Marina Khidekel: Founder of Hugimals

Episode 319

Marina Khidekel saw just how comforting a weighted blanket could be. But why not a stuffed animal that could hug back? Marina founded Hugimals to bring comfort & calm to many by creating high-quality weighted stuffed animals for kids & adults that do just that – hug you back. At a time when we could all use a hug or two, Hugimals helps with sleep while combining the calming benefits of a weighted blanket with the portability of a favorite stuffed animal. We learn all about Marina’s backstory as a longtime health journalist , the twists and turns of her entrepreneurial journey and all the lessons that she has learned along the way. So inspiring! This is a special episode that you won’t want to miss. On this episode of #TheKaraGoldinShow.

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Kara Goldin 0:00
I am unwilling to give up that I will start over from scratch as many times as it takes to get where I want to be I want to be, you just want to make sure you will get knocked down but just make sure you don’t get knocked down knocked out. So your only choice should be go focus on what you can control control control. Hi, everyone and welcome to the Kara Goldin show. Join me each week for inspiring conversations with some of the world’s greatest leaders. We’ll talk with founders, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and really some of the most interesting people of our time. Can’t wait to get started. Let’s go. Let’s go. Hi, everyone, it’s Kara Goldin from the Kara Goldin show. And I am so so thrilled to have my next guest here with an amazing, amazing product and company. But first let’s talk about her Marina Khidekel is the founder of Hugimals. And if you have not heard of Hugimals, you absolutely need to learn all about her founding story and get a handle immediately. So one of the Hugimals so we’ll talk about all the different ones, but they are so so so awesome. Marina is the founder of hugger moles, which as I mentioned, is a stuffed animal, a weighted stuffed animal for kids and adults that hugs you back. And it’s at a time of course, when we could all use a hug or two, hug or moles has scaled is a great great hit. And such a amazing, amazing gift by the way if we’re getting ready for the holidays coming up soon. So if you don’t know what to purchase for somebody, it’s such great opportunity to do that with hug demos. So consumers have highlighted that it lowers stress increases calm and helps with sleep, while combining the emotional support and portability of a favorite stuffed animal. But more importantly, her fascinating backstory of being a long time health journalist who became fascinated with the science of weighted pressure and how it triggered a relaxation response was really what triggered her to decide to be super crazy courageous and start Hagia malls and just so she can make everybody a lot more happy and healthy. So I love love, love that story. So can’t wait to speak with Marina about her entrepreneurial journey. So without further ado, welcome, Marina.

Marina Khidekel 2:40
Thank you so much, Kara for having me. I feel like we don’t have to do the podcast. That was like a perfect intro and you. You called it so honored to be here. I love this podcast.

Kara Goldin 2:50
Oh, that’s so nice. Thank you Well, okay, so I always ask this question at the beginning. So when you’re describing Hugimals, how do you describe it to friends? Who asked you? Um,

Marina Khidekel 3:03
well, the most basic way is to say that they are a weighted stuffed animal. They’re for kids and adults, because people always assume, you know, stuffed animal, maybe just for kids don’t know Not sure I kind of want it. But is it just for kids? It’s not, I actually created them for me. And we can get into that later. But it’s a way that stuffed animal that’s weighted throughout the body. So it feels like it’s hugging you back. And it combines the physical relaxation effects of a weighted blanket that deep touch pressure with the emotional connection of a favorite stuffed animal. And it’s portable, and it’s washable, which a lot of weighted blankets or not. So it kind of solves a problem that I was seeing.

Kara Goldin 3:42
You were not in the toy industry. You’re not in the stuffed animal industry. We briefly talked about you were a journalist and really focused on health and wellness, the former Chief Content Officer at Thrive and editor at women’s health Cosmo and glamour, amazing, amazing background. But Did you always know that you were gonna go and start your own company or start a physical goods company?

