Small Business

Build-A-Bear's Founder Shares Her Story


Maxine Clark talks about what compelled her to leave a well-paid job at 47 and start her own business—and what motivates her today

The Entrepreneur: Maxine Clark, 57

Background: Clark left a successful corporate career to start her own business, Build-A-Bear Workshop (BBW), then a relatively new concept in retail entertainment.

The Company: Since launching its first workshop in St. Louis in 1997, the business has expanded to 300 shops across Asia, Canada, Europe, and the U.S., with sales of $437 million. In June, Build-A-Bear Workshop helped launch Ridemakerz(BusinessWeek.com, 7/19/07) a build-your-own model toy car retailer—in which it has a major investment stake.

Her Story: I left Corporate America on a mission to bring the fun back to retailing and to give back to the industry that had been so good to me. I was 47 years old when I left Payless ShoeSource (PSS) in 1996. At that time, my financial rewards in retailing were very high, but my psychic income account was nearly empty.

When I graduated from the University of Georgia in 1971, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. I needed to go to work to earn the money for law school, but I never considered it seriously once I got my feet wet in retailing.

I started out as a retail trainee with May Department Stores in Washington, D.C. Over time, I worked my way up, taking on various roles in management. During my 19 years there I was involved in everything from planning and research to marketing and product development. In 1992, I became president of Payless.

Bored by Shopping

While I didn't make much money starting out, by the time I rose through the executive ranks I was earning a substantial salary, complete with stock options and a generous bonus and retirement plan. But I later realized that money alone didn't translate into personal satisfaction if you aren't doing what you are passionate about. I didn't necessarily have an "aha!" moment; the pieces just started to fit together for a change. I knew I wanted to get back in touch with the customer and be creating a new business idea, even though I didn't know what that was at the time.

Quite frankly, I was bored by shopping and decided to put my money where my mouth was. I was looking to re-create the excitement and magic I felt as a child when I visited certain stores. Going shopping was an event. You became part of the store, and it was special. The truth is, what it takes to engage and retain retail customers today is really not much different than it was in the past. Build-A-Bear Workshop is about what I call "good old-fashioned, it's-about-the-customer retailing."

When I left Payless ShoeSource, I could have left retailing or even retired. Fortunately I had enough money to do anything I wanted, even if pay or responsibilities were not comparable. I had the luxury to learn something totally new or go off to a tropical island somewhere. Anyone who knows me, though, would laugh at the island idea.

Creative Retailing for Children

I wanted to apply my experience to something that was unique and different. I wanted to take the concept of children's retailing a step beyond where it was and turn it into experience retailing; something that would allow me to use my creative talents and encourage the same kind of creative thinking in children. I wanted to create a business that could achieve financial success by connecting with guests and putting the fun back into retailing.

I like to say the lightbulb went off for Build-A-Bear Workshop one day in the summer of 1996. I was out shopping with my friend Katie, who was 10 years old at the time. We were on a mission to find Beanie Babies, but the store that had promised a new shipment had none left. Katie looked at me and said, "These are so easy—we could make them." She meant go to my basement and do a craft project, but what I heard was so much bigger and the idea for Build-A-Bear Workshop was born.

Building On Her Passion

I have always believed in listening to what others have to say, but being careful about the advice you actually take. Rather than adhering strictly to the traditional ways of doing things, I challenge myself and those I work with to think more creatively. I'm constantly trying to come up with ways we can take a conventional product or task and put our own unique spin on it by making it more "bearish."

For instance, Build-A-Bear Workshop didn't invent teddy bears, nor were we first to create the places that make them. But we put an entirely new spin on the teddy bear business. We saw possibilities like no one else. People always say to me "Why didn't I think of that?" Well, because teddy bears weren't their thing, they weren't their passion, but perhaps they have a passion for something else.

One of the greatest challenges that I've faced hasn't been based around being a female business owner (BusinessWeek.com, 3/15/07). Instead it's convincing people that Build-A-Bear Workshop and teddy bears are not a fad and that this concept has staying power. Every grown-up that I spoke to about the idea before I started said it wouldn't work, but every child I spoke to loved it, so I knew it was a winning concept. Teddy bears are over 100 years old. In 2007 we are celebrating our 10th birthday and have sold over 50 million furry friends!

Don't Sweat the Small Stitches

I've learned many lessons along the way, and I consider mistakes part of the learning process. I encourage people to take risks and to make the most of the mistakes that do occur. In my book, The Bear Necessities of Business, I write about how mistakes make you better. We've taken some of our old so-called mistakes and turned them into the normal course of business.

For example, we had a mistake in our clothing for our bears—when I was ordering clothes from our manufacturer, I didn't think to ask them to leave a little hole in the back of each outfit so the animal's tail could fit through. Once the clothes arrived in the store, our associates started making these peek-a-boo holes by ripping an inch out of the seam in every outfit. When I realized my mistake, I didn't beat myself up. I just called the manufacturer and asked for a tiny hole opening the seam in every outfit. Problem solved.

Finally, you should always allow yourself to dream—and dream big—it's only through such thinking that great things happen. Don't limit yourself because you don't think your dream is attainable. You must start by believing you can truly achieve whatever you set your mind to, no matter how big it might seem. Not dreaming big enough is one of the biggest mistakes you can make—if you can't see your dream, how do you expect others to?

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