An interview with Jenn Mawcinitt, owner of Wildlings Toy Boutique
This week, I’m featuring my interview with Jenn Mawcinitt, owner of Wildlings Toy Boutique – an incredible little toy store in Phoenix, Arizona, where, with clear vision and values, they spark the kind of play that develops kids into lifelong learning, joy-chasing, world-changing adults.
More Small Business Interviews
Looking to start and grow your own business? Well, there’s a ton of inspiration right here. Read more small business interviews to hear stories of why they started, how they overcome obstacles and unexpected challenges, how they fuel their creativity, and much more.
As we’ve been getting to know Arizona, my wife, Lauren, and I have taken to following as many local businesses as we can on Instagram to help us learn what’s out there.
One night, Lauren told me about an event she found – it was a birthday for some toy store to celebrate their first year in business. Well, that turned out to be Jenn’s store – Wildlings Toy Boutique!
I was immediately impressed by the store, the staff, and the assortment, so I reached out to Jenn to learn more.
By the way, you might be wondering: in the age of Amazon, what’s the market play for a local toy boutique? Well, it turns out, there was a white-space opportunity for exactly what Jenn built.
There’s a misconception that seizing new market territory requires some big innovation or breakthrough technology – that might be true in Silicon Valley. But, in the domain of small business, differentiation is as simple as holding true to a distinct set of vision and values.
IT STARTS WITH VISION
Most likely, your life and career will take a non-linear shape. There will be unexpected twists and turns. There might even be a gap between the “plan” you had in mind and the reality of how it unfolded.
All of that is something to embrace and lean into — because you can never fully know in advance which experiences might prove surprisingly useful to your growth and development, and which new skills you might gain along the way.
What’s your background?
“I grew up in Phoenix and went to ASU (Arizona State University). After graduation, I went to Teach For America in Mississippi. It ended up being this amazing and transformative experience for me. I had never seen myself as a teacher long-term. I had always planned to go to law school — that was always the thing. And, instead I ended up down this path that, eventually, took me back to Arizona to study special education. I saw this gap in my classroom: we were teaching in these small towns, there’s no one there to teach special education and we have a real need. So, I worked in special education for 12 years. I taught and then moved into a director role where I managed a team and just really loved that aspect of it — working with people is something fun for me.”
This, my friends, is a critically important skill: noticing opportunity.
Jenn noticed a gap – a problem that needed solving in her school system. She saw an opportunity and trained her focus on it.
Vision often comes from these moments – it’s looking at a situation or a market or industry and saying: “hmm, there’s something missing here.”
As you’ll see, that skill comes in handy later.
Where did the vision for this business come from?
“The vision started after a trip to Washington. We visited this really cool little toy store and it had this great feel. Everything in it, we were like, ‘our kids could use this, our kids would love that, it’s all so cool.’ And, I kind of found myself reflecting on that: ‘I’m going to go back to Phoenix and I’m going to find these cool little toy stores’ and also ‘why haven’t I been to them before?’ Well, I realized, ‘oh wait, we actually don’t have a lot of options.’ There were a couple, but they sold toys in addition to other things.”
Again, Jenn notices a gap…
“I just really wanted this experience where parents could come in and feel this toy store is full of things that their kids could grow and benefit from, where everything in there just feels rich and meaningful. I realized it didn’t exist and I kept that in the back of my head.”
…and she fills that gap with imagination, thinking about what could be: Why isn’t there a store or space like this today? What if there was? What would ideal look and feel like?
“So, I continued to work, but I just really felt like, at this stage in my life, I needed to change something. So, it was around December 2020 and I thought, ‘I’m going to do this!’ I called up a friend who is a graphic designer and I was like, ‘this is going to sound crazy, I think I’m going to quit my job and open a toy store.’ And, she said, ‘oh my gosh, that doesn’t sound crazy at all, do it! And here, I’m going to help you with the logo, I already know what to do.’ So, yeah that was the start of it all.”
There’s power in unpacking new ideas with friends. Don’t be afraid to reach out to share your vision with people, you never know who might be able to help out. Plus, moral support and encouragement are always welcome, right?