Marina Khidekel 4:10
No, not even close. So, uh, you know, I’ve always had a little bit of an entrepreneurial streak. Years ago, I started before newsletters really blew up when they were just starting I had a newsletter called underrated, where I would interview creatives, you know, notable actors, authors, singers, about the underrated products and places that they were not paid to endorse that they loved. And so I did that for a while but it always got really hard with a full time job to give the side hustle the life that it needed. So I shut that down. But no, the answer is no. You know, I always you know, as you said, I was a journalist I focused on health, mental health, women’s health, as well as you know, workplace culture careers. At Cosmo I edited the love and relationship section for four years. So I’ve really covered a lot of a lot of ground as a journalist and the idea For how animals really came about out of a personal need, and basically, I was having a lot of anxiety induced insomnia at one point. And, you know, like a lot of people I was, my mind was racing, and I just could not fall asleep at night. And, you know, I had been very interested in the science of weight and pressure, even before weighted blankets sort of emerged out of the special needs market and went mass a few years ago. And now everybody knows what a weighted blanket is. But there was a time when no one really knew about it, except, you know, occupational therapists, and people who have worked with those on the autism spectrum. And with sensory processing disorder, that kind of thing. So I’d call it a weighted blanket, and I loved it, but it got really hot at night. And so I ended up finding myself kicking it off in the middle of the night, and my mind would start spiraling again. And here I was, again, the only thing that helped me fall asleep, and this is gonna sound really ridiculous, was the weight of my partner Mike’s arm across me. And I was doing that for a while. And he was like, you have to find another way, this is all comfortable for one of us, and not the other one. And so and I knew that, and I started researching other waited modalities in the market. And so I saw, you know, weighted vests, weighted lap pads, and some way that plush, still mostly used in within, you know, special needs patients, but I didn’t find anything that I’d want. And I was really surprised, you know, the ones I saw were pretty cheaply made, they were only waited in the middle, not throughout the body, and there’s nothing that I want in my department that would look good. That was beautifully designed, basically. So I couldn’t find one. And I searched far and wide, I would go to Toy Fair as a journalist to see if the biggest toy companies, plush companies were making anything like this. And when I was going, it was before the pandemic. And, you know, I was a health journalist. So I heard these, you know, skyrocketing statistics of anxiety and mental health issues and kids and adults, I’ve heard the experts, please, like we need to, we need to focus on this. But the toy industry at the time, was very, very focused on STEM toys, which is also very important, but I couldn’t find anything for it social, emotional, you know, kind of the world. So I was like, you know, nobody’s making it. Let me just make a prototype and see. And that’s, that’s how I started.

Kara Goldin 7:17
That’s wild. What were like some of the biggest challenges. So of course, you had this idea to start the company, what was the first thing that you did?

Marina Khidekel 7:25
Well, I found a prototype maker, I just I didn’t know how to do any of this. I knew nothing about the toy industry. And it was also like an it’s an interesting product, because as I said, you know, it’s for kids, but it’s also for adults. So, you know, I started with a lot of research and research, I interviewed a lot of doctors, therapists, occupational therapists, pediatricians, just to like nail down what should the weight be? What should the facial expression be? What should the colors be? Again, my nerdy journalist side came out full force. Love it. And so you know, at first, I wanted to license the idea, because I always had full time jobs again, never thinking I would be a founder. And I ended up licensing it. This was in February 2020. Right before the pandemic, it was at the Toy Fair, about three weeks before the Javits Center became a COVID spittle in New York City, and I licensed it and the company I listened to, to help me make this beautiful product, which, you know, again, very research backed very attention to detail, we have this beautiful thing. And then that company got bought by another company that didn’t put out any physical products. So they, you know, were very apologetic, and they were like, We love this, but we can’t do anything with it here is, you know, here’s your inventory. And that was maybe the biggest challenge, the biggest decision I have ever had to make, because, you know, I have basically two choices, I could take this product I really believed in and throw them in the ocean, because I never started a company like this before. Or I could launch them in my own and start a company become a founder. And I ended up choosing the latter, for a lot of thought, but really what put me over the edge was, we did a free launch pilot and children’s hospitals around the country. So the toy foundation got wind of Alamos, and they wanted to partner to test them. And I was like, Yeah, I want to test the efficacy. I want to get them to the kids who really needed these hugs. And it’s a therapeutic product, not just a toy, so I was really excited. And the feedback from hospitals was unanimously positive, some of them reordered, I think Children’s Hospital and Miami now uses Hummels as a standard response tool for kids who need extra comfort and support. And so that feedback had already come in and I’ve seen the effect, and I just couldn’t, I couldn’t not do it. So, you know, I kept my job for as long as I as I could. Because I love that too. And then it was just, I knew it was just time and I had to launch and it just felt like Jumping off, you know, the highest diving board there was because I didn’t know where I would land.

