The Playful Den


I’m going to start a toy company. And I invite you all to come watch me fail!

I have just returned from a trip to London Toy Fair. What a treat to go and do some networking and be around real life humans outside of their screens!

It’s the first time I have been to any kind of industry event for over 2 years. Working full time on my own has been convenient and productive at times, but the absence of organic social touch points, travel and cultural outings, has made the inspiration furnace harder to ignite. 

Most people who know me well, know that I have always wanted to start a toy company. I am not particularly quiet about it. Perhaps I’m manifesting, but I like to role model to our children that it’s normal to have big dreams and be comfortable saying them out loud. The more you say them, the more likely you are to move toward them so dream chat is pretty normal in our home. Current status with my daughter is a koala rescue centre (shoutout to Netflix and Izzy’s Koala World).

I have poured over toy founder stories, daydreaming up my own Ruth Handler narrative and visualising my eclectic workshop of creativity and ideas, bringing in a team of people to nurture a playful working culture. Ahhhh my kind of work-play haven. I have always loved toys, my husband and I both collect vintage and cult toys and I have always been attracted to the concept of designing something that exists purely for fun and creating playful moments – essentially an item that creates joy, that opens a portal to imagination and connection. In its purest form, when we strip back some of today’s unwieldy commercial realities of the toy industry today, the notion of a toy is really rather precious. There is something about this I find captivating. 

The toy industry today is a nautilus of activity and competition. It’s responsive to fast trends, is IP dominated and licensed-led. Classics remain stable, evergreen brands continue to be updated and made relevant and somewhere in between viral movements of collectibles and wantables pop up and down like whack-a-moles. It’s exciting and I love it, but it’s also a little scary to think about finding your place in it.

Indulge me while I share a few personal observations about career and following your dreams as I figure out where I’m at with this and where I’m going. I recently learned the term ‘shadow career’ taken from Julia Cameron’s book, The Artists Way. A shadow career is where you work close to what your dream is and next to others doing the thing you want to do, but you stay in the shadows. In reach but never touching. You’re a Beyonce as a backing singer. I’ve not read the book (yet) so I won’t launch into pretending I know about it in depth, but even just sitting with this framing was very eye opening for me. My inner dialogue between my inner kid dreamer and my grown up sensible ego went a little like this: 

  • OMG that’s you! You’ve had a shadow career! 
  • I really don’t think so. I’m literally a rainbow unicorn, I don’t do shadows.  
  • Errrmmmmm….duh! Yes is it. You’ve butted right up to the edges of your dream, but never actually crossed into it
  • No that’s not true. I chose my career, I started the business, it was all chosen and done with purpose. I had a plan. I was on a mission. I didn’t know what would happen, but it was well thought out  
  • Well if choosing your career means finding yourself in Australia panicking because you haven’t done a work placement for your degree, because you went traveling instead, and now your tutor is hassling you, so you open a phone book (OMG how old are we?!) and find a local market research agency who for some reason take a liking to you, and think you’re some kind of genius creative thinker (were you stoned when you went there?) and they offer you a visa to go live and work there, then, yes, it was very planned out. Very purposeful and definitely straight from the soul 
  • Hmmmm. Well let’s fast forward. Much later on, when I made the decision to start my own agency, to build something unique and different that I was passionate about, I had autonomy and was in control of that journey
  • I mean yes, go you. But was a career review and change in direction even on your radar, especially now you had a new baby?
  • Good god no. I couldn’t afford to take any kind of pay cut back then or retrain, if anything I was trying to figure out how to propel myself quicker up the ranks so I could buy a home and at the same time still have time to parent. Also I didn’t really know about ‘career changes’, that wasn’t really the done thing, where I grew up and came from you just kept moving on up, especially if you were good at it 
  • So you were motivated by being good at something and by improving your lifestyle? 
  • Yes, but I was also passionate about what we were building and I enjoyed it. I had my dream client list and was ready to go get them (spoiler alert, I did FYI)  
  • And when you built it, did you feel that way the entire time? 
  • Well, I guess my engagement quietened down when I found myself feeling drained from years of giving all my creative energy to other people and other companies. But that was, of course, the job and what I was paid to do. 
  • But why did that bother you? That wouldn’t be a problem for everyone. Why was working on those brands you wanted to partner with so much, so important to you, but then couldn’t hold your inner flame?
  • Well, I guess deep down, I thought that I might have the potential to create something myself that was different and special and exciting. That I could be the client I guess. Something that I could pour my creativity into. I just really craved non stop creativity – writing, designing, drawing, filming the whole shebang and I couldn’t quite get at it enough. I was close but not close enough.
  • Cough. Cough. Ohhhh….so you mean you felt like you were working in the shadows? Close to, but not actually doing the thing? 
  • Your silly and I hate you 
  • Just shut up and make your silly toys you idiot 
  • Ok fine whatever 
  • Lol. See you back here when you’re having your next imposter blockage.  

