Even if you don’t believe in fairies, you have to be impressed by the magic dust that’s been sprinkled on Cassie Slane and Ami Van Dine.
From the mouths of babes — their daughters during a playdate at age 6 — came the idea for Dreamland Fairy House kits. These little wooden structures that kids paint themselves and place by their bed aim to lure fairies at night while the youngsters sleep. The happy dreams that the sprites capture are flown to their home to share with their enchanted, but dream-starved, families as the companion storybook charmingly relates.
Four years later, there are still just two named employees on the books at the Dreamland Fairy business in Lower Merion — Slane and Van Dine — plus a shared support crew that moves the merchandise out of a nearby warehouse.
Yet, they’ve managed to sell “tens of thousands” of fairy houses through independent toy stores and Amazon, as well as expanding the line with a plush doll, decorative sparkle powder, glow sticks, and a more boy-friendly Tooth Fairy Fort.
On Saturday — which just happens to be International Fairy Day — the duo will be setting up their booth at the indie American Specialty Toy Retailing Association Marketplace conference at the Convention Center. That’s where Slane and Van Dine will be launching their latest play set, Mermaid Grotto, already a finalist for ASTRA’s 2017 Best Toys for Kids Award.
“Legends of fairies go back to medieval times,” said Slane recently. “They are such mystical creatures that have so much imagination around them. They are the subjects of many stories and songs. And for toy-makers you can do so much with them. There’s a long tradition — first born in Ireland — of outdoor fairy houses and fairy house ‘doors’ that people hammer to trees. But those things come pre-painted. When we did our due diligence, we didn’t find anyone else making a small, indoor fairy house that kids could decorate on their own. So, by luck and circumstance, we’ve managed to carve out a special niche.”
The duo’s unbridled drive, artistic bent, and personality have played a big part in their success, said Michael Rinzler, copresident and founding partner of Bristol-based Wicked Cool Toys, the master toy licensee for the likes of Pokemon, Teddy Ruxpin, and Cabbage Patch Kids.
When Slane first visited Rinzler for start-up advice, he was “immediately impressed by her very energetic personality and entrepreneurial spirit,” characteristics Slane had honed as a host on QVC who asked the product-inventing guests “a lot of questions.” Subsequent meetups with Van Dine likewise persuaded Rinzler to serve as an unpaid mentor.
“They’ve very genuine people,” Rinzler said. “They’re moms, which in this business is meaningful. They’re savvy and capable in their aspects of the business. Ami is a talented designer as well as a licensed speech-language pathologist working with children. And Cassie, you can knock her down 10 times and she gets up and figures out what to do. She has that drive.”
Most “mompreneurs” don’t leap into business until their 40s, when kids are in school, but these two got a head start in their late 30s — with a lot of support from their spouses and kids. “Between us, we have a built-in test-market audience of five girls,” said Van Dine. “My youngest of three daughters was just 2 when we started. We couldn’t resist trying things out on them.”
Still, starting up and steering a toy business is “nothing like you’d imagine from the movie Big,” said Slane with an edgy laugh. “We’re not playing with toys all day.”
Even with a crash course from Rinzler — and exposure in Wicked Cool Toys’ showroom at the American International Toy Fair — it took more than a year for the duo to connect with product designers and a storybook illustrator, to make prototypes, find a manufacturer, score their first order from the Learning Express chain, and receive their initial run of 1,000 pieces. The first toy-maker they worked with — in woodworking-focused Ningbo, China — “took advantage of us because we were new,” said Slane. “Luckily, we then connected with a second company, which makes a better craft wood house [fully assembled with hinged doors and roof flap] and charges a fairer price.”
Although retailers beg for a new line addition every few months, it’s the logistical nightmares that the two dread the most.
“It’s getting your products tested and approved for safety,” said Slane. “It’s working with freight forwarders to get your container of 5,000 to 10,000 units bonded and on the ship. It’s hoping your landed product doesn’t get flagged for inspection and sent to a third-party warehouse that you have to pay for until the customs inspector gets around to checking it out. Meanwhile, it’s the fourth quarter and stores are crying, ‘Where’s the merchandise?’ That’s the hardest part of the business. Lots of things are out of your control.”