Sometimes I feel like I have three children. Of course Hudson is 3 and Brooks is 1, and then I have NeighborSchools, which is still very much a startup, and an all-hands-on-deck round-the-clock commitment. I guess you could say we’re still in the newborn phase. People ask me all the time how I juggle startup life and being a mom, and for me the key is to combine the two as much as possible. Sometimes that means Hudson comes to the office – particularly helpful when we were unpacking and setting up desks – and sometimes that means shifting meetings so I can go for a walk with Brooks on the first day of spring. Being a mom and a founder aren’t just jobs to me, they are me, and this is what I want to be doing right now. Needless to say, I felt some strong parallels in sitting down with Callie and Kelly to discuss the birth and early years of their startup, Slumberkins.
Watch + Listen to the whole conversation:
You can’t remove “mom” from the founding story of Slumberkins. Best friends and behavioral-health experts Callie and Kelly were on maternity leave at the same time, and spent a lot of those early months together, leaning on each other for all the support that new moms need. And then during all those long walks and nap times, they had an idea. What if they created characters and stories to teach social-emotional skills to young children? With a tiny bit of seed money and childcare help from Kelly’s parents, the two started sewing, and Slumberkins was born. What started as a passion project has blossomed into a full-blown world of educational wonder, with sales and success surpassing their wildest dreams, and a big-time TV series currently in production.
How did you two meet?
We have been best friends since we were fourteen. We met in high school. We were the tall girls that met at the volleyball tryouts that became instant best friends since we were so much bigger than everybody at school. We went through life’s up and downs together. We both went into different fields within education with a focus in children’s mental health and wellness.
Callie: We both ended up being pregnant around the same time and ended up on a maternity leave together. Kelly’s son happened to be quite colicky, which was really difficult. I would go over there and we’d get out of the house and take the boys on walks. We leaned on each other as friends during maternity leave. I had been through the ropes with my first.
Kelly: I needed that as a new mom. My son wouldn’t stop crying. I remember her showing me how to swaddle him. She said- Oh, he’s just tired and swaddled him. I wondered, how do you even know that? Nobody told me about that before. Then, of course, he magically went to sleep.
And how did you start Slumberkins?
We were both working in the worlds of mental health and behavioral health in schools and were really passionate about it. Then we came home and looked at our own children and realized that parents are really the most important teachers in their children’s lives. They are their child’s teacher for emotional wellness. We wanted to provide a tool that would empower parents before their kids get to the schools to plant the seeds of emotional well-being. Kelly is a therapist and she also happens to be a natural born poet. She ended up trying to just write a couple of storylines and create creatures to go with them. At the time we were just two moms and educators that had this idea.
We didn’t know how to start a business. We actually were really broke because we were on unpaid maternity leaves. We borrowed $200 from Kelly’s mom and ended up just trying our hand at sewing. I remember we went to Kelly’s parents’ house so that they would hold our babies all day while we sewed. We were all over the place, but it was this really fun, passionate thing that we were doing together and having fun with the kids. It became an adventure to drive around to all the fabric stores, pick out fabric, go back to Kelly’s parents’ house. We tried our hand at our very first craft fair back in November 2015. Bigfoot sold out at the craft fair. We just took the money and bought more fabric and kept on sewing. That’s really how Slumberkins started. It was truly a mom-made side hustle.
What’s next for the business? What do you envision for the future?
In the early days of sewing Slumberkins and dreaming up these characters with their different storylines that teach different emotional skills, we always knew the power of story and characters in reaching kids. And so we’re now in a co-production with the Jim Henson company to bring the characters to life in a preschool television series based on the characters. We’re executive producers on the show, which is so exciting. Kelly’s really involved in writing the scripts to make sure the therapeutic messages come through which is just so exciting. That should be like public-facing sometime early 2022.
How does Slumberkins feel particularly relevant in our current context?
Back to the very beginning, we were looking at our own children and seeing the world that they were going to inherit and seeing what was happening in the schools and how parents were feeling. It is an anxious world out there. There is an overflow of information. I think we all see now- even with the pandemic- emotional wellness and mental health are so vitally important. A lot of work needs to be done in helping parents understand how to best address those things in the context of the family relationship and their relationship with their children. As a brand we hope to empower kids to show up as their authentic selves in a world that is going to be ever-changing and very look very different than the one that we grew up in. We all we all want better for our kids and we want them to be prepared for that.
Co-founder & COO
Bridget is mom to two little boys, Hudson and Brooks, and a champion of working moms everywhere. NeighborSchools itself was borne out of Bridget’s challenge to find high-quality yet affordable child care, and the realization that so many parents struggle with these same issues every day.