MAKING A CHANGE
Decisions like these aren’t always easy to make. There’s a lot to consider. But, the hardest part can be that you know what happens if you stay put and, on the other side, adventure brings the unknown.
What were you considering before you made the decision to start this adventure?
“There was a lot of unknown for me because my background is not in retail or business. So, for me a lot of the question marks were around: ‘Can I do this? Can I learn to do accounting, for example?’ Going from something known to something unknown was definitely a point of contention for me. Like, how do I even manage that?”
“And, you know, what we really needed at that time for our family was flexibility. We have a daughter who is a little bit medically complex so we have appointments and she gets sick a lot, so who can take time off? That was one of the benefits for us in managing our own business! I could have the flexibility that we really needed. Now, I am still working a ton of hours, but I can do it on my own schedule. That was definitely a plus.”
“The mental load of working in such an intense job like special education – it was really starting to drain me. So, the idea of creating something new was very life-giving. Yes, it was a little scary, thinking about how I can learn all of these new hard things, but it was also very exciting. It felt very interesting and something new to get me excited about working again.”
The fear, doubt, and uncertainty Jenn may have felt wasn’t enough to overcome the powerful energy and possibility of “what if.”
These decisions aren’t easy, but they’re made easier in the context of our own story and what we each need. Jenn needed flexibility. She craved a new project — something to build.
So, what do you need? What are you craving? Questions like these hold the seeds of your future growth. Don’t forget to bend the arc of your own life, from time to time.
LEVERAGING YOUR SKILLS
Something I’ve seen a lot in the entrepreneurs I’ve met and interviewed is that they’re often not simply moving into the same space they worked in previously. Instead, they notice their skills, build mastery, and then choose to apply those same skills in a totally new arena.
Like, Gus Dean Coffee – a black-owned, artisanal coffee roastery business. Gus had no experience internationally sourcing coffee, but as a former veterinarian, he has a passion for problem solving and science.
In this case, Jenn knows kids — and child development. Sure, she had to learn retail, inventory management, and store operations, but she revolved the business around her core skills and mindset — not the other way around.
I shared some of these reflections with Jenn.
How does that resonate with you?
“That absolutely sums it up. I have a skillset and it’s kind of a unique thing. And, an understanding of child development doesn’t just happen – I built that skill. I think that’s what has kept our customers coming back: they can feel that in our business — people come in and know that our selection really reflects the thought and process that comes from my background. I love being in the store and connecting with customers. And, even when I can’t be there, I want to impart that knowledge onto my employees so they are able to give that same level of customer service and product recommendations.”
If you’re wondering if you can make the leap – if you can take your skills and apply them some other way, well, yes, you can. It’s possible. Each of these entrepreneurs did. Though, it required courage, a growth mindset, and persistence – each of which is a skill you can practice and build over time.
VISION AND VALUES
When I came to Jenn’s store for the first time, I was immediately struck by the assortment. It was telling a clear story about what they valued — what they wanted to provide for parents and their kids: no clutter, no junk, just carefully selected toys and games that would foster their growth and development.
Standing there, I quickly pulled up the Wildlings Toy Boutique website to learn more about the brand and I was immediately struck by the vision and values listed on the page — I could see them come to life on the shelves in front of me, which is incredibly difficult to pull off. It requires tremendous discipline.
How did your vision and values influence the store and brand’s positioning?
“Well, I think the values are really authentic to me and that makes it easier. These aren’t things that I just pulled randomly. These values are things that I truly believe are at the core of me — in anything that I do. So, I think that really makes it easier to shine that through. We’ve also been so fortunate to find employees who also share some of those values.”
“You know, the same way you felt connected to the store, other people have felt that way too. And, that’s actually how we get a lot of our employees too. People come into the store and are like, ‘oh my gosh I love this place — how can I be a part of this?’ So, I think just being authentic in our set of values makes them so easy to live everyday. I don’t have to fake it — these are actually things that are important to me.”
