Catering to discerning kids has grown into a business worth $4m-$5m a year

When Hollywood actress Jessica Alba showed pictures on social media of her daughter's favourite doll, she name-checked Seedling, the Kiwi firm behind the DIY doll kit.

It's the kind of publicity Seedling founder Phoebe Hayman never dreamed of when she created her first toy kits in 2006.

Hayman, 34, was a playcentre mum keen on taking the philosophy of free play and open learning to children in their home environment.

She found a toy market full of plastic pretend toys or poor-quality craft kits with contents that didn't live up to the image on the front of the box.


Starting out with just four kits - a flower seed growing kit, acrylic paint set, biscuit baking set and an outdoor explorer kit - she took them to a local market and sold the lot.

There was a similar response from a nearby toyshop. Everything was sold in one day.

"Which said to me that definitely parents were wanting the same thing that I was thinking which was: why can't we give these kids real things, why are we trying to give them constantly pretend and then wondering why they're disappointed, frustrated with the results."

The company has doubled in size every year in the six years since and now produces several hundred different kit styles from its East Tamaki base, 75 per cent of which head to stores overseas.

Seedling's stockists include Harrods, Selfridges and John Lewis in Britain, and the MoMA store, Neiman Marcus and Anthropologie in America.

Hayman says the secret to their success has been people seeing the product and instantly "getting it".

"It's not something we have to explain or do the hard sell on."

She even enjoys the luxury of being paid in New Zealand dollars. "We have some great trading terms, which our banks absolutely love, and people are prepared to pay that because they want the product so badly."


Although the components for the kits are a mix of products sourced here and overseas, the design and assembly is all done by about 30 staff in Auckland.

That not only gives Hayman the flexibility to do small test runs of new products - something that would be too costly if manufacturing was done in China - it also means a sharp eye can be kept on quality.

"For us, we're a brand story. We're not a single-product, one-trick pony. For us it's really about making sure that quality and the innovation is the story that people are getting when they buy the product."

Seedling has its own retail stores online and physically in Remuera, deals directly with New Zealand and Australian stockists and has distributors taking the product further afield.

Hayman fields lots of inquiries from overseas distributors but experience has taught her to ensure potential partners are up to the job before signing on. "Passion is great but we need infrastructure."

Knowledge, know-how and strong connections to key retailers tick the criteria Hayman has set for distributors. "There has never been a harder time to enter the wholesale/retail market than through the GFC," she says.

"Retail stores are struggling enough, they don't want to deal with new distributors, they're not interested in trying to establish new relationships. We need to go out and do the work to make sure our product is accessible to them in a way that they are already comfortable with."

With turnover now between $4 million and $5 million, Hayman is preparing to grow Seedling into a global brand.

"We're no longer just going to let markets grow themselves."

Australia, where Seedling is stocked in about 800 stores, has been an indication of how well the brand can perform when the company deals directly with the market, says Hayman.

In America the toy market is worth $21 billion, with arts and crafts taking a $1 billion slice of that.

"We don't see any true market leaders that are able to say they are the Lego or the Barbie of those markets."