New Orleans entrepreneur Melissa Beese launched her toy company Little Pnuts with an eye on a trifecta of millennial trends: sustainable products, hands-on parenting based on developmental milestones, and subscription services.
No batteries are needed for Beese’s hand-picked baby boxes, which arrive quarterly at your doorstep filled with eco-friendly, developmentally- and age-appropriate toys.
It all started, as so many good ideas do, when life threw her a curve. Beese had moved with her husband, Stefan, to New Orleans from California in 2009, figuring she would continue a career in advertising. Her first son, Tristan, sidelined that by arriving four months early – and weighing only 24 ounces. Suddenly, life was all about developmental milestones and parenting skills.
“I stayed home for two years,” says Beese. “And though I’d been told I couldn’t have any more kids, my second son was born three years later.”
It was after the new baby came, says Beese, that subscriptions for baby products began popping up on the market.
“I subscribed to one that offered ‘cutting-edge’ baby products, and thought, ‘I can get all of that at the grocery store.’”
An idea was born.
“For me, it’s all about toys,” says Beese. “Toys are the basis for developmental growth and future learning and success.”
And so many modern toys, Beese feels, are doing a poor job of it.
“We’re teaching our kids instant gratification. So many toys are not stimulating the brain in a way that teaches processing. We’re taking away the power of learning through play. And we’re seeing a rise in things like illiteracy, ADHD and the like.”
Beese took an entrepreneurial leap into the industry two years ago, when her sister-in-law told her about a major annual toy fair in Germany. “She said, why don’t you go?”
So, with little more than a concept, a cool wooden business card and $5,000 to invest in the new business, Beese headed to Germany. She returned with 34 toy manufacturers on board, ready to send her their products for home delivery.
“I did the website myself, and launched the company on social media.” When a leading online children’s editor touted the company, Little P’Nuts took off.
Subscribers to Little Pnuts pay $240 annually for four boxes of toys, curated carefully by Beese. They arrive quarterly, and are based on age, from birth to 6. Gender and season also figure in.
“With our summer toys, we try to encourage kids to get out and play. Fall is more back to school, with colors and alphabet and cooperative play items that support academics. Holiday boxes are geared toward family time.
Boxes are divided into three-month developmental stages. The first box, therefore, for birth to 3 months old, might focus on strengthening eye muscles with bright objects to focus on, while the 3- to 6-month box concentrates on grasping things. Other boxes might trend toward crawlers or toddlers.
“I’m constantly assessing toys and testing new ones,” Beese says. ”You’re getting our expertise and research. It’s like having a personal buyer.”
Hers is not a discount service – each $60 box has $60 worth of toys. But most are not items you’ll find on local – or even national – shelves. Her brands, like “go-to’ company Haba, are chosen for durability and design, and often meet a stricter European testing standard.
“It’s all about quality,” Beese explains. “Especially in a world with lead in paint and toys that break and paint that chips. There are a lot of bad choices out there. For me, it was hard to find the quality of toys that I wanted. Things that had no formaldehyde in the glue or puzzle pieces that won’t disintegrate in the mouth.”
Little Pnuts has found a receptive audience – “this generation researches everything,” says Beese. Her customers span the globe, with boxes going to addresses in the U.S., Canada, South Africa, New Zealand, Israel, Europe and, for some reason, “a ton of Australians.”
The Little Pnuts boxes are assembled locally. Until recently, when orders grew too numerous, Beese had them assembled by Lighthouse for the Blind. The boxes themselves, printing and the like are done locally.
“Giving back to New Orleans is important,” says Beese, who has reached out to local entrepreneurial resources like The Idea Village. “I want to keep the economics here – New Orleans is one of the most loyal cities in the world. In L.A., it’s all about doing things for yourself. Here we’re all in it together.”
So far, Little Pnuts has a healthy 60 percent renewal rate and has grown 150 percent in the past year.
The company has just introduced a new line of $30 travel boxes, for use on land, sea or air, “instead of just handing your child an iPad.” Each is designed to fit comfortably on a lap or airline tray and is filled with games and craft activities geared to specific ages.
Despite her success, Beese is keeping the company a one-woman operation. She responds personally to customers, and manages daily tweets and facebook posts.
“If I love something and I’m passionate about it, I can make things happen,” she says with a laugh. “I just jump in.”