April Tate, owner of Riley Construction
April Tate, owner of Riley Construction, has a completely whimsical studio. There is a large, counter height work station in the middle of the room, a sewing table on one wall and shelves of fabric on another. Swatches of fun, brightly colored fabrics sit in bins, ready to be cut into lions or bandannas. Bins of pre-cut mermaids, horses, pants and pizza lay flat in piles.
We had so much fun just looking around. Everything in her space is colorful, fun and energized and it is no mystery why she is so good at making kids toys, she still has the unbridled creativity and inspiration that so many of us grow out of.
What is Riley Construction? What do you make?
I design and create original handmade toys, dolls, and plushies. I also illustrate art for children. I named my business Riley Construction Toys because the name of my family’s carpentry business is Riley Construction and I am following in their footsteps of of owning a high-quality handmade small business.
What drew you to entrepreneurship, specifically this line of work?
I come from a long line of entrepreneurs and artisans on all sides – I’d say it was inevitable that I would decide to build a business making and selling handmade art. I designed my own toys and dolls ever since I can remember. I was obsessed with adorable toys. As a kid, I spent every dime I had on Hello Kitty and Strawberry Shortcake. I always wanted my own line of toys!
Like most artists back in the pre-internet days, there were few venues and even fewer ways to share your work. I chose a traditional day job path instead and, while it has served me well, I am beyond grateful for the artistic opportunities and business tools I now have today.
I taught myself to sew in my twenties and started making accessories to sell on Ebay and then eventually online (this was pre-smart phone and pre-Etsy!). When my son was a toddler, I made him a stuffed hedgehog out of a recycled wool jacket because I have always loved handmade stuffed toys better than mass-produced ones. The stuffed animals I saw in big box stores didn’t appeal to me – they weren’t my aesthetic at all and just didn’t have any heart.
I was hooked after that first hedgehog – my ideas started to flow so fast I could barely keep up. I kept practicing and producing and evolving. Then, after a couple of years of making primarily animals and objects, I felt the urge to make something totally new. I sketched out a rag doll design and that sketch became my first original doll pattern. I knew I wanted my doll design to be simple but vibrant, the perfect huggable size, and meld old-fashioned techniques with contemporary taste.
Have you overcome any business flops? What was your struggle and how did you conquer it?
Time! Always time. Needing more time to develop an idea. I need more time to design as well as time to produce. O could use more time to keep up with orders, and so on. I think my biggest flops have been caused by rushing an idea to production and not spending enough time developing and troubleshooting. Sometimes I look back on a few of my older designs and cringe!
Now I choose new designs more deliberately and test drive them in smaller venues and on social media before I make them in earnest. I can tell immediately what is going to work and what won’t. If a design doesn’t do well and I can see that I need to move on, I donate them to an organization that can use them to bring joy to a kid in need.
Pick one thing you do really well in relation to your work.
I have fun! I don’t follow trends, I make what appeals to me and listen to my heart. I also really enjoy meeting customers in person. I love hearing updates on how my babies are doing in their new families!
What about your business are you most proud of?
I am most proud that I have been able to come so far while working a full time day job, raising a kiddo, and going to grad school all at the same time. It would be a lot harder without a supportive partner and family. I’m proud that I take risks and push myself to grow.
Have you faced any adversity being a woman in your field?
Naturally! Fortunately, the indie craft community that I have been part of for so long is very supportive of women. They have been a huge part of my journey. I think it is important for women to have each other’s backs and collaborate with one another. We have strength in numbers and can do great things!
Your dolls boldly defy what “typical” boy and girl toys should be. What rad dolls are you making now?
I’m working on a new line of dolls called Adventure Girls that celebrate being strong and fierce and free. Little girls are often encouraged to be careful, to not make mistakes, to be “nice”, to not be dirty or loud, to ask for permission, to be responsible for the actions of others – that’s crazy! Little girls need to be taught to have adventures, take risks, and take no shit from others.
I am also working on a line of gender-neutral dolls because I think that is an underrepresented population and an unmet need and I’m really excited about it.
Is there anything else about being a badass business babe that you’d like to share?
Be true to yourself and don’t be a slave to trends. Seek a genuine connection with others; be kind and listen. Collaborate and share. Take risks. Blow your own horn. Have adventures!
Learn more about April Tate and Riley Construction!