When you take a step back and look at your values on paper, you know you’ve got something when it feels real and authentic to you. They should describe the story you want to tell about your life, not someone else’s story. Don’t have clearly defined values? Let’s talk.
How would you describe the process of creating and refining your vision and values?
“It was not an instant, ‘oh my gosh, I wrote out these values and that was it. It took some time to sit back and refine it and make it what I wanted it to be. But, a lot of it was about just getting all of my ideas out on paper and then looking at these things, and then kind of picking, ‘okay, what are truly the most important things here?’ And, of course, how you say it matters too — the wordsmithing and the patience that takes.”
“It was not an instant where it all came together. It was very much, ‘let’s get all the ideas out, let’s look, let’s reflect, and refine it’ — until there was a moment later when we looked at and we were like: ‘Yes! This encompasses everything we believe in, it’s everything I want to do as a business owner, and if people read this they will understand Wildlings — they will understand what we’re here for!”
Getting them out of your head and putting it on paper is so key. It’s such a simple step, but often overlooked. When they’re in front of you on the page, you can be objective. You can think, edit, refine, and make connections.
Once you’ve landed on a set of values, they should become a filter for you, through which all decisions can be made – as Jenn demonstrates:
What is the value to a parent of picking something up from your store?
“When you come in and shop with us, you can be guaranteed that whatever you choose from our shelves is purposeful. We pick all of our toys to focus on a skillset that kids are building as they are learning and growing: their motor development, their social development, their academic skills. All of those are different areas that different toys can help to foster and build. Anything in my store is something I would let my children play with and be happy to have in my home. Everything meets a quality standard, so that you’re not getting things that are breaking and being thrown away immediately. These are things that will be in your life that you’ll pass to your friends, and you’ll see them used for a long time.”
Every choice, guided by vision and values.
SOME WILDLINGS WISDOM
It’s stating the obvious, but there are humans at the center of every business. Definitionally, that means we’ll never have all the answers. Critically, you don’t have to have it all figured out to pass on what you’ve learned.
When you look at all of the things you’re doing and managing today, what’s working?
“Connecting with our community. Our events are so powerful in so many ways. One, they drive customers to our store, and that is awesome. And, two, they give us time with the people in our community – to get to know them. Whether they come to our events to spend money, or just enjoy time in our neighborhood, our events make us incredibly unique because we’re creating space to connect as a community. That’s something that’s at the heart of our business and I never want to lose sight of that.”
What advice would you give to someone who is thinking about starting a business of their own?
“I would say that the rewards outweigh the risks in so many ways. It’s okay to have those feelings of uncertainty and a little bit of fear, but you’ve got to just jump in and do it. There are so many resources out there, so much support, so many people out there who will cheer you on. If your heart is in it and it’s something you are truly passionate about, you’ll be able to figure it out. Don’t let that fear slow you down. Instead, lean into it and focus your energy on moving forward. In the end, it’s how you’re going to make it.”
WILDLINGS TOYS IS OPEN FOR BUSINESS
If you live in Arizona, stop by the store and shop. Not only will you find a great assortment of children’s toys, but they regularly host community events and celebrations too. Follow them to find out more.
And, the first-ever Wildlings Toy Boutique holiday toy catalog is available now! Start thinking about the purposeful play you might inspire this holiday season. As you browse, challenge yourself to look for how their vision and values are showing up.
I’d like to thank Jenn for sitting down with me for this conversation.
If you’re trying to define your vision and values, here are a few more resources:
- How to Make Decisions You Can Be Proud Of …with Inspire Dance Studio
- How a mission statement will help you stay centered
- Use Your Values to Make Better Decisions
- And, if you’d like help naming and refining your vision and values, it’s actually one of my favorite things to do with clients. Learn more on my services page.
ONE MORE THING
Starting and growing a business is not a straight line.
It can feel messy – it zigs and zags, it starts and stops. It can feel frustrating even for the most seasoned business owners. And, that’s ok.
It’s also an exciting challenge. It’s going to stretch you. You’re going to learn a lot – not just about business, but about yourself.
And, that’s why it’s worth it.