By Scott Kraus The Morning Call (Allentown, Pa.)
Lisa Glover admits that this year, she's a little late for Christmas.
The 24-year-old creator of KitRex, a craft toy that enables kids to create colorful three-dimensional cardboard dinosaurs, is working hard to turn her 2014 Kickstarter crowdfunding smash -- which raised more than $140,000 online -- into a sustainable business.
This week, she took her first major step in that direction, shipping her latest creation, a googly-eyed pterodactyl with a 3-foot wingspan, to Amazon.com, for sale on its website.
"There's a chance that, in the future, I might have to take on a part- or full-time job to keep my life going, but I would still do KitRex on the side," she said. "I know I can turn KitRex into something amazing -- it might just take a little longer than I'd like, but I'll do what I have to."
Glover's dream is to make KitRex big enough that one day she can focus on design, and leave day-to-day operations to someone else, but her journey illustrates how difficult it is to turn even a great idea into a money-maker.
She's swimming upstream. Sales of craft toys are down significantly this year, perhaps as children gravitate toward more high-tech diversions, said Maclain Eardley, manager and buyer for Pittsburgh-based S.W. Randall Toyes and Giftes.
It helps that KitRex is unique, he said, but Glover will have to work hard to cut through a crowded product segment and rise above the noise. She'll probably want to become a trade show regular. Even then, about half the toys that make it that far never catch on, he said.
"People like to think the toy industry is all friendly and helpful, but it is very intense and cutthroat," Eardley said.
A fine arts and architecture major as an undergraduate at Lehigh University, Glover freely admits marketing isn't her specialty, but she's working on it with the help of a team of advisers that includes Anthony Durante, program manager at Allentown's Bridgeworks Enterprise Center business incubator, where Glover has a small office.
"Lisa is incredibly creative," he said. "Watching her developing the dino kits beyond the first two has been fun. I am amazed how quickly she can design them and start producing prototypes -- sometimes within just a few days."
It's that creative side of the business she loves, designing new dinosaurs on her computer and testing the designs on a laser cutter. For now, though, she's doing it all: including overseeing manufacturing, shipping and packaging. In February, she's heading to the New York International Toy Fair, hosted by the Toy Industry Association at the Jacob Javits Convention Center, to drum up business.
Mastering the less-creative side of the business is Glover's biggest challenge.
Like many first-time entrepreneurs, Glover, of Bethlehem, is still making the transition from student to business owner, said Brian Slocumb, a member of her KitRex board of advisers and managing director of design labs in Lehigh University's Integrated Product Development program.
As a student, she had to do everything herself, he said. If she wants to take KitRex to the next level and make it profitable, she's going to have to lean more on experts than she has. Durante said he's working with her to identify someone who could take on some of the operations and sales and marketing tasks.
"You should be in a room designing these things," Slocumb said he has told Glover. "You should let someone else be out there selling them."
A year ago, as a student, Glover was busy filling the last of a surprising 5,500 orders for her first dinosaur kit, a prototype that when its pieces are folded just so, creates a 3-foot cardboard velociraptor.
That original, developed by Glover as part of a homework assignment in Lehigh's technical entrepreneurship graduate program, was a viral smash on the crowdfunding website Kickstarter, which allows startup companies to post new products, and ask supporters for the funding needed to get them off the ground.
It brought in $110,829 from fans, more than 10 times her goal.
That was a wake-up call. KitRex could be more than a class project.
"It honestly wasn't until that first Kickstarter of mine hit over $100,000 that I thought OK, maybe this is really something," she said, sitting in her office at Bridgeworks, watched over by a small herd of the colorful dinosaurs she designs.
The campaign provided what entrepreneurship experts call "proof of concept," a concrete demonstration that there is demand for a product, and that it works. But it's only the first step in taking a product to market, not a sustainable business model.
The quiet, soft-spoken Glover was as surprised as anyone. Since then, she's gone all-in, hoping to make KitRex as well-known as Lego in the toy industry. Casually dressed for her interview in a hooded sweatshirt and jeans, Glover is modest, almost to a fault.
She blushes a little when she pulls out a picture of a 6-foot-tall version of her raptor standing on the lawn of the White House. She was invited there this summer as part of a "maker fair" sponsored by the Office of Science and Technology Policy.
Her road hasn't been easy. Glover's second Kickstarter campaign, for the pterodactyl, exceeded its $10,000 goal, but it didn't match the numbers generated by her debut campaign for the raptor kits, bringing in $30,678 in orders and funding.
Expanding the kits to Amazon.com is a big step. They're available online only through Glover's own KitRex.com website and at the Moravian Book Shop in Bethlehem. She's sold about 300 through her website, where they retail for $20.
That's not enough to live on. Glover rents an apartment at Hatch House in Bethlehem, a Lehigh University-related residence for entrepreneurs, and has borrowed money from a friend to cover student loans. She bought her first car, after relying for years on her bike to get around. She keeps her monthly food budget to $100 and only spends $30 on fun.
She's also leaning on her savings, painstakingly built over time since she got her first job helping clean offices at age 10. "I've always lived very simply, so it doesn't feel like I'm sacrificing," she said.
She's learned some valuable lessons too, repeatedly refining KitRex to make it is easier to assemble, trimming the instructions to two pages, and simplifying the packaging to make it easier to ship and more earth-friendly. She's a perfectionist.
Expanding her product line -- a must to attract the interest of retailers according to her advisers -- carries a cost. Each new dinosaur requires a $3,000 die to cut the intricate lines that allow flat sheets of cardboard to be transformed into three-dimensional creatures.
Those product improvements and another year of experience have brought KitRex to a crossroads, said Karen Campbell, a business consultant and former global strategic marketing manager for Air Products who is now entrepreneur in residence at Bridgeworks and one of Glover's advisers. Next year will be critical.
"What I really love about Lisa is she has passion and belief in what she is doing and her product. She is truly excited about the dinosaur, the craft kits and the manner in which you create and play with the dinosaurs," Campbell said.
That passion can be traced back to a book about origami -- still filed among technical manuals in her office -- that she got from her dad 16 years ago.
It was not long after that, sitting in the back of her family's minivan, that the 8-year-old Glover had her first "Aha" design moment. She was fuming at her inability to master the final fold to create an origami water bomb she wanted to lob at her cousins, until Eureka!
Her cousins would learn to rue that moment, but for Glover it was just the kind of confidence-boosting experience she hopes KitRex gives its young users: a glimpse of their own creative powers, the ability to turn a flat, two-dimensional piece of cardboard into a colorful, three-dimensional, googly-eyed friend.