Welcome to The Quality Makers, an interview series highlighting pioneers in the direct-to-consumer space. Join us as we get an inside look at the world of digital shopping through the eyes of the individuals shaping it…
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When I first read about KiwiCo, a subscription box created to “celebrate kids’ natural creativity and curiosity, while helping parents who want to bring enriching experiences to their children,” I was immediately intrigued. As parents, we’re always looking for fun, educational activities and, let’s be honest, the idea of someone taking the work out of it is always appealing.
With science, art and innovation at its epicenter, KiwiCo offers subscription crates for babies and kids from 0-12+ years old and has a storefront full of one-off kits and educational toys. And here’s the best part: it’s all totally custom to your child’s interest and skills. Does your little one love cooking? This Science of Cooking: Mini Cakes kit ($34.95) would be a perfect birthday gift. Budding gardener? Check out the Plant Bundle pack ($28.82) and watch them grow their very own snap peas. Tiny musician? Homemade Wind Chimes ($27.95) are a great place to start. Super into dinosaurs? Why not try the Paleontologist Starter kit ($29.95)? I could go on and on, but you get the point. This brand is awesome, and we were stoked to sit down with founder Sandra Oh Lin to hear more.
I’d love to start by learning a bit more about your background. What inspired you to create KiwiCo?
Sandra: I grew up making and experimenting – especially with my mom, who had an uncanny ability to make something out of seemingly nothing. I’m also an engineer by training. So I knew that when I became a mom, encouraging hands-on creativity and learning was something that I wanted to do with my kids as well. I wanted them to build their creative confidence and problem solving skills.
But as a busy parent (like we all are!), I found it hard to find the time to organize and create fun, hands-on projects for my kids as often as I would have liked. When my kids had playdates, I would put together art projects and experiments for them to do, and many of their parents encouraged me to channel my creativity and engineering background into a business – so the idea for KiwiCo was born! My professional background in consumer products and technology/ecommerce (from Procter & Gamble to eBay) helped bring KiwiCo to life.
That’s exactly what drew me to KiwiCo – I wanted activities but didn’t have time to curate them. When did you know it was time to really lean in on starting your own brand? Can you describe the experience of launching KiwiCo?
Sandra: There’s a temptation when starting a brand to want to do so many things at once. For us, we wanted to be really clear in our goals and directives – we knew that we wanted to create fun and enriching experiences for kids through moments of discovery, and to make it easier and more convenient for parents to have access to those experiences. So, we leaned into launching a monthly subscription service that would introduce kids to science and art concepts in a fun way, and would come right to their doorsteps. Over time, we’ve grown the KiwiCo subscription boxes to now nine different lines that let kids learn about STEAM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Art, Math) through a variety of lenses and interests – geography and travel, food and cooking, arts and crafts, engineering and building, electronics and chemistry, and more.
You’re a true direct to consumer brand (which we love, btw!). What about this space excites you?
Sandra: One of my favorite things about working in the DTC space is how we get to build relationships directly with the parents and kids who order from KiwiCo. We learn what they like and what we could create to continue to meet their needs, and we’ve made a lot of business decisions along the way based on that feedback. We also love being able to experiment with different ways to deliver enriching experiences – subscription is a big part of that, as well as our ready-to-play goods that can be purchased one-off, KiwiCo Press books, our KiwiCo Shop in Mountain View, CA, and community initiatives like Camp KiwiCo, a virtual summer camp that we launched during the pandemic.
You mentioned building relationships and learning directly from your customers. How would you describe KiwiCo’s community? How do you think about engaging with them?
Sandra: In addition to communicating directly with our customers on a regular basis, we engage with them in a variety of other ways, too. We share enriching ideas for families across social media channels like Instagram and YouTube – a fun example is the Marble Run Challenge that we launched during the pandemic where we challenged families around the world to create their own marble run with things around the home and share those videos with us. During the pandemic, we also launched Camp KiwiCo, a virtual learning camp paired with KiwiCo experiences. More recently, we launched our first store in Mountain View, where kids and their parents can explore KiwiCo in real life, which has been a really fantastic experience. We also engage our customers in our product development, including bringing kids in each week to test out the newest KiwiCo experiences we’re dreaming up in the workshop!
Umm, we definitely have to come check out the shop in person! Shopping aside, let’s talk more about your products. We always like to ask, what does “quality” mean to you?
Sandra: Since KiwiCo launched in 2011, our team has developed over 2,000 hands-on projects for kids – all of which have to be profoundly enriching and seriously fun. We go through several rounds of ideation, prototyping and testing (including with our kid testers!), to make sure that every KiwiCo product meets those standards. And our products are not just products, but experiences for kids and families. We expect those experiences to provide quality time together – making, creating, learning. We also ensure that KiwiCo’s projects are made from the highest-quality non-toxic materials – like beechwood and water-based paints and finishes – and are always free of BPA, phthalates and lead. We also include magazines and guides with each KiwiCo crate so kids and parents can learn all the versatile ways to play with KiwiCo projects, so they can get the absolute most from the experience.
All of this feels so important, especially with the amount of plastic toys on the market today – we’ve noticed brands these days are being much more thoughtful about the materials they’re using. Speaking of, we’d love to hear about any trends in the ecommerce space you’re following.
Sandra: I enjoy following how brands leverage content and commerce to build a richer offering for their community and to introduce their brand to new audiences. Recently, it’s been interesting to see how brands leverage new channels, like TikTok and YouTube Shorts for awareness, engagement and entertainment.
OK, as you look to the future, what dreams and goals do you have for KiwiCo as you continue to grow?
Sandra: We have so many! Our highest level vision is to inspire the next generation of innovators, and we see so many ways to do that. In the past year, we’ve expanded KiwiCo’s offerings to now not only include our subscription lines, but a variety of ready-to-play offerings for one-off purchase as well – like Baking and Fractions, our Professions Kits that help kids explore what it’s like to be a veterinarian, marine biologist, paleontologist, and more, the Froggie Dissection Lab plushie, and many more. We’re also increasingly partnering with schools and learning groups across the country to bring learning concepts to life. We’re also hoping to expand distribution this year – we launched our first store this year, and would love to partner with more retailers in the future to get KiwiCo experiences into kids’ hands the world over.
OMG the Froggie Dissection!! I would have absolutely loved that as a kid…definitely giving ‘Operation’ Game Vibes. The next question is going to be a tough transition so let’s just do it. I’m dying to know – what are your five most-used products right now?
- Big Truck hats: As a family, we’re outdoors quite a bit – whether it’s playing at the playground, hiking, or watching a sporting event - and the shade of a good hat is much appreciated. Our entire family of 5 has at least one Big Truck hat.
- Maya Brenner initial necklaces: I was gifted this necklace from my sister, and I love it. At one point, it broke, and it was incredibly easy to have it fixed, which made me appreciate the brand and company even more. I’ve now given these as gifts to my friends.
- Aquaphor: in all shapes and sizes. We were first introduced to Aquaphor when my teens were babies to help with their dry skin. Now, we all use it for our dry skin especially in the colder months. My daughter and I are always carrying a little tube for lips with us throughout the year.
- Kiwi Crate: My older two kids who are now teens enjoyed this subscription for years. Now my kindergartner is starting this subscription, and it’s been so fun to see his delight and excitement in getting his crate in the mail and making cool, fun discoveries every month.
- Trader Joe’s Apple Blossoms: When we want a little treat in a couple of minutes, we snag these out of the freezer and pop them in the microwave. They are so good and so fast to “cook.”
I don’t know about you, but after this, I’m feeling inspired to sit down with my kids and work on a project together. First up, some Colorful Chemistry…