Small Business: How making wooden toys for their boys became a business

Terri and Will Wara began making wooden toys for their two young boys when, rejecting plastic and waste, they couldn’t find a good selection to buy. What started as a home hobby grew into a thriving business, Woodland Toys, as Terri Wara explains.

How did Woodland Toys come about?

Two years ago we were trying to find toys for our own children, Tana and Coast, then aged 4 and 2. We were looking for low waste and couldn’t find old-school wooden toys. We thought we’d try our hand at making our own.

The feedback was good so we opened an Instagram page to put feelers out. I cringe when I look back at it. We started selling off there and then opened up a business account.

What sort of toys do you make?

We do lots of animal collections, dinosaurs, building blocks, magical creatures like unicorns and fairies, New Zealand natives, puzzles and stackers, magic wands, your classics. We’re constantly bringing out new collections. The next one will be farm animals.
The kids really like the dinosaurs and the unicorns. Parents like the education-through-play aspect of toys like New Zealand native birds and plants.

Lots of people ask us if we can create characters but it’s too tricky with copyright. And we want to create our own brand and our own characters.

When did the business start to take off?

We started without branding for maybe six months. But once we got the branding it kind of exploded. We invested everything we made back into the business. It took off really well. Will left his full-time job, where he worked as a foreman in the concrete industry, in July last year. We’ve been working together in the business ever since.

We home school our boys as well so we do day on, day off. The day on, working in the business, is a really long, 12 to 16 hours.

How did you learn to make the toys?

Will just taught himself. We watched YouTube and tweaked a lot. Will’s a good artist so he designs the toys and hand draws all the shapes himself, and makes them. I paint them, and pack them.

We manufacture from a garage and our home in Glenbrook. We’ve turned the master bedroom into a workplace. We’re moving shortly and we’ll set up the business in a big garage.

What sort of wood do you use?

We use maple and ash, hardwood that is sustainably grown. It’s much heavier than a pine toy, much more robust. If you drop them, they won’t break. And it’s a beautiful creamy wood. It comes from family tree farms in America.

What mistakes have you made?

Not realising how important branding is. Branding completely changed the business. It’s important for recognition and to look professional. Using good photography to display them helped. If you have a beautiful photo of a child playing with a toy it highlights the fun they can have rather than the toy sitting still on its own.

How do you sell the toys?

We sell them on the Shopify website and through 60 stockists. The business is growing all the time. I’m constantly getting emails from new stockists and they are really good for us. They will promote us in their own way. And we have brand reps on Instagram who photograph the toys with their children and promote them in exchange for product.

How did Covid and lockdown affect your business?

The first lockdown was amazing. That’s when we decided Will was going to quit his job. There was a really big push behind supporting local and people were online a lot. During the second lockdown people were a lot more cautious.

How does your pricing compared to mass-made or plastic toys?

Woodland Toys are priced between $25 and $90. A bag of blocks is $55. A good size giraffe is $35. A big seven-piece rainbow puzzle is $87.

An Iron Man toy is more than $50, he’s made of plastic and probably made in China by machines in a factory or not fairly paid workers. It’s a mindset thing. It’s getting your mind round the fact that it (a wooden toy) comes in a smaller package, it doesn’t come in a big fancy box.

What are your plans for the future?

We want to have a factory but still local. We don’t want to make offshore. The toys will always be made by real people in New Zealand, that’s non-negotiable for us.

The demand for wooden toys is growing. It’s not just the eco ethos behind it, it’s also about supporting local, buying small, buying quality. It fits into our own ethos as a family. It’s a really good time to do this business.

What advice would you give someone wanting to start a small business?

Not to overthink it, just go for it. Some people have these ideas and they overthink it so much that they don’t do it. Just learn as you go.

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