll found that 61% of Americans don’t believe they’ll return to their pre-recession lifestyles until the spring of 2014, if ever. In this sort of economic climate, it’s no wonder that our retail outlets are hesitant to buy, and subsequently, no surprise to me that my business isn’t picking up to the point where I will need to hire new employees.

PM: How do you see the market for socially responsible products developing in the future? Will “green” become a selling point for companies?

JB: Over the next few years, you’re going to see an increasing amount of companies move towards more sustainable business practices and products. That’s been a prominent trend over the past five years and I think it will only continue in the next decade. A recent global study by Havas Worldwide found that 86% of people believe that businesses should stand for more than just profit. That’s an enormously powerful statement about the future of business.

I also believe that for many companies becoming a more socially responsible entity only serves to enhance their image, broaden their appeal, and separate themselves from their competitors. In the end any company needs to make profit to stay in business, and I am in no way suggesting that any company not set out to do so. But if companies increasingly find ways to make healthy profit while also doing so in a socially responsible way that doesn’t harm the planet, then it’s really a win-win situation. And I think you’ll see a whole host of companies, large and small, begin to re-visit their business models over the next few years and re-brand themselves as organizations that are interested in, as Lauren Bush recently said: Not only doing well in business, but doing good in business.

Companies like Patagonia, Whole Foods, Burt’s Bees, and Barley & Birch are already paving the way for socially responsible business practices, and doing so in a very successful manner. My belief is that we’ll see this trend continue.

PM: What’s next for you after GTT? Can you give us a sneak peek into your next business venture?

JB: While I unfortunately cannot say with any certainty what my future will hold in regards to future business ventures, I do know that I intend to stay in the world of entrepreneurship. It’s exciting and rewarding to be integral in the growth of something from the ground level and I look forward to the challenge of doing it again, whether it be on my own or as a part of another company. I’ll certainly keep you posted!

Photo Credit: Jake Brereton