I would never have considered myself to be someone working in the shadows of my dream. When you achieve something that everyone (including you) labels as ‘lucky’, it is hard to embrace wanting more, dreaming further and deeper. My female conditioning yelps up and says – enough already, stop being greedy, just settle with what you have. But when you suppress the inner dreamer, kid gets restless. And when I consider how long I have daydreamed about having a toy company (I have been playing a longstanding game with my kids where we invent playful games and ideas for years now), and then I look at how I’ve spent my time on my actual job – consulting, researching and innovating for kids and family brands, some of them toy makers, giving them all my best thinking, best ideas and truly putting everything into helping them bring joy and play to their consumers, well, I can’t help but feel like I’ve had a bit of a light bulb switch on in the shadows. 

Isn’t it funny how everything is always under your nose and yet you can never see it? 

A few years back, I hired a junior designer, a lovely fresh graduate. Oh how I miss those. I always liked to have a one on one with any new recruit and so I started explaining my relationship to design and why it was a strong part of our brand story. I told her I was kind of infatuated with how things looked and were presented, not for vanity (ok fine, a bit), but because I was curious about how design elevates our experience of interpreting messages and how in a digital world it can wake people up and make them feel things. I also explained that not all insight agencies gave this many craps about how things looks, even some clients couldn’t give a hoot, the latest trend was asking for a basic word doc (be still my beating heart which has been slain with times new roman knights) – style over substance some love to say. My view however was always to strive for both, one does not need to be sacrificed for the other, they should dance together. Her response surprised me and has stuck with me (and also cemented my belief that we can learn from anyone at anytime no matter their title or years of experience).  ‘I get that’ she said, ‘because you are a designer. I could tell when I met you’. I was a little confused by this, given I was very much not a designer. I was the founder of an insights agency. I was a strategist, a leader, an ideas person. I was not a designer. I did not know how to make graphics, art or create things. And yet it’s a comment I’ve come back to over and over. 

My resistance to this statement and my veering happily into the shadows of my dream not even aware I was in them, is potentially connected to early school experiences of art and design and a lack of encouragement in creative subjects, based on the rather tragic evidence that I absolutely could not draw, paint, sculpt, sew or do anything technically arty. I am a highly creative person – concepts and ideas follow me around all day long, but I’m not technical. I’m not even allowed to frame prints at home because they inevitably end up ‘on the wonk’. Now I can’t help but wander, with a different line of encouragement and a more nuanced appreciation and recognition by anyone around me of my creative potential, how I might have taken other directions.

  • You might have been in the Tate by now
  • Seriously. You really need to calm down

I now realise that I do design. All the time. I do it in my head. I non-stop design. I see in colours and shapes. I design through words, through sharing ideas on social media and making videos. I can’t count (literally, I’ve only recently learned I have dyscalculia which explains why every finance meeting felt like I was taking a pHd), but I can join dots effortlessly, I see opportunity everywhere, it is a natural reflex of playfulness. I used that skill to create insights, to stop things others couldn’t see amongst a whole bunch of information and now I come to realise that I would actually like to carry on using that skill but to channel into creating products, brands and services. I realised that junior designer was spot on, I am a designer. And that is indeed what I want to do more of. 

I recently received some sad news about a friend. In fact the longer I seem to be on this planet, the more sad news seems to emerge. Especially over the past 2 years. I guess I’m maybe reaching my now or never point. my f!ck it moment. I am fairly sure this project will fail (start with low expectations they say), and I’ll outline exactly all the reasons why in my next post, but I thought I would do it and the share the journey anyway, because as you may have noticed my inner kid is a noisy tart and if I don’t play with her soon she’s going to become completely out of control.

So. I conclude and put into writing that I, Emma Louise Worrollo, would like to start taking some actual proper steps to start my dream toy company. Except I won’t be making toys, I will be making play-tools. This will be a whole different approach to thinking about toys and everyday play. I know this, because I’ve already been designing it forever.


Boom. Let’s go.