“It’s easy to see play as something kids do to fill in time or keep them entertained,” says New Zealand-born entrepreneur Phoebe Hayman, creator of the children’s activity brand Seedling...
“So often we forget that play is a child practicing and experimenting with how to structure their processes, decision-making, emotions and interactions.” As a mother of two sons, Kieran and Ashwyn, Phoebe recognised the need for a brand that offered a natural space for children (and the whole family) to create and imagine.
Whether through a design-your-own superhero cape or tutu, a colour-the-earth inflatable ball or via the Seedling app, which child doesn’t want to star in their own comic? (the brand understands the significance of technology in our little one’s lives) – it will bring happiness and ignite their creativity. But perhaps most importantly, it explores the limitless potential of their imagination.
“When a child plays, it can be with words and facial expressions, with their bodies, with their reflections, with their emotional influence,” Phoebe, who lives with her family in LA, explains. “This is all experiential and they are constantly exploring, trying different things, observing, reacting and trying again. When we (Seedling) think about designing experiences, it’s with this in mind – how many ways can they test, explore, share and observe.”
There was so much we wanted to ask Phoebe about her approach to parenting, her own childhood travelling the world, starting her own business at nine, and how to feed a child’s soul – we lost count of the questions. Let’s just say this is one story you won’t want to miss.
Words: Claire Brayford | Photography: Emma Feil | Go to www.seedling.com
Can you tell us about your childhood?
I was very fortunate to get to see a lot of the world when I was young. I was born in New Zealand but lived in Australia, California and Iowa as a child before returning to New Zealand for my high school years. I’m one of four children and my parents were always up for a challenge. When we moved back to New Zealand, we went back the long way, camping all through Europe where my mum had made us all co-ordinating travel wardrobes – amazing (it was the late 80s). Great memories, my parents never focused on what you couldn’t do and I always felt free to do what I was passionate about.
What games did you play as a child?
I was always creative and very independent. My mother was always creating opportunities for me to be creative, whether it was letting me design my own room, paint furniture, change the colour of the house, paint murals on my twin brother and sister’s walls. There would be wearable art competitions and even my birthday parties would be creative with painting your own sweater. It seemed so normal to me that I didn’t come to appreciate how creative she was until I was older.
You formed your first business when you were just nine years old...
I won a $200 gift card in a bulk food store and my mother encouraged me to think about how to use the voucher to start a small business. I bought various drinks, snacks and small toys and took them to the local baseball game to sell off the back of my red wagon. It was my first experience in wholesale pricing, costs and profits. It’s amazing how vivid my memories of many of those first experiences are still!
Can you tell us about your career path and how you came to launch Seedling?
I started out thinking that I would become a lawyer but quickly realised that I had to do something I loved (my father would tell you that I love arguing, at this point), but I realised that winning arguments meant someone else was losing something. So I did a BFA, majoring in photography but really focused on installation as an art form. My first job out of university was as a production manager for a stunning couturier who made beautiful sculptural gowns from beautiful silks, crystals and fine laces. The women I worked with were phenomenally talented having worked at Dior in Paris and I learned so much about the importance of detail, customer expectations and hard deadlines (most of the dresses were for weddings and there’s no missing the date!) I loved seeing people visually communicate how they see the world in other art forms and went on to become curator at a gallery for emerging artists. Then I became a mother and was introduced to the world of early childhood. I started to work with a local play centre on some larger projects for redesigning their play spaces and realised how little there is in the market to let kids explore with real materials and outcomes. I decided to make four mini experiences with real materials, and everything you need to do them in your own home. There was one on painting, one on gardening, one on cooking and one on outdoor exploration. These sold out and the rest is history.
What do you love most about what you do?
Learning. I love learning about new things and finding solutions to problems. I often joke that I feel like I have a completely new job each year as the company and my team need something different from me each year. My skills have had to grow with the company and luckily I love these new challenges.
What have been the key milestones since you launched?
They are different as the company grows up. When we first started, our first export order to Japan was a big deal. Then, our first export 40-foot container was a big milestone, along with the first time I saw our products in Harrods in London and Bergdorf Goodman in New York on the same trip. Moving the head office to LA was a big step and in many ways felt like the first step in building a long-term strategic company. The release of our line for Target, our new Disney line and of course Maze have been exceptionally gratifying. Seeing the vision for the company come to life through these new channels and technologies is something I relish every day. When I think of how far we’ve come, I appreciate how exceptionally talented the people I’ve been fortunate enough to work with are. Each milestone represents the team’s love, commitment and determination above everything else.
What’s life in LA like?
We live just south of LA and we love it. We’re lucky to be close to fantastic public schools, amazing beaches and great restaurants. On weekends (when we don’t have any of our boy’s sport’s commitments) you’ll find us exploring the local farmer’s market, eating at our favourite cafes and exploring one of the many beaches whether it’s Corona Del Mar (central and close to great places to eat), Crystal Cove (highly recommended, reminds me of New Zealand) or Laguna (creatively inspiring and wandering).
What has motherhood taught you?
That time is precious – it never occurred to me that it would go so fast. You have to enjoy every phase, every age and every day you get together. The kids keep growing up every day whether you’re ready or not and there’s no going back in time. It will bring you the sweetest moments of joy as they take each step towards independence while simultaneously breaking your heart that they no longer need to grip onto you in the same ways. As they get older it moves from this being a physical to emotional attachment.
How would you describe your parenting style?
I’m big on personal responsibility, believing that kids should be free to make choices for themselves right from when they are little. Sometimes my husband gets frustrated when they make ‘not great’ decisions on things like homework but I think they also have to be responsible for facing the results of the decision they have made. To me, that’s a teachable moment and they’re more likely to understand how to make the right decisions when it really matters. Then when they make great decisions, there’s something to celebrate!
