GoldieBlox’s Debbie Sterling on the Importance of Asking for Help

Carla Turchetti by Carla Turchetti on April 29, 2013
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Entrepreneur Debbie Sterling (pictured) says the secret to her startup’s success is that she didn’t try to go it alone.

“When I was first starting out, I had this big ‘aha’ idea, and I didn’t want to tell anyone about it, because I didn’t want anyone to steal my idea,” Sterling says. “I spent a lot of time working on it by myself, and it was isolating and not fun.”

Her big idea was to create a toy that would nurture a love of engineering in girls. Sterling, 29, is a Stanford-educated engineer who was dismayed by how few women she saw in her field and she was certain there way a way to get more girls interested.

“It became all I could think about. I was working a full-time job, and I just didn’t want to be there anymore,” Sterling says.

She quit her job in December 2011 with a self-imposed one-year deadline to get something going. Within two weeks she had a concrete plan for GoldieBlox, a construction toy and book series based on a female character named Goldie whose stories encourage girls to solve problems by building things, and her new company was born.

She immersed herself in developing GoldieBlox, which she wanted to be far more than just another toy for boys turned pink. Soon she decided it was time to share her big idea.

“In order to make it a reality, I couldn’t do it alone. I had to switch my behavior and get together with my smart and creative friends. [I had to] find mentors and put myself out there in a way that was the opposite of what I was doing,” Sterling says. “That’s when everything started ramping up.”

Asking for Help

Sterling reached out to many people, including the creators of Pictionary and Cranium, to create a wide circle of mentors and advisers. “If you only find one [mentor], they are just going to tell you what they did and that may or may not make sense for you,” she explains. “I’ve gone out and talked to a lot of people, and it enabled me to marry their opinions.”

In September 2012, backed by her life savings and a GoldieBlox prototype, Sterling launched a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise capital. In one month, she attracted 5,500 backers and raised nearly $286,000 — more than $100,000 over her goal.

“It really did kick-start everything, and it was the perfect fit for my company,” Sterling says. “I think it’s a really good platform if you are trying to sell physical goods that someone can buy. I also think it’s a good platform if you’re not relying on it to fund your entire business.”

Moving Forward

Sterling says everything is moving forward very quickly now. “I have been working on GoldieBlox full-time for over a year now,” Sterling says. “It’s really exciting, and every day there is a new challenge. I have learned a lot in a short time.”

One year ago Sterling was asking groups of children to test out the original prototype she put together out of wooden pieces. With funding in hand she was able to work with an industrial designer and a factory in China to take the concept from wood to molded plastic.

The company has grown from Sterling as its only full-timer to a staff of four plus six additional contractors to handle everything from product development to distribution. She says she plans to hire more people as she works to put GoldieBlox on every little girl’s holiday wish list.

“Our short-term goal is getting ready for the holiday season,” Sterling says. “It’s about production and ordering enough inventory and making sure we have the capital to fund what we want to do this year.”

GoldieBlox began shipping in February to Kickstarter backers and stores across the United States and in Canada, and Sterling and her team are working to increase its availability. “Things are moving so quickly, it’s really unchartered [territory] for me,” Sterling says.

Sterling aims to change the way girls think about engineering. Ironically, this engineer had to quit her job  — and share her dream out loud — to make GoldieBlox a reality. “I became so passionate about it, it was what I had to do,” she says. “I didn’t have any choice.”

Carla Turchetti

Carla Turchetti is a veteran broadcast, print and digital journalist who is passionate about small businesses and the stories behind them. Carla is a small-business columnist at the News & Observer, the regional daily newspaper in Raleigh, North Carolina.

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