Kara Goldin 10:05
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Kara Goldin 12:52
So you knew nothing about the physical goods. You had interviewed a lot of people who had done this, how did you and of course, this is right in the middle of the pandemic, that you’re trying to get the word out about hug almost like how did you get the word out? And you mentioned some of the hospitals that you obviously had distribution partnerships with along the way, but like, what did you do? I mean, when you were starting this company, what were some of the first things that you started to think about when you wanted people to know that you were doing it?

Marina Khidekel 13:24
That’s a really, that’s a really great question. I got a great group of sales consultants as a company who worked in the toy industry, which again, I was an outsider of, they sort of helped me launch on Amazon, they helped me launch it in small specialty retailers across the country. So I knew like I needed to get the nuts and bolts like I needed to launch. And I didn’t know how so I got some good people in my corner. And then my focus was, as you said, getting the word out, because I knew I had a really wonderful product that was helping people but nobody had heard of it. And it’s sort of like other weighted push are out there. They’re different. In many ways. They’re not, you know, machine washable, their weight is not distributed throughout the body. There’s, you know, the facial expressions aren’t as thoughtful hugging, most don’t have smiles and that’s on purpose. So you can feel any emotion and a no judgment zone and not have something you know, smiling back at you when you’re not feeling happy. So I knew I had something better. And I also knew nobody knew this and I have to get the word out. And that’s that’s sort of, you know, people say, you’re not going to know and I’ve talked to so many founders because it is so isolating sometimes, as you I’m sure know, launching something being a solo founder, a solo woman founder. And so I’ve been reaching out people have been connecting me with other founders, I’ve been learning from them. And it’s a lot of them say focus on what you know, as a strength of yours, because you can’t do everything even though you might want to So I really, really focused on, I didn’t hire a PR company, I just did it myself. And in my, you know, 20 years in the media world, I had built friends and contacts, you know, I places and even if I didn’t know someone at a certain publication, I could figure out how to get to them. So it was really like crafting the story of the brand and the mission, which is to help bring comfort to and ease anxiety and all kinds of people at a time when the world is stressed, more stressful than ever, with a science product. That’s also adorable, thank you say so myself. So I really focused on that, because I knew I had to get the brand equity, I had to get the name out there. And I have to get people sort of knowing what hug and walls were. So I just focused night and day on, you know, pitching it, trying to figure out where you know, who might cover it, how they might cover it. And that’s been such a such a joy to see, you know, the press as well as customers. But you know, the press really, it really resonating fab. And, you know, we’ve won people’s worth the hype of products, where the hype and but housekeeping is best toy awards, and some others are coming. And that’s been really wonderful. And it’s also been great as seeing the toy industry, embrace this product, because, you know, I was an outsider, and it’s a very close knit community. And I’ve gotten to know a lot of leaders and, you know, companies from going to these toy trade shows, I launched homos at one, and so on. And they’ve really embraced it to the point where the toy association of them was was nominated for a Toy of the Year Award three months after launching against the biggest names and toys and in in Flash, and I knew, you know, the nomination was was really special, like I you know, for a new product, and the first way then flush ever to be nominated for a Toy of the Year award.

