Co-founder and Co-CEO of Lunii, Maëlle Chassard. Credits: Lunii
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, pupils across France have spent months being homeschooled and deprived of many of their regular indoor and outdoor activities, leaving parents with the challenge of keeping them busy. It's no surprise then that toy sales in the country have remained relatively stable despite many confinements and the closure of physical stores.
In 2020, the toy industry in France only saw a small 1.5% decline. More specifically, the end of the year, which represents 55% of the annual sales, only recorded a drop of 2.2%.
But for "My Fabulous Storyteller”, a screen-free device designed for kids at 59.90€ ($70), sales skyrocketed during 2020. The toy, launched by the French startup Lunii in 2016, represented 14.4% of the annual toy sales in France in 2020, making it the most sold toy in the country that year. A stellar achievement for a 7-year-old hardware startup in a market trusted by giant and historical players such as Lego, Hasbro, Barbie, Fisher-Price or Mattel.
Now a 90-employee company, Lunii sold more than 300,000 Storytellers in 2020 and reached 18,5M€ ($22M) in total revenues that same year, of which 85% came from the sales of the device and 15% from the online sales of its content.
Today, the startup is manufacturing 2,000 units a day to meet the enthusiastic demand. A dream come true for Co-founder and Co-CEO Maëlle Chassard, whose imagination as a kid knew no boundaries. At a time where screens are everywhere, Chassard’s mission to rekindle children's imagination with a new category of screen-free storytelling devices was a daring bet though, even more so as a new graduate.
In an interview with The Org, entrepreneur Maëlle Chassard told the story of how Lunii went from unveiling its first prototype in 2014 to becoming the most sold toy in France in 2020.
Nurturing kids' imagination through stories
Lunii's toy, “My Fabulous Storyteller”, is basically a ‘choose your own adventure’ speaker designed for kids. The intent behind the product, which doesn’t support Wifi or Bluetooth and doesn’t have any screen - only buttons - is to foster kids’ imagination by enabling them to build their own stories and enjoy a quiet time away from screens.
Parents can pick any story on the Luniistore among the 200+ albums available in English, French, Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Russian, Flemish and German, and transfer it to the Storyteller by plugging the device directly into the computer. Kids are then free to use the toy on their own; prompted to choose a hero, an object, a location and another character, they can listen to their personalized story wherever and whenever (the player can hold over 100 hours of content).
The idea for Lunii's Storyteller emerged in Chassard's mind during her end-of-studies memoir at Strate Ecole de design, a renowned school for technical education dedicated to industrial design, 3D modeling and design thinking. For the memoir, Chassard looked into how imaginaries were born, how they got transformed by the development of sciences, and how, today, their importance and development have weakened because of screens.
Asked about what place imagination had in her childhood, Chassard answered: "It was my day-to-day life. I couldn't spend a day without creating many imaginary worlds in my head. I'm not part of this generation born with ubiquitous screens in their environment, I had more moments of boredom, and we know today that from boredom emerges creativity."
Acclaimed prototype after acclaimed prototype
For her diploma project, Chassard designed a prototype that would later become Lunii's Storyteller. This early version received a lot of encouragement from the student’s teachers and the director of the school who all advised her to apply for a grant from the region Ile-de-France created to fund the first prototypes of a product.
"As soon as I joined Strate for my first year I knew I wanted to be an entrepreneur, and I had the strong intuition that my diploma project would be the project I would want to turn into an entrepreneurial project. And this is what happened," the entrepreneur recalled.
Chassard was then joined by three co-founders: brothers Igor and Thomas Krinbarg (respectively co-CEO and CCO) and CTO Eric Le Bot. All of them shared the desire to start a company and had complementary profiles and skillsets, a rare and perfect combination to launch a hardware startup: Chassard came from the design world, Igor Krinbarg had a business background, Le Bot was an engineer and Thomas Krinbarg a maker and prototyper.
After successfully obtaining the grant, the four entrepreneurs spent ten months building the first ten prototypes in Igor Krinbarg's apartment. This final prototype was designed in wood and came in a bigger size and with a heavier weight compared to the first commercial version that would eventually launch in 2016.
Introduced during an event in Paris, the early version of the player was acclaimed by the general public which granted the product with the People's Choice Award. Despite the rough aesthetics of the prototype, many attendants asked where to buy the product. Those two signs of trust and excitement for the device led the team to finally incorporate the company and move to production.
