Dough With the Flow!
Finding a loyal following through Instagram, Julie Friedman’s hand-packed, fun-filled activity kits are colorful, curative — and yes, they bring in the dough. By Evan W. Black, Photos by Jhane Hoang
Julie Friedman is excited. A machine that divides and rolls pizza dough has arrived from China. It cost her $600 just to have it shipped to the U.S., and now Friedman is ready to get to work making … no, not pizza. Playdough. Lots of playdough.
The mom of three calls herself the OG Playdough Lady, a title she won through her colorful, creative Instagram feed featuring original “sensory kits” designed to encourage little ones’ imaginations, fine motor skills and language development. The compartmentalized plastic boxes include three balls of homemade, scented dough — some with glitter! — and accessories that match a theme, such as gold coins, cannons and palm trees in her “pirate” kit.
A couple of years ago, Friedman’s first-born, Evie, was diagnosed with a speech disorder and severe anxiety. Docs recommended sensory play — activities that engage touch, smell, hearing and more — as it’s proven to calm children and form nerve connections in the brain. “I couldn’t find anything that held her attention until playdough,” says Friedman, a Houston native with a winning smile and contagious enthusiasm. Using flour, water, salt, cinnamon, cocoa, essential oils and food coloring, she made Evie a ball of dough, gave her some cookie cutters and cupcake liners, and voila! “She played with it forever.”
Friedman added other toys to the mix, and explains that Evie would use her imagination to put together a scene and talk to characters. “And parents can verbalize the kids’ play, too,” she says, noting how sensory play benefits all ages. “As in, ‘Your unicorn looks like it’s running!’ or ‘You used the purple rhinestone.” Friedman’s friends thought it was a cute idea, and asked her to make some dough for their kids, too. “I started making just five or 10 extra to sell on Instagram,” she says.
But one day, Friedman says she wanted a pair of shoes that her husband, Kerr, wouldn’t spring for. “I thought, I need $400 for these shoes, so I decided to make a bunch of kits and do a ‘launch’ on Instagram,” she says. This entailed making her retail website go live at a certain hour, and announcing the availability via Instagram. She sold 60 “beach” kits in an hour and a half. “I was like, ‘Rock on, this is awesome!’”
Over the next few weeks, Friedman rolled out mermaid, unicorn and baking kits — all of which sold out in under a minute. And now, less than a year later, Young, Wild & Friedman has grown into a viable biz, which Friedman reluctantly admits is pretty lucrative.
The hyperfast growth of the operation brought with it a few challenges, many of which are navigated with the support of Kerr, who quit his job at a hedgefund around Christmas to help run the company. “It was starting to get out of control,” recalls Friedman, who began a subscription service in October; customers receive a new kit for $35 per month. At that point, she was making her batches with her KitchenAid mixer, and a second one borrowed from a neighbor. (“I need to buy her a new one,” she deadpans. “I probably killed it.”) She could make 20 balls of dough in each mixer, and needed to make 10-plus batches daily to keep up with orders. She calls the process “horrifying.”
Meanwhile, the sheer amount of stuff that goes in these kits was overtaking her house. “From October through February, my kids could not play in the house, I never wanted to be home, I couldn’t cook for my family,” she says. Assembly tables and storage boxes and shipments of tiny mermaids and unicorns and bulldozers lined every square inch of her Briargrove home. “But I remember telling Kerr, ‘I think this is the happiest I’ve ever been.’ It was incredible that my hobby had turned into a real business.”
Ready to reclaim her home, she rented a house less than a mile away that they call Casa Plastilina, or Playdough House in Spanish. It’s Young, Wild & Friedman HQ, where all of the unboxing, mixing, assembling and shipping takes place. She purchased an industrial-size mixer that comes up to her ribcage, and can now make 50 quarts, or 200 balls of dough, per batch. She and two employees — a mother-daughter duo whom Friedman calls “heartwarming” — scoop it out of the bowl and wrap each one in cellophane. (Enter the ball-rolling machine shipped in from China. Amen!)
Since launching the subscription program in the fall, Friedman says her biz has grown an average of 40 percent monthly. A Facebook marketing exec recently told her that he’d never seen such incredible organic growth in his entire career. She says the trick is to make it something that both kids and moms are excited about, and want to show off.
Social media is still her primary means of promotion, Friedman wants her page to be a source of joy and encouragement for moms in Houston and around the world. “I love getting the messages from moms who say their kids played for two hours, uninterrupted, with the kits.”
AT TOP: Julie Friedman