- Julie Friedman started YWF after looking for sensory-play activities for her daughter.
- She sold 71,000 kits in the last three months of 2020.
- She grew her fame on Instagram before it became too much and moved to a larger production space.
Five years ago, Julie Friedman had never even heard the words sensory play. Today, she runs a business that produces and ships around 10,000 sensory-play activities every month to consumers across the country.
In the last three months of 2020, her company Young, Wild & Friedman (YWF) sold 71,000 sensory-play kits. During a typical month in 2018, Friedman said she was selling at most 200 kits, all of which were produced and packaged in her home with the help of friends.
A business inspired by her daughter
In 2016, Friedman’s eldest daughter was diagnosed with a myriad of speech disorders. So when a behavioral psychologist encouraged Friedman to incorporate sensory play into their everyday routine to aid in her daughter’s development, Friedman did what any concerned mother would do: She immersed herself in the subject — and quickly learned that it has a myriad of benefits, including helping with anxiety, speech disorders, language development, building neurological connections, and cognitive growth.
“If you give a child something to do with their hands while you’re teaching them a lesson or talking to them, they’re more likely to be able to engage, interact, and take in that information,” she said.
The first activity she introduced her daughter to was one she found on Pinterest and involved a simple tub of water with ice and a scoop. This activity was wildly different from the loud and colorful toys that never quite piqued her daughter’s interest.
“She could feel that ice, see it, watch it, feel it melt, feel the water temperature change. She just sat there on that towel and scooped and poured and played for like two hours. And it was the longest she’s ever done anything in her life,” Friedman said.
When Friedman incorporated store-bought play doughs into the activities, she found the product quality to be poor. In fact, Friedman struggled so much with the doughs that she decided to make her own version in a KitchenAid mixer.
“They would crumble up all over the place and smelled bad. You would use it one time, put it in the jar, and the next time you would get it out, it was as hard as a rock,” she said. “So I looked up homemade sensory-dough recipes, tried a couple of them, and just merged several recipes and came up with my own.”
An unintentional leap into entrepreneurship
After mastering a base recipe, Friedman took it a step further and created a baking-themed kit for her daughter with homemade strawberry, cinnamon, and chocolate sensory doughs, cupcake liners, cookie cutters, buttons, pom poms, and a rolling pin.
The DIY project was such a hit with her daughter that Friedman shared images of it on her Instagram — and to her surprise, followers asked if she would sell the kits. That’s when Friedman decided to give producing them a try, taking orders over social media.
A desire to purchase a pair of pricey Golden Goose sneakers encouraged Friedman to sell 40 kits at a trunk show. A short time later, Friedman sold 60 kits to get some work done on her home.
As demand increased, Friedman announced product launches ahead of time, all of which would sell out in under a minute, she said. That’s when she recognized she was struggling to keep up.
“At that point, people were getting mad. They were like, ‘I’ve been trying for a month to get this stupid kit and I can’t get one. You need to have a waitlist,'” she said. “And I was like, ‘Whoa, I am a stay-at-home mom making sensory dough in my kitchen.’ I was not trying to have a business.”
When reality star Kim Kardashian shared an Instagram story of her son playing with a YWF construction-themed kit, Friedman admitted she was fortunate enough that the celebrity didn’t tag her account in the post because that sort of exposure would have overwhelmed her.
With the help of a family member, Friedman created a new website, moved into a 2,000-square-foot rental house to produce the sensory dough and packages, and hired five employees. The team worked long hours, with Friedman sometimes returning to the office after putting her children to bed to keep up.
In August, YWF is moving into an 18,000-square-foot space with over 30 employees (all but one of which are women), and still produces its own sensory dough and assembles the kits in Houston, Texas. The trinkets and items included in the kits, however, are now custom-made in China.
After COVID-19 took hold, YWF’s sales increased 100% from February to March 2020. “With everyone stuck at home, the kits definitely came in clutch,” she said. “I had hundreds of messages from moms saying the kits were their saving grace during the lockdowns. It gave parents something that was engaging and fun to offer the children that didn’t involve a screen.”
Friedman said she’s taken a step back from the daily grind and is now focused on coming up with kit themes, new product launches, and running the company’s Instagram account, which has over 120,000 followers.
As for what the future holds for her young business, Friedman admitted that anything is possible. One thing’s for sure — she still needs to buy a new KitchenAid mixer after saying farewell to the one that helped launch her business: “At the beginning, I used mine and my neighbor’s KitchenAid and ended up killing the motor on both and had to buy my neighbor a new one,” she said. “I still haven’t replaced mine.”