The brains behind the viral Goldieblox video

November 21, 2013

Debbie Sterling, CEO of Goldieblox (photo courtesy of Goldieblox)

The woman behind a video that recently exploded online--the one showing three girls creating a Rube Goldberg machine out of princess toys, with music set to a modified version of the Beastie Boys' 1987 hit "Girls"--is a Stanford engineer, yes. She's also a savvy marketer with viral video expertise.

Two years ago, Debbie Sterling created Goldieblox, the girls' construction and storybook toy start-up that now counts its products among the top-selling toys on Amazon after the commercial went viral (it currently has more than 6 million views on YouTube). She had initial angel investments from friends and family, and a Kickstarter campaign added another $285,000. Her concept: Create toys that get girls interested in engineering.

That doesn't mean manufacturing pink blocks. Sterling's idea was to combine construction toys with storytelling, characters and books to spark their imagination.

Before launching Goldieblox, Sterling, 30, was director of marketing for a jewelry company and spent several years as a brand strategist for a design agency, collaborating with clients including Microsoft, the New York Knicks and Pedigree dog food. In between those jobs, she spent six months working with a volunteer agency in rural India, where she saw how much owning a goat could change families' financial well-being. Wanting to help, she and her now husband, Beau Lewis, a producer of online videos, created "I Want a Goat." The video encouraged people to spend $20 to help buy rural Indian families an animal that would improve their lives. Like the Goldieblox commercial, it also featured modified lyrics--this time of Andy Samberg's comedy group hit "I'm on a Boat." The mash-up of poor villagers and explicit lyrics (a "clean" version is here) is pretty jarring, but Sterling says they raised and donated about $30,000 as a result.

The idea for Goldieblox came a little later. During an "Idea Brunch"--a once-a-month book club -esque get together where Sterling and her friends would discuss ideas rather than books ("this is such a dorky thing," she says)--a friend talked about how she grew up playing with her older brothers' construction toys, and thought there should be similar toys for girls.

"I felt like I got hit by a ton of bricks," Sterling says, instantly realizing it was what she wanted to do next. She and the friend started working on the idea together. "It’s hard, these stories pop up a lot in entrepreneurship," says Sterling. "We wanted to work on it together, we kept putting a date on our calendar, but the date came and I quit my job and she didn’t. After several months, I realized I could do it." So she went it alone. Her friend does not work with the company.

Knowing she wanted to produce a viral video to get the word out about Goldieblox in advance of Black Friday, Sterling began brainstorming with her team of 13 employees, which now includes her husband, who recently sold his online video company. Inspired by an OK Go music video that also featured a Rube Goldberg machine, Sterling decided their ad should show girls creating similar contraptions. "That’s the way to make engineering cool," she thought. "What if we made one out of toys?" They reached out to Brett Doar, who had worked on the OK Go video--and who had just happened to hear Sterling speak a couple of weeks before at an event at Google. He agreed to sign on. Then he and a team of five other engineers rented a house in Pasadena and built the elaborate design in two and a half weeks.

That wasn't the only connection that paid off for Sterling. She also knew people at Upworthy, the viral video sharing site. When Goldieblox launched roughly a year ago on Kickstarter, Upworthy featured a post about her Kickstarter campaign. "It was one of first viral hits for Upworthy and one of their first success stories," Sterling says. "We're friends with a bunch of people over there, and I think that it’s natural that they picked up our latest video."

Sterling may have a brand-strategy background and the savvy to get her start-up noticed, but she calls herself an engineer. Few things bother her more, she says, than when people say, "Well, she studied product design and that's not real engineering." Her degree from Stanford came from part of the university's engineering department and required students to take core engineering classes.

"It's infuriating to hear people say that I'm not good enough or I don't belong. That's exactly what I'm trying to fight against--this elitist, male-dominated world of engineering. There's a certain bravado of sorts that you must have an IQ of 'x' to enter. There's a real aggressive competitiveness that I experienced in a lot of my engineering classes." With Goldieblox, she says, "we're trying in general to make it not so intimidating."

Another pet peeve: "Some of my closest advisers--and I don’t think they do this on purpose--have asked, 'Why would you want to be the CEO? Why don’t you be the product designer or the marketing strategist?' I find it really insulting, because I’m doing an awesome job. I don’t think I would have gotten that if I was a man."

Goldieblox, as some proof of its success, is also one of four finalists in a contest to win a Super Bowl ad spot, paid for by small business software maker Intuit.

As for how to get more women into engineering--and into leadership roles--Sterling thinks developing their interest when young is only part of the answer. "Some of the issues are once they graduate with an engineering degree, women aren't taking engineering jobs." Even some of those who do, she says, later leave their positions because of the male-oriented culture. "We have to work at fixing all the leaks in the pipeline."

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

Read also:

Did you not get that promotion because you're a woman?

Time for more women to lead our schools

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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