Kara Goldin 16:55
That’s amazing. That is totally amazing. Well, I think it really sort of leads to the next question, which is, you’re still smiling. I know, this is not an easy thing to be doing. What do you love most about being a founder, entrepreneur, but also one? That is a mission driven one, right? That you’re you are clearly you’ve got consumers, you’ve got people telling you that this helping, right? Like it’s a powerful thing. I always say to people that having launched a mission driven company, I don’t know that I could ever go and do anything else, like I could work in other industries. But it’s to actually have that consumer feedback to say thank you, and you’re being helpful, whether you’re working for a for profit company, or a nonprofit company, it’s really powerful. And it’s hard to describe it to people. You know, when I was working in media, I didn’t get that kind of feedback from consumers. They wouldn’t write to say, you’ve changed my life like this. And I would imagine you’re getting very, very similar.

Marina Khidekel 17:57
Yeah, yeah. And as you said, you know, being a first time founder it is, it’s so much harder than I even thought it would be that sort of founder roller coaster is real. any given week, something great will happen and something terrible will happen. And you just have to like figure out how to live in between those and not live and die with with that roller coaster. But yeah, I mean, you said it Kara. What I love most is hearing how much this product is helping. And I don’t know that I could do it. Without that mission. I really can’t. We just got another big reorder from a nonprofit we work with this nonprofit works adjacent with the FBI. And they’ve been seeing a lot of success using HUD walls as a tool to comfort child and teen victims of traumatic crimes being investigated by the FBI. And when I heard that they were using them for that reason, I just, I mean, I got goosebumps and knowing that it’s working, and it’s helping and they’re, they’re reordering. And now you know, they’re going to be used for another organization that works with foster siblings who have been separated and are living in different homes and they want to give help themselves to each of the siblings. So there’ll be hugging the same thing at the same time. So not only will you know the physical, you know, calming, anxiety relieving properties of the deep touch puncher, but like knowing their sibling as having, you know, it, that really is what makes what makes all the hard stuff worth it for sure. And I’ve always been sort of, it’s a reason I got into journalism in the first place and, you know, covering mental health and in particular, I wanted to, you know, growing up my family is immigrants. We moved from Russia. I came to the States when I was two and mental health was just not discussed. And I’m sure a lot of people are not happy to have this experience but it was just you know, if you’re not bleeding or dying like you’re fine pick yourself up what are you crying about? You know, that kind of idea and they did the best They couldn’t. But if I had wanted more information, and so that’s why I got into journalism, I would read these, you know, like teen magazines being like, well, what are they saying like, are every questions normal. And so that led me down that path, it was all I ever wanted to do was be a magazine editor. And I was lucky enough to be able to do it for many years. But you know, I remember 10 or so years ago, I was an editor at glamour. And I wrote a piece about kidney donation chains, which were still new. So I followed this altruistic donor, this woman who just decided to donate her kidney to a stranger. And she did not know until I called her and told her, nobody had told her because these were new, she started a donation chain that saved 11 people’s lives, it was about 23 people along. And so we got all the people together that we could for a photo shoot, and it was this incredible story. And I got my first taste of, you know, I’ve gotten letters before, I’m like, you know, your article has helped me but we got multiple letters from readers saying they decided to donate a kidney, either to a friend or to a stranger, because of reading that. And that was sort of, I was just like, Yeah, that’s amazing. You have the power to help people’s lives for the better, whether it’s normalizing mental health issues or introducing them to, you know, options for that, how they can help people or now with how them was like physically helping them, you know, relax. It’s hard, like you said, it would be hard for me to do something that didn’t have that kind of mission.