Did your career change after the birth of your children?
Yes and no. I’ve always been someone who is very emotionally involved in what I do and this hasn’t changed. If I’m in, I’m all in with conviction and I really love this. But this was much more challenging with kids. Of course I’m completely and utterly dedicated to my children without any choice and I’ve never had to be so dedicated and involved with two things that I love doing. It’s been a hard balance to find (and I’m not sure that I ever find it). I love my job but I love my kids and put them above anything else so this has been something I’ve had to learn to be ok with. It’s hard to not feel like you’re missing something important, both in your career as a mom and as a CEO.
What are your top time management tips?
Make the most of the little moments, make lists and make it habitual. I take the train to work, partly because LA traffic is pretty bad but I really value that it encourages great work habits in myself. Habits are important and for someone like me that loves to be distracted, they’re essential to staying organised. I love the variety of my days but need the repetitiveness in order to get the little things in order. I also need lists and notebooks to keep my thoughts in one place. I use Evernote so that my lists are always with me. Over the course of the day, if I find a moment, I try and get something off the list or if I’ve remembered something (usually the case when walking), then I put it on the list. There’s no time like the present to get it done and off the list!
What’s the best business advice you’ve ever been given?
No matter how great your idea is, success lies in how great your execution is. It’s about true craftsmanship and the ability to go the extra mile to get it there.
What’s your personal approach to business success – do you think it’s luck, hard work? Determination?
I think it’s a mix. There’s definitely right place, right time, but a lot of people can identify what the market needs. The rest is the determination to solve the problem, regardless of how hard you think it’s going to be. Looking back, Seedling’s success has been our willingness to take one big step and break it down into multiple little steps. This is the scary moment, when you realise that the one big step, which had sounded pretty straightforward when you thought you could do it, is actually more like a marathon of little steps. At this point you need to remember that the marathon only requires you to take one small step after another and crossing the finish line is simply a matter of time as long as you keep moving forward.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
Be kind to your body and look after yourself, you only get one and it’s got to last a whole lifetime. Eat well, push hard but remember, you are not indestructible; all those knee and elbow injuries will come back to haunt you. Make the time to recover and get strong again; it’s a long game!
What’s your approach to health and wellbeing?
When I’m in a good space, it’s great. I love hot yoga, I walk the hills close to our house, I rollerskate with the boys, play some tennis with the family and these are all powerful for my mind and body. But when it gets crazy, I find it really challenging to maintain these moments as they become stolen luxuries of time. I’m working on prioritising these things more.
What does playtime look like in your household?
There seems to be a lot of singing, dancing and game playing. The boys make up their own games, for example after being inspired by synchronised swimming at the Olympics, they decided to stage their own competition in the pool. Essentially they get a theme (such as a performing seal) and the boys have to create an interpretive entrance into the pool. I then have to give them marks out of 10. With these boys, it always seems to be loud and funny. When it comes to Seedling, they love Maze and tested it early on in the process. They also love anything that launches things, like the bow and arrow or the ping-pong launcher. They’ll set up a stack of empty cans and see how many they can knock off with the bow and arrows, always a popular afternoon with friends around.
Where does your determination come from?
My parents are both unbelievably hard working people and I’m sure I inherited my ‘active relaxing’ from them. They have both been entrepreneurs and with farming backgrounds, they never shied away from getting it done, whatever it was. I’ve always been determined, even as a very young child and if I’m passionate about it then I’m prepared to give it everything I’ve got to make it happen. Like all things, it can be a strength and a weakness.
What has been the most challenging part of motherhood?
It’s the moments when you realise you’re powerless. My first child was diagnosed with anaphylactic food allergies to dairy and milk when he was around six months old. Realising that something as benign as a Sunday morning brunch could take my child away as quickly as we created him was devastating to discover. This lack of control was very hard to process and it’s hard not to go to the extreme of controlling everything possible in his life, but who would this help? The balance between being a conscientious mother trying to protect her son from everything that other people consider ‘good for you’ but still letting him be a normal messy, friendly and happy toddler was tough to walk. He’s now grown out of being anaphylactic and still has a small reaction such as skin reactions but it’s no longer life-threatening. Food allergies are one example but I think all parents hit this scary moment at some point when you realise you can’t protect them from everything (even though you’d do anything to make it so you could). The love is ethereal, powerful and challenging all at the same time.
What did your own mother teach you about life and motherhood?
To see the potential of transformation in all things. She is a master at creative solutions and always embraced seeing the potential in something – whether it’s a house with old veneer panelling walls, an old barn, an abandoned garden or an empty plot of land. She taught me that I always had the power to transform something the question was just how much you were willing to put into it. It really is a magical way to see the world and is likely the source of my optimistic outlook.
What’s in store for the brand for the year ahead?
It’s a full circle moment where we’re working on a range of product for pre-schoolers – it’s so much fun. I love this age group and our team is developing ways to bring traditional play patterns to life. We love to reflect the balance in a family life within our company so will continue to develop ways to integrate technology into play patterns but in a way in which you choose when and how you want to engage. We have a unique platform as product designers and we strongly believe in the importance of play in childhood so this is an area where you can expect to hear more from us. We see ourselves as a parents support role when it comes to raising creative kids and we’ll be out there raising awareness for the lifetime virtues of creative play.
Phoebe’s little list of loves:
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth (didn’t expect to like it, but ended up being very thought provoking).
Din Tai Fung – our favourite dumpling house.
Family skate night at the local rink.
Sidecar – the most amazing donuts EVER.
Kiehl’s Crème de Corps body butter – a family favourite even with the boys.
Yosemite – hike the waterfalls, they’re amazing!
A blank canvas (literally).