From what we cook to when we exercise to how we consume, our habits often begin forming when we are young children subconsciously observing and imitating our parents’ behaviors, good or bad. Rachael Classi, former VP of Strategy at Durham-based software company Teamworks, knew this and feared the example she was setting for her 3-year-old and 18-month-old daughters by routinely ordering plastic toys that were thrown out and replaced within a few weeks.
Classi was startled by her family’s consumption of toys, but what she discovered online startled her even more: 90% of toys are made of plastic, they are used for less than six months on average, and 80% of toys end up in landfills, incinerators, or the ocean. Clearly, the consumption behaviors of Classi and her family were indicative of a widespread societal problem.
“When I read that statistic, I got a pit in my stomach, because if you’ve looked around my house prior to a year ago, that was my house,” Classi said.
While talking with other families in her neighborhood, Classi discovered that the ubiquitous consumption of plastic toys is mostly due to the hefty price tag of high-quality alternatives, like wooden kits, which can cost upwards of $125.
Classi saw an opportunity to start an inexpensive subscription business of high-quality wooden toys while doing something good for the environment in the process.
What began as a toy exchange in Classi’s neighborhood grew to become Durham-based startup Tiny Earth Toys, the world’s first circular toy subscription business. For $49 a month, families receive a rotation of different high-quality, wooden box toy sets that are exchanged every four months.
“The first habit kids form related to consumption, other than food, is toys,” Classi said. “And if what they see is plastic, and toys constantly coming into the house and being thrown out, it’s no wonder we are raising a society of incredible consumers.”
Tiny Earth Toys are primarily marketed towards the youngest kids, because that’s where Classi noticed the most clutter builds up.
“When kids are in the age range of six months to four years, their brains and skills are changing so rapidly,” Classi said. “So giving families a way to sustainably cycle-in educational toys is critical to reducing the amount of clutter.”
Two veteran early childhood educators are on the Tiny Earth team and help with selecting the wooden toy kits, which come from a handful of wholesale manufacturers whose toy kits are Montessori-inspired and open-ended. Wooden box kits are used not only because they are higher-quality and more eco-friendly than plastic toys, but because their open-ended nature makes them more conducive to learning and skill acquisition in children.
In September, Classi gauged if there was demand for a sustainable toy subscription service by advertising a waitlist on LinkedIn. Within a week and a half, Classi said, 100 families were on the waitlist.
After piloting two different early-release products in October and November with 15 families total, Classi said now she is preparing for a much larger Q1 release of kits to serve a variety of age ranges.
“It’s been a really short run, but one where I’ve looked to the market and individuals and families to see where the interest has been, and tried to build the product around that,” Classi said.
Now, Classi’s priority is supplying enough inventory for the 150 families currently on the waitlist and making sure families using the service are having a great experience. Classi is also working on customer acquisition by increasing the company’s social media presence (their LinkedIn is already bustling with activity) and potentially partnering with influential parents in the eco-conscious realm.
Since its creation in September, Tiny Earth Toys hasn’t received a dime of funding. They haven’t needed to. While a friends-and-family round is a possibility in Q1, Classi said she will continue bootstrapping as much as she can.
“The beauty of this business and the great thing about working with direct-to-consumer products is that it’s something that can operate profitably,” she said.