Debbie Sterling | Crain's Connecticut

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Debbie Sterling


GoldieBlox is an award-winning children’s multimedia company that challenges gender stereotypes with a girl engineer character. GoldieBlox integrates toys, storytelling and STEM principles to develop young girls’ interests in engineering and problem-solving skills. 

The Mistake:

Basically back in 2012, when I was first starting GoldieBlox, I quit my day job and didn’t know how to start. I found myself alone in my apartment in San Francisco, trying to figure out what to do.

At the beginning, I just started sketching ideas in my notebook, trying to develop prototypes of toys that would get girls interested in engineering. Early on, I was so paranoid about sharing my ideas with anyone. I was afraid someone might steal my idea and a big toy company would steal it. I became reclusive. I’d spend hours by myself, tinkering and building prototypes.

I was so paranoid about someone stealing my idea, I’d make them sign an NDA. I even made my mom sign a NDA.

It’s funny to think back on it. On the one hand, I was living my dream. I had an Aha moment, where I discovered this thing I was born to do. [But] I wasn’t having fun because I was all alone.

How I ended up breaking out of the spell was a friend encouraged me to go to an entrepreneur conference. (The conference) encouraged every attendee to share what they were working on. I asked the conference organizers if I could get attendees to sign an NDA. But they told me, “You don’t need to do that. It’s a welcoming crowd.”

For the first time ever, I publicly shared my idea for GoldieBlox and everyone got to their feet and gave me a standing ovation. After the presentation, there was a line of people who wanted to get involved and help.

I switched from being secretive to talking to anyone, like a waitress or flight attendant. It gave me energy.

The Lesson:

I learned at the conference the difference between inventors and entrepreneurs. Inventors sounded like what I had been doing. They work alone for months on an idea.

Entrepreneurs puts themselves out there. They hustle and talk to people about it. You get that line of people who want to get involved. That’s how you build that company.

It seemed so obvious. I laugh at myself, at how I behaved at the beginning.

After that conference, I switched from being secretive to talking to anyone, like a waitress or flight attendant. It gave me energy. I was passionate about it. When I talked to people about it, the passion would transfer. You never know – the waiter at a restaurant could have a cousin who’s a brilliant toymaker and he could connect me, and then that would just snowball.

The takeaway was more about putting yourself out there, reaching out to as many people as you can and sharing your thoughts. That’s what enabled me to make my first hire and find advisory board members. I really just benefited from the free advice. The cost of the cup of coffee was beyond what I was able to do alone, to grow [GoldieBlox] into something much bigger. 

Follow Debbie Sterling on Twitter at @DebbieBlox