We are slowly coming to the end of our Meet the Maker series. But we cannot finish it off without introducing you to Joyce Keelan! Joyce is the founder of Great Pretenders and the hardest working woman I have ever met! In this interview, Joyce shares many wonderful memories that has made Great Pretenders what it is today.
Lindsay: Hello everyone! We are here today at Great Pretenders and we have Joyce, who is the founder of Great Pretenders. She is the boss mom of all time! Many of you know Joyce as the founder of Great Pretenders approximately 30 years ago when she was just a mom trying to find great pretend play toys for her kids! Joyce is going to talk to us about her journey on getting where we today!
Can you tells us what is the most rewarding part of running this production?
Joyce: Well, we have an amazing team of people that I get to work with, and together we produce really great products. That is a lot of fun, because you probably design 5 items for every 1 that goes to market. So, it is really interesting to have that process. It is also very rewarding to see the feedback from our customer base, our fans and followers! When you watch a child who puts on a product and transforms into something else, it feels really good to be the person who came up with that idea and took it to the market.
Lindsay: So we know that Great Pretenders started with you sewing in your basement. How did you transition to this production that we have here today?
Joyce: Well actually, a neighbour complained about all of the trucks coming in and out of our driveway! So, I thought about it and I was really hesitant to create new overhead, but I knew that is was annoying for my neighbours. So, I rented 300 square feet. It was very small, almost like a closet! And I started form there! Within a year, we were in 2500 square feet, and within a year of that we were in 5000 and so forth.
It was a great thing actually when I moved from the house, because I got to delineate between work and home. It became easier to leave work at work. Before that, I would just work all of the time.
Lindsay: Speaking of working all the time! When COVID-19 hit, we understand that we started making face masks here. Can you tell us about that process and what you had to do to get that up and running?
Joyce: Well, when COVID hit, we had to shut down our production. I knew even though we had a great support from our government, it was a really scary feeling to have to have our production shut down. So my partner reached out to some people in the area, who make PPE and we took some contracts right away! Within 2 weeks of COVID hitting, to start making adult face masks for firemen, police men, and electricians. We were doing that, and I thought maybe we could come up with something for kids! SO we designed some face masks for kids, and I went down to some suppliers in Toronto and loaded my car up and came back! You designed the packaging and we scrambled and put it together!
We almost immediately sold almost 40,000 masks. It was a huge number! We had all of our sewers working. We bought some new equipment that we needed and we were working 6 days a week, 10 hour days for t least five weeks!
Lindsay: And you were in there sewing too!
Joyce: Yeah I was in there for sure! It was really tiring, but it was good! It was a real team pulling together to do something, and we still have 2 cells dedicated to masks today.
Lindsay: That is awesome! What was your first New York Toy Fair experience like? And were you nervous?
Joyce: Oh yeah! Absolutely! I had never been to New York in my life! I think I was about 30 years old. I had previously done Toronto Toy Fair, and a friend of min -, a guy who I thought he was so advanced and his company was so big, His name was Peter Bell and he had a company called Papa Geppetto's Victorian Toys. He said "Joyce, look. If you don't go to the USA and do Toy Fair, you are not even in the market. You have to go!" So I called at the last minute and got a 10" x 10" space and I bought a little portable pop up booth. I was making puppets at the time and I went down by myself!
I went in and I remember how naive I was! I went with Canadian pricing and shipping out of Canada, and one or two products. I remember at the end of the first day, I was at the Javits Centre, and a guy comes walking down the isle towards me and it was my dad! And he said "Come on! I'm taking you out for dinner!" My parents spent the winter in Florida, and he had flown in to come surprise me and help me out. He was really helpful in the early days of my company and gave me a lot of great advice!
Joyce and daughter Kate at New York Toy Fair in 2010
Lindsay: That is so sweet! My next question is about your favourite holiday! Do you have one?
Joyce: Well I like all holidays! But the most fun holiday for me is Halloween!
Lindsay: Of coure!! Well we do make costumes!
Joyce: On Halloween, there was always great excitement in our house! My kids were never given potato chips and candy and stuff like that in the house, so this was a huge thing for them! I used to make all of their costumes. We would pick a theme, and have huge fun! We would probably start a month before Halloween. We would decorate the house and made all of the decorations! We made the tombstones and carved the pumpkins and everything. Often we would have Halloween parties for the kids and they would have their friends over. It was a really positive memory for us!
Lindsay: My last question is about what you think makes our product and brand important
Joyce: Well, I know that it is really important to build creativity in the world so people think outside of the box and contribute in ways that are not about coping someone else's work or being the best at something else. When you give children the tools to think outside the box, I believe dress-up and role play does that. Puppets and art supplies are also another great tool for that. When a kid puts on dress-up and says "Now I'm a king!" or now they have power in their lives. You can get them to communicate and express themselves, that if they didn't have that costume on, they would never say those things. It is a little insight into expressing themselves. Of course, I really like the most about role play is that it is interactive no screen time, no rules. you just play. And that is pretty cool.
Lindsay: Well, thank you so much for meeting with us! Maybe we will do another interview again down the road! Thank you everyone for watching! Have a great day!