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Seattle mom hopes new toy-rental startup will change how you find toys for your kids

Seattle mom hopes new toy-rental startup will change how you find toys for your kids

Savitha Swaminathan Toy-Yo
Savitha Swaminathan, the founder of Toy-Yo, and her 2-year-old daughter, Indie, playing with some of the company’s rentable toys. (Kurt Schlosser Photo / GeekWire)

Like most things that are well made and won’t kill you if you chew on them, quality toys can be expensive. Any parent who has looked longingly in the shop windows of boutique toy stores has surely seen dollar signs blurring the view of intriguing train sets, puzzles and musical instruments.

Savitha Swaminathan, a Seattle mom with a background in microbiology and marketing, thinks she’s found an answer for parents who want to give their kids the best toys to play with — without going bankrupt along the way.

Swaminathan is the founder of Toy-Yo, a new startup that acts as a toy library and allows members to rent toys for a monthly fee. It’s an idea that Swaminathan had been working on for about six months before she soft-launched her site in August. Toy-Yo is now live all over the country and serves all 50 states, thanks to distribution efforts out of Seattle and New Jersey.

Seattle-based Toy-Yo rents quality toys from a variety of manufacturers. (Toy-Yo Photo)

“Initially when we launched the intention was to keep it local and kind of test the process on the whole workflow locally and kind of get smart from that, make some tweaks and then go more widespread,” Swaminathan said. “But we kind of generated some interest from some parent groups and word kind of spread and we started getting people signing up from other parts of the country and we obviously did not want to say no to anybody.”

Swaminathan’s small company includes herself, co-founder Rupa Gurumurthy on the East Coast and two engineers in Seattle. Her husband, Sharath Udupa, is a principal engineering manager at Microsoft and he keeps an eye on what the engineers are up to.

Rupa Gurumurthy Toy-Yo
Toy-Yo co-founder Rupa Gurumurthy, who is based in New Jersey. (Toy-Yo Photo)

The 35-year-old Swaminathan previously worked as a microbiologist. With an MBA from the University of Washington, she decided to move into marketing, working at Seattle-based PATH in the commercialization space of health technologies.

After she had her daughter, Indie, two years ago, she went back to PATH for a couple months, but decided her life and focus had changed.

With an eye toward trying something “new and exciting” — and with a toy-testing subject now living in her home — Swaminathan said Toy-Yo fit the bill.

“It was an opportune time to go back and scratch that itch that I’ve always had,” Swaminathan said. “I definitely saw a need for it. My scientific research background sort of guides me when I’ve searched for toys for my daughter. I’m very particular about the quality of toys: What is the material that is used? What are some of the health hazards of these toxic materials that tend to make their way into children’s toys?”

Born out of the personal need of wanting to entertain her daughter, while also keeping her safe, Swaminathan’s concept for Toy-Yo is also rooted in trying to curb expenses.

“Trying to keep up and buy these quality, well-made toys that use superior materials and have been well-designed and well-crafted — they’re a bit on the expensive side,” Swaminathan said. “I think any product that’s made with a conscience is pricey.”

So she finally asked, “Why can’t I rent these toys from a trustworthy place just like I rent books?”

The subscription on Toy-Yo is $ 19.99 a month, and on average, every toy on the site costs about $ 30 or more. Users can rent two toys at a time, for a minimum 3-week time period, so at any time they’re holding toys valued at about $ 60 or more.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that there is value, and I’m very very particular about this,” Swaminathan said, stressing that toys of lower retail value are grouped together to guarantee that users are always getting more toy bang for their monthly subscription buck.

Toy-Yo is not alone in the toy rental business. Other players include Seattle-based Rent the Toychest and Santa Clara, Calif.-based Pley, which focuses on educational toys for $ 12.99 per month. Pley’s investors include Disney, Floodgate and others, with the company pulling in $ 6.75 million in 2014.

A screen shot of the Toy-Yo website where users can browse and select various toys to check out. (Toy-Yo)

Toy-Yo offerings are geared toward littler kids in the 6-12 months, toddler and preschool range. Swaminathan said that the toys on her site are so well crafted that they’re very sturdy. Parents may recognize some of the brands — Brio, Haba, Janod, Plan Toys and so on.

“The manufacturers themselves pitch them as ‘toys that will last a generation,’” Swaminathan said. “They’re so well made that in four months of operation I have not seen any damage as yet — and that may change in the future. I’m definitely in the process of learning how many times a toy can remain in circulation. Obviously that will be a very important metric for me.”

A bigger issue, in Swaminathan’s mind, is potential loss of toy parts. She spends a great deal of time thinking about the issue and how tracking parts on the user side and the company side relates to the ease of service and the value it provides.

“The more pieces they have they tend to be more interesting because there’s a lot more to do, especially for kids who are in the preschool age,” Swaminathan said. “It’s not just putting a stacking ring together, it’s a little bit more complex.”

She said she’s the best product tester as the mother of a 2-year-old and she doesn’t want there to be any level of stress involved for parents in collecting pieces and returning toys — “If you’re creating stress in the home then you’re losing value.” So an information sheet that goes out with each toy talks about how the toy is made, where is it made, what materials are used, what the developmental value the toy provides, and finally, a checklist of parts.

“As we grow and as volume grows it’s going to be very critical that we streamline this process of accounting for the pieces and saying, ‘Yes, this can go back into circulation,’” Swaminathan said.

Parents who have trouble prying a favorite toy out of the hands of their tot also have the option of buying it from Toy-Yo. The price is reflected by how long it’s been in circulation.

As she gets her bootstrapped company up and running, Swaminathan is starting to attract a little bit of attention from niche toy manufacturers and retailers thanks to her social media postings (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram). The possibility of partnerships in a supply/business sense could open up down the line.

When she first started, Swaminathan had one copy of each toy. But she quickly learned that some toys are very popular and she’s adjusted to take on multiple copies of those — such as the Hape coffee maker and toaster set.

Everything seems to come back to her science training, as Swaminathan said she’s always watched her daughter play with toys with an eye toward collecting data.

“I completely blame that on my research background,” she said. “I don’t think I ever look at a product and think, ‘Oh, that looks nice.’ It’s always several levels of more detailed questioning. I don’t think that’s necessarily changed because of her, per se. I think that’s more of a function of my training as a researcher.”

And while she’s dealing in playthings now for a living, don’t be mistaken. Swaminathan regards her startup as very much a technology company.

“On the front end it’s a very sort of ‘mom business,’” Swaminathan said. “But on the backend it’s very technical.”

Startups – GeekWire http://www.geekwire.com/2016/seattle-mom-hopes-new-toy-rental-startup-will-change-find-toys-kids/

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