When Julia Chambers hosted a Pokemon-themed birthday party for her son, she never imagined some of the decorations would turn into a business. But when the former museum professional took time away from her busy career to focus on her recovery from health issues, the round plush toys she and her son made for his birthday party became a smash hit. Today the Thousand Oaks, California-based mother and entrepreneur is the founder of Mimbleball, round plush therapy toys that make a great gift for anyone looking for a little extra love, joy, laughter and comfort. Therapists, teachers, and school counselors across the country praise their ability to help soothe anxious children and another prototype has also been extraordinarily well received in a local Alzheimer’s ward. And now amidst the Covid-19 pandemic, Mimbleballs are taking on a new role providing support and comfort during an increasingly socially-distanced time.
Chambers’ story, as told to The Story Exchange 1,000+ Stories Project:
The Mimbleball was invented in January 2017 by my 10 year old son Theo Chambers. What started as a ball of faux fur was transformed into a hair ball with personality through the addition of button eyes and a creative haircut. Having just retired suddenly from my Museum Director position due to a now-resolved health issue, my attempts to find creative outlets through my favorite medium of fabric resulted in a Pokemon party for my youngest son and a Mimbleball named Ben. The Pokemon party required the creation of about 30 red, white and black 6-paneled 5″ Pokeballs for our young guests to throw at the masked Pokemon characters. After the festivities, the birthday boy and I sat at our kitchen table and he asked me to replicate the Pokeball design, this time with 5 elliptical panels of 4″ grey faux fur and 1 panel of white sheepskin with two wide-set blue button eyes sewn in. It looked like a caveman –lion — fur ball. When my 10 year old brandished a pair of scissors, I had to take a breath and let him do what he would without controlling the project. Difficult to do as a mom who tends to give lots of advice about the best way to do things to her 3 sons, and occasionally her husband. I am so glad I closed my mouth and just observed in retrospect, as the Mimbleball came to life as Theo went after it with the trimming shears.
The surprise asset of a Mimbleball is the way its hair stands straight up with a gentle tap on the bottom or a quick shake, much to everyone’s delight. This was discovered only after the first one was assembled and Theo gave it a haircut — the first few tosses made this truly humorous asset apparent almost right away. Discovered through play! We made one for his friend who was visiting that day. Another child saw one and his mom came by requesting one. In the days following, I experimented with fabric combinations at home and on the pool deck during water polo practice, at the park while the boys played, and every time a new Mimbleball came to life I was surrounded by a slightly frenzied group of children demanding to know what it was — and could they have one.
The same thing would happen as we started to develop the Mimbleball concept in coffeeshop meetings — invariably, a stranger would stop by our table and ask what it was and often wanted to purchase one. One time, the person asking happened to run a chain of pharmacies in our area, which made our concept suddenly appear increasingly viable. The other reaction that makes us sure we were on to something was when our SCORE advisor, Ira, who had perfected his intimidating, grumpy visage concealing his heart of gold, fell in love with Mimbleballs to the degree that we had to name one after him. Kate Crouse, my curator from my former museum joined me after about a year with her magical media, organizational, and perseverance skills, which has made all the difference in our success. We are also blessed with an incredible product launch consultant, Kelli Ivie from KIC Consultants.
As we continue development, we continue to discover more and more uses for Mimbleballs, especially in this time of pandemic. Therapists, teachers, counselors, caregivers, memory care workers, parents, grandparents, and children have all found them useful and we know that the list will continue to grow. The reaction of every person, young and old, is spontaneous joy. Without fail, every person who encounters a Mimbleball laughs. That alone is sufficient reason to pursue this venture.
Success is cultivating something truly useful and making it happen with care and beauty. The connections and joy that success brings let you know you are successful and contributing to the world. Mimbleball, Inc. started from a place of lack two and a half years ago — lack of health, things to do (very tough for a workaholic!), and a very real lack of life balance which most likely created the lack of health in the first place. Cultivating Mimbleballs with my family and co-cultivators on my own time as I regained health was a creative anchor that allowed me to have professional and artistic purpose during a challenging time.
