Fueled by far-out ideas
December 2, 2011

Everyone on the bed! The NSCAD grads who work at The Orb Factory gather for a group photo. Front: Moon Hee Nam (BFA 2000, BDes 2004), Andrea Flockhart (BFA 2011), Lara Ripley (BDes 2009), Ian Burns (BFA 2010), The Orb Factory’s founder Steven Kay. Middle row: Jillian Boyce (BFA 2009), Jenna Langille (BDes 2009), Bronya Meharg (BDes 2011), Liam Higgins (BFA 2010). Back: Katrina Bautista (BDes 2011), Nora MacLeod (BDes 2008), Genevieve Long (BFA 2011), Vanessa Wilson (BDes 2008), Kristine Richer (BDes BFA 2009).

Based in an unassuming strip mall in Spryfield, The Orb Factory sells 40-million craft kits a year. Kids, mainly girls, in 50 countries around the world play and create with interactive toys—jewelry kits, mosaics, sticker books, fashion flowers, sparkly mirrors, decorate-yourself jewelry boxes and so much more.

As it celebrates its 20th anniversary, founder Steven Kay was named the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year.

He says the secret to his company’s success is innovation and its focus on product development. And, a big part of that innovation is due to the energy and imagination of the company’s team members, many of whom are hired straight out of NSCAD University.

“The thing I want in my employees is for them to push the design, to go way out there … to think of something crazy and ridiculous,” says the CEO, who keeps a desk in the company’s break room. More than half of The Orb Factory’s 40 employees, from those in product development to those in the Hong Kong, China and the United States, have studied at the city’s storied college of art and design.

“You really have to travel in far-out ideas if you want to get anywhere,” he says. “You can’t just travel in the status quo.”

In hiring new people, Steven looks for an “inquisitive nature,” “a rigor and work ethic” and “sparkling intelligence.” “These are the people we find coming through NSCAD,” he says.

All those far-out ideas—“hammered back into something realizable” —are poured into product development. He says the goals of The Orb Factory’s craft kits are that they are simple, give a beautiful result and are fun to do—like the array of Stick ‘n Style kits that lets girls make bangle bracelets, crystal clutches, glam rock purses  and headbands that are flying off toy store shelves this Christmas.

Once the gifts are unwrapped, the company launches its “plush craft” line in January, 12 products that will retail between $5 and $20. “Now the team is focused on hatching the big idea for January 2013,” he says.

With a strong entrepreneurial zeal, Steven went to NSCAD too in the 1980s, but left, hungry to get experience. Nevertheless, he’s enthusiastic about the graduates coming out of the school today—“It’s not so straight forward because a lot of what’s happening at NSCAD is not directly relatable to making money; after all, it’s not a business school. But what value on imagination? On creativity? On the next big idea?

“These young people are just so juiced and excited about creating toys for kids. You think of that creative energy nurtured by NSCAD—it’s trapped right in the design of our products and that gets shipped out to millions of children. That to me is very powerful.”

To illustrate what NSCAD means to The Orb Factory, a group photo is organized in the company’s photographic studio which is dressed like a girl’s bedroom; the place empties out as the NSCAD grads jostle for room on the bed pushed against one wall.

“This is a really fun place to work; Steven wants everyone to be really happy,” says Nora MacLeod, 25, who graduated from NSCAD in 2008 with a Bachelor of Design. Now she manages all of the licensed products for The Orb Factory. “It’s crazy busy; we’re growing really fast; and things are always changing. And the main thing: I’m always learning.”

Newly minted design grad Katrina Bautista, 20, was hired as a junior graphic designer at The Orb Factory in October, and is working on the new product line. There’s a lot of pressure, she says, but somehow it’s manageable.

“Wow, we are problem solving all the time. What does each component cost? How many sparkles in the kit? How do we ship this? But the thing is, there is so much openness and encouragement here that you learn so much.”

She says she feels blessed to be working at The Orb Factory. “In interviews, so much of what I would hear is, ‘I’m sure you would be good … but go back and get some experience and then talk to us.’ I’m so lucky to have gotten this break.”

LINK:The Orb Factory