By Laurie O’Neill
Kara Dyer was on a quest–to find toys for her toddler that would foster a love of reading and creative play. She and her daughter would take walks to a toy store in Cambridge, where the family lived at the time. “We’d look at everything, and it was such fun to see things through her eyes,” Dyer said.
When she couldn’t find the kind of toy she sought, that would preserve wholesome, screen-free playtime, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-educated mechanical engineer began thinking about designing them herself.
Dyer asked an artist friend, Sara Argue, then a new Rhode Island School of Design graduate, to join her in the design process. “She is so talented,” Dyer said. “It has been an amazing collaboration.”
Dyer envisioned a three-dimensional playset that would bring a classic fairytale to life. The pair worked for six months to create the first toy, holding long brainstorming sessions, with Argue sketching and Dyer turning each image into a model on her computer.
When their first playset, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, took shape, the moment was “magical,” Dyer said. They had built a forest treehouse, complete with the bears’ chairs, beds, and bowls of porridge. There was even a working swing.
Dyer spent three more months figuring out packaging, safety testing, manufacturing and more.
With almost $35,000 raised from a 2013 Kickstarter campaign and while seven months pregnant with her son, Dyer introduced Storytime Toys at a specialty toy trade show in Nashville, selling $25,000 worth of playsets.
Reviews have been positive from the start. Dyer’s favorite one is from the mother of an autistic child who wrote that when she gave her son a Three Little Pigs playset, it was the first time she was able to play with him. Teachers say they have used the playsets in their classrooms to aid with literacy learning.
The playset pieces, which fit together like a puzzle and fold flat in a carrying case, are intended for children three and older. The set includes the story, which is softened a bit to be appropriate for younger children.
The company also produces 3-D Play Puzzles. Storytime Toys are sold at online stores including Maisonnette, Nordstrom, and Amazon, and on the company’s website, and can be found at Henry Bear’s Park toy stores in the area. Dyer has appeared on QVC several times, via Zoom, which was “great fun,” she said.
Armed with an MBA from MIT’s Sloan School of Management to learn the business end of designing a product, she handled all of Storytime’s orders and the packing, labeling, and returns. Now, she outsources those tasks, working with another engineer, a second artist, a global sales manager and a bookkeeper.
With a warehouse in New Jersey, Dyer’s Concord home is “design central,” she said, with her creativity taking flight in a tiny, bright studio that was once a backyard garden shed. She and her husband, a mechanical engineer who builds medical devices, enjoy raising their nine- and 13-year-old children in such “a wonderful town.”
“It’s hard to take time off when you run a small business,” said Dyer, but she loves working from home because she can pick up her children from school, drive them to activities and squeeze in visits to the gym.
“I try very hard to be present with my kids and with my husband when they’re home,” she said. “Honestly, I think that makes me a better product designer, because I always return to my work refreshed.”