The long path towards manufacturing
The founders were then confronted with the challenges of manufacturing and their lack of experience. "My little heart of designer got crushed because I thought it would be possible to manufacture in France, but the reality turned out to be different. We were told by French factories that our volumes were too low and that the project would anyway cost a few hundreds of thousands of euros, which we didn't have," Chassard said.
The Lunii team ended up working with an engineering office based between France and Hong Kong, through which the startup found the ideal factory in Shenzhen to produce their first 20,000 units into two batches of 8,000 and 12,000 devices. Then, between 2014 and early 2016, the co-founders spent a year and a half figuring out the manufacturing process and traveling back and forth between France and the factory.
In parallel with the industrialization process, the entrepreneurs launched a crowdfunding campaign on the French platform Ullule that enabled them to create their community of early adopters and ambassadors by raising 42,000€ ($50,000). "The success of the Storyteller is highly based on word-of-mouth," Chassard explained. The team didn't do any digital campaign at first but rather spent time building their community of users and going to tradeshows and events to evangelize about the product. "We went to startup events, tech events, toys events, family events, pitch competitions... It was a period of time where we were everywhere!" said the entrepreneur in a laugh.
After starting the production in March 2016, the startup finally launched its first official product in August. A move made possible thanks to a Seed funding round of 450,000€ ($540,000) raised from families, friends and private investors found through the crowd equity platform Sowefund.
An instant hit
Chassard said it was important for the company to have a presence in retail immediately. The founders went to pitch two major toy retailers in France, Nature et Découvertes and Oxybul, which were both sold on the product right away despite all risks.
"When we launched, the storyteller market didn't exist. We were the first storyteller on the French market so, back then, retailers didn't know where to put our product on their shelves. But they were super excited about our player and they patiently waited for months for us to finish manufacturing so they could order their units," Chassard said.
The Lunii Storyteller became an instant hit, immediately becoming the best seller at both Nature et Découvertes and Oxybul. And according to Chassard, Lunii’s sales figures were impressive for a young, four-person startup. Indeed, the startup sold over 20,000 units in just four months. This searing success grabbed a lot of attention and eventually convinced other retailers and pure players to distribute the product.
Aligning Lunii’s stories and corporate governance with the company’s values
From day one, the company's strategy has always been to build a strong revenue stream based both on the sale of the Storyteller and the Lunii e-store which now features more than 20 albums of stories.
To produce the first four albums, the Lunii co-founders created a competition to spot talent. The pitches for the four stories were purposely framed around four traditional, universal and timeless universes: fairy tales, pirates, dinosaurs and space. "Back then, we didn't have a proper editorial line. It's why our second hiring was Marine Baudoin, who is today our publishing director.”
Since Baudoin joined the team, she has recruited a team of editors, built the roster of talent, and designed the content strategy. Alongside that, Lunii created its publishing house. “We knew that content was strategic and that it was the key element that would drive adoption and usage in the long term," Chassard said.
The editorial line has been progressively built around Lunii's corporate values: open-mindedness and openness to difference and diversity. Last November, the startup added a new album called “Les Lumineuses”, a story written by Afro feminist author Laura Nsafou about magic and a group of women living in the African deserts.
"It's important for us that our products and services embody the values in which we believe," Chassard explained. "It's true for our management style and our strategic decisions too. For example, we keep a close eye on our employee base statistics to make sure everything is balanced.” Also, she added, employees have access to self-knowledge training programs so each team member is empowered to design their career path.
The founding team has never forgotten its dream of producing the Storyteller in France, despite the early manufacturing hiccups. At the end of last year, the startup proudly announced it had moved its production back to the country in a factory based in the South of France. The news was received with great praise from the media and the French government and for good reasons. While this tour de force led to lower transportation costs and a higher product reliability, it also implied higher production costs, a difference that the team decided not to translate on the final retail price.
Asked about what is important to her as a CEO and as a person, Chassard answered with no hesitation: "What motivates me on a daily basis is to have a positive impact where I can have a positive impact. And it's my job at Lunii to make sure that our actions, our stories, our products, our decisions reflect who we want to be as a lasting company, which is a responsible and inclusive company with a positive impact."
Now that Lunii has conquered the hearts of the kids and parents of France it’s uniquely poised to inspire kids’ imaginations beyond the French borders.
The Org is a professional community where transparent companies can show off their team to the world. Join your company here to add yourself to the org chart!