Creating this company also combines all of my skill sets and allows creative expression. I have three master’s degrees from universities on both coasts, and years of experience as a Museum and public art professional. I have been a member of too many non-profit boards to count. I have eighteen years of experience as a mother of three very unique young men. I am learning how to apply my skills to a brand new set of commercial rules, and I have stumbled through, learned a lot, and been so thankful for all of guidance I have received along the way. Who would have thought that Mimbleballs would be selling on Amazon and being considered by major retailers so soon after inception?
One success story from Mimbleball was having the VP of Purchasing from a company that runs over 1200 University bookstores in the US respond within an hour to an unsolicited email pitch. The best part was that after he requested and received a set of the “Original Crew” of 6 Mimbleballs, he was initially pessimistic about their prospects after opening the box. Thankfully, he put the Mimbleballs on the shelf behind his desk, and nearly everyone who walked by came in to ask about them and play with them. After the VP of the whole company took one of them to her office, they had proved themselves to be worthy. The 18- year-veteran VP of Purchasing said that he soon felt as if the Mimbleballs were watching over him (in a good way!) from his shelf, and he has grown quite attached to them — to the degree that he has to professionally distance himself as he considers their sales prospects. The Original Crew: Ira, Ivie, Theo, Gabe, Thimble and Bimble made friends and sold themselves all on their own, and we are very proud.
Mimbleball’s top challenge has been figuring out how to make our original concept actually happen on a large scale with adequate financing and production. We have been privately financed and self-producing our inventory from the start, and are ready to make the jump to an external factory who can fabricate Mimbleballs with the high quality necessary to make them super soft and allow their hair to move kinetically. We have sought private and bank loans for this major purchase of a minimum order of fabric and materials in the 6 color schemes for the minimum production requirements from the factory. We first attempted negotiations with a factory in the United States (Tennessee) and another in China, but they were both unable to work with the faux fur successfully and source quality fabric and materials. We made contact with the third factory, in Hong Kong, via a friend who works for Guitar Center and had a contact who worked with a reputable toy factory, who just happened to be visiting Thousand Oaks (our home town) at that time on a trip to the US. So we met at Starbucks, I gave him a set of the Original 6 Mimbleballs, and within 2 weeks we were on our way to a successful negotiation.
The Coronavirus pandemic has created delays, first for the Hong Kong factory in January-February 2020, and now for us as the market is in limbo waiting to see what will happen next. The delay has allowed a couple of private funding opportunities to open up, for which we are very grateful. The next question is whether to proceed with our order before the pandemic resolution is clear. We think yes, because Mimbleballs have become even more useful in this time of required isolation. That is why Mimbleballs exist — to create joy and comfort. We are confident that there is a need for Mimbleballs in the world.
Mimbleball Inc. would like to deliver as many Mimbleballs as possible to everyone who would benefit from a cuddly, comforting companion. We would like to expand the design possibilities to represent various personalities, gorgeous design colors and fabrics, and organizational branding. We pledge to maintain quality fabrics and production, and not let anything cheesy be integrated into the brand line. We also pledge to develop our products with a sense of humor, style, and humanity. We plan to purchase sufficient fabric and materials for an initial run of 11,000 Mimbleballs in 6 styles in 2020, with the capability of adding 3 additional runs of 11,000 from the initial materials purchase. By marketing to professional caretakers, therapists, educational institutions, and online sales, we plan to expand sales by at least 20% each year. Mimbleball will introduce new friends in addition to the original crew annually. Leadership, staff and manufacturing will expand as Mimbleball expands.
I come from a long line of strong women, and the person I think of most as an inspiration for Mimbleballs is my grandmother Mildred. She died almost 20 years ago, just before the birth of my first son, but she is still often the first person I imagine comforting me in moments when things are really hard. Grandma was a German butcher’s wife from Philadelphia, and the thing I remember most was her loving constancy. She was not one to sugar-coat things, but she would sit for hours and talk, play games, and not need to be anywhere else. She was strong and soft, loved to talk and laugh, and her lap was a safe place with generous upper arms that she didn’t mind for a minute if I snuggled in them. It is our hope that Mimbleballs convey that same essential sense of solace, comfort, tactile satisfaction, companionship, patience, warmth, constancy, and love.