DIY Dollhouse

A toy that gives kids room to create.

January/February 2013

Reading time min

DIY Dollhouse

At age 8, Alice Brooks asked her father for a Barbie for Christmas. She unwrapped a mini-saw instead.

Now a mechanical engineer, Brooks, MS '12, is one half of the start-up Maykah. Her co-founder Bettina Chen, MS '12, shares similar childhood experiences involving dreaming, dolls and design, which led to the pair's first commercial product: a do-it-yourself dollhouse kit dubbed Roominate.

At Maykah's original headquarters in Palo Alto, flamingo-pink taffeta twirled around ergonomic black chairs beside desks covered with craft supplies: colored paper, markers, pipe cleaners, stickers, glue guns. Using these materials, kids can decorate the modular, shoebox-sized rooms however they desire. Each Roominate kit includes four dry-erase wall/floor panels with connectors; 24 furniture-building components to create six unique shapes; and a battery pack, motor and switch for electrified elements such as lights or a fan.

Brooks met Chen, a Seattle native who studied electrical engineering at Cal Tech, during their first week of grad school. The pair frequently found themselves lamenting the dwindling number of women in their engineering classes. They decided to apply together to veteran high-tech entrepreneur Steve Blank's winter quarter Lean LaunchPad class. Their goal was to create a toy to provide the kind of hands-on, right-brain play that would inspire the next generation of engineers and entrepreneurs.

RoominatePhoto Collage: Courtesy Roominate

 With a foam core and popsicle stick prototype and a customer development analysis, they applied for the spring session of StartX, a nonprofit start-up accelerator for Stanford students. Wanting more expertise on the business side, they sent a recruiting email to the entire GSB. Jennifer Kessler, who was in her first year of the MBA program, responded believing she was interviewing for a summer internship with an established toy company. Instead she discovered two like-minded young women. "The toys that we played with when we were younger really influenced who we are today," Kessler says.

"There are so many games and toys for children that tend to be rigid, but interactive, child-directed play is much more engaging," says Mina Fisher, '99, a pediatric psychiatrist and clinical instructor at the Stanford School of Medicine. "Any time a child is able to work towards finishing their own product, it enhances their sense of mastery over their skills."

Fisher also notes that creativity is not gender specific, though many toys and games are.

Once, when Ron Dolin, a legal technologist and one of Maykah's financial investors, brought his 11-year-old son to a meeting, the child started playing with the Roominate kit. "We were talking about investing, but suddenly Alice was sitting on the floor, 100 percent in my son's world," Dolin says. "I don't think anything could've said more about my investment than that moment."

Others around the Valley, including Blank, their initial instructor, and their mentor, serial entrepreneur Mike Cassidy, have been similarly impressed by Roominate's success. In one month, 1,154 backers from San Francisco to Japan invested $85,964 through a Kickstarter fund-raising campaign. And as of late 2012, Brooks and Chen (Kessler left the company in November) had closed a round of Angel funding, sold more than 2,000 kits at $59 each, traveled to China to oversee manufacturing, and moved into a new professional office space. An office space with just a dash of pink.

Elizabeth Clair, '11, MA '12, is a writer and digital communication strategist in Silicon Valley.

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