Kara Goldin 21:25
Ya know, that is, that is just so so true. So people always think like, oh, you know, Marina has just snapped her fingers. And it she just made it happen. Of course, she’s worked in, you know, for thrive, she’s done glamour, she’s done lots of different great things in her life. So she just knows what she’s doing most of the time, but I’m sure along the way, you’ve hit some challenges or where you’ve been thinking, Okay, I don’t know how I’m going to make this one work out. But I’ve got to figure out how to move forward, can you share what one of those challenges was along the way and to what lesson you learned?

Marina Khidekel 22:10
Yeah, you know, being new to this kind of business. I, you know, at the begin, I have to say, having only been out in the market for five months. So it’s very, very new. But even before launch, at the beginning, I had some advisors that I really trusted, they, you know, worked at, you know, major toy companies before they, you know, bedded between the street and, you know, I knew in my gut that they were staring me down a direction I was not comfortable with, but I didn’t feel confident enough yet. And sometimes I still didn’t, but I don’t feel I didn’t feel comfortable with the industry to stop it. And it really became a situation that took, you know, months to dig myself out of, and it was something where I was, like, I’m not embedded in this industry, I haven’t founded a company before, but my gut is telling me like, this is not the right fit, like don’t do this. And it ended up you know, kind of not working exploding setback to the launch several months. And I just I think about that a lot. And, you know, there is something to be said about, like, you know, your product or brand or, you know, whatever it is you’re trying to put out into the world, you know, how you want it to be how you want to position it. And that’s one thing I did have, like the telling the brand’s story, you know, as a journalist, it, it just wasn’t a fit, where they were taking it, and I and I, I just felt cornered and if I had to listen to them. And it ended up, you know, shooting shooting myself in the company in the foot for a bit. So what

Kara Goldin 23:51
did you ultimately do to get to get out of that

Marina Khidekel 23:54
there was a deal that was, you know, in the works, and when that deal went, well, it fell through, which, you know, at first I was upset about that I was really happy because I realized, like, good, I can take this back and I can start over and I can launch it the way that I want. I wanted to so I ended up finding, you know, some other partners to work with who listened more and I felt like I got it better when I was trying to do so. It was ultimately like a mistake. You know, it really timewise it said the launch back a long time but like just set once one for the other I had to like kind of one step at a time, dig myself out of out of that situation and launch the way I wanted to.

Kara Goldin 24:37
And so do you think the lesson learned is kind of trust your gut, and you know, and not sort of go along with you know, oh, we know what we’re doing. We’re experienced. What do you think are like the key things I found so

Marina Khidekel 24:52
cliche, right? Like, just your gut like at this point. It feels like it’s you know, overused, very cliche, but on So yes, I mean, I knew it. And also, I didn’t trust, my, my own capability to steer myself and my new company in the right direction. It’s not that I didn’t trust my gut, but I also didn’t trust in myself enough. And I should have done that. Knowing even if I didn’t know the ins and outs of this industry in this kind of company, you know, this wasn’t feeling right. And I could figure out how to make it right. And at that moment, I didn’t think I would put and that was just listening to someone else, you know, who I thought, oh, you know, they have more experience, and they know best and it wasn’t, it didn’t work out that way. So I should have trusted in myself, in my own ability to at least figure it out.

Kara Goldin 25:47
Yeah, and I always think like as, as to coin, Steve Jobs, saying, like, the dots eventually connect, like, I always think that there are lessons in our life that are being placed in our life, that are painful. But but they’re not going to kill us. Right. And, and we got our way out of it. And now I mean, I think back on, you know, challenging situations that I’ve had that I don’t want to go through those things again, but they’ve, they’ve, they’ve really forced me to think about trusting my gut, like, I’m a huge today, trust my gut on people. Lots of different things, because of the challenging times and the mistakes that I’ve made along the way. So I think it’s it’s a really, you know, I’m grateful in some bizarre way for some of those moments that really, were sleepless nights anxiety, all of those things cost me money, whatever those things are, but I think that they are placed in our life for a reason. Yeah, absolutely.

Marina Khidekel 26:53
Another lesson I’ve been learning, you reminded me of it. And we’re talking about, you know, people and trusting people. It’s not about trusting. But a theme that I’ve been coming back to again, and again, is sort of this theme of, of weak ties, you know, there’s been research about how weak ties are often much better for your career, but it’s not just career I looked into it, it’s your, your well, being your sense of belonging, connectedness, even, you know, your ability to innovate. And that’s something that launching a new company, I’ve learned that, you know, the people that you think are going to be your biggest supporters and help you the most might not be the people who actually are your biggest supporters and help you the most, I found that so interesting. You know, and there’s so many people who have come back and in my life that I thought I never talked to again, or I lost touch with or whatever. And they’ve come out and, and I’ve done this for people too. So I shouldn’t have been so surprised. But they’ve come out and offered support in so many different ways. It’s just, you know, underscoring that the weak ties thing, but also, I don’t know what it is. It’s almost like a nostalgia thing to like people from my past. But I was just having lunch with a former coworker today, Wendy, she’s the editor and Wendy naugles, the editor in chief of people now and we worked at glamour together. And she’s like a huge supporter. And, you know, so many other people are, it’s just so interesting. And I don’t know, if you found this Carrie that like the, the people you think you’re going to count on and not necessarily those people?

Kara Goldin 28:17
Yeah, no, I have totally found that. When you’re going through a time to where you’re sort of seeking, you have to be open to these other relationships. And don’t be afraid to like, reach out to the weak connections that are out there that maybe you met that you think like, oh, well, that may not be exactly the connection, but they may lead me down, or maybe they don’t lead you anywhere, but they help you think about something that you should have thought of before, right? Like, oh, gosh, I didn’t realize that that person that I used to work with is now working in Amazon. And maybe I should reach out to them and just, you know, connect with them and just see if I’m, you know, using best practices, whatever that is, that’s what I found. All the connections eventually connect together. And it’s

Marina Khidekel 29:03
not so intuitive for me because I’m, I’m sort of that kind of person that’s like, I’ll do it myself. I’m not gonna ask my I’ll, you know, I don’t want to bother anyone, you know, and I’ve learned that is not the way and like, people will connect me to other founders. And now I know, like, even if I don’t know what the connection really is, I’m going to take the call, and I’m going to learn from this person, and I’m going to be grateful that they’re, you know, spending time talking about their own experience with me. Another thing that’s been hugely helpful, you know, from a business sense, but also emotionally as I start something completely new to me.

Kara Goldin 29:40
I love it. Well, I still see you smiling. And I know like I said, this is not an easy thing, you know, definitely are on a learning curve, and you’re scaling a business and doing all the right things. So it’s really exciting and I’m really proud and inspired by watching you and your Bernie. So likewise, thank you. Well, we’ll have everything in the show notes. But thank you so much Marina for talking to us and sharing your journey and your story really, really excited that you’re doing what you’re doing. Thanks all for listening to this episode. We hope you enjoyed it. And I want to thank all of our guests and our sponsors. And finally, our listeners. Keep the great comments coming in. And one final plug. If you have not read or listened to my book undaunted, please do so you will hear all about my journey, including founding, scaling and building the company that I founded. Hint we are here every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Thanks everyone for listening, and goodbye for now. Before we sign off, I want to talk to you about fear. People like to talk about fearless leaders. But achieving big goals isn’t about fearlessness. Successful leaders recognize their fears and decide to deal with them head on in order to move forward. This is where my new book undaunted comes in. This book is designed for anyone who wants to succeed in the face of fear, overcome doubts and live a little undaunted. Order your copy today at undaunted, the and learn how to look your doubts and doubters in the eye and achieve your dreams. For a limited time. You’ll also receive a free case of hint water. Do you have a question for me or want to nominate an innovator to spotlight send me a tweet at Kara Goldin and let me know. And if you liked what you heard, please leave me a review on Apple podcasts. You can also follow along with me on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and LinkedIn at Kara Goldin. Thanks for listening