INTERVIEWS

Jason Sweeting, Naturally Perfect: Communicate Your Vision

Following your passion won’t necessarily result in a sustainable career. For every artist pursuing their dream full time, there are countless others slaving away at jobs that they hate. So how do you turn your passion into your profession? Each week Just Like Grape brings you interviews with designers, artists and entrepreneurs who are able to do what they love. 

Toys are more than pure entertainment. They help educate children and can influence a child’s perspective on the world. When Jason and Angelica Sweeting struggled to find a doll that looked like their daughter, they decided to make their own. They soon realized they were not alone; many parents wanted dolls that celebrated their children’s beauty. And thus Naturally Perfect Dolls was born. You can learn more about Naturally Perfect Dolls on their Facebook page and on Instagram

In this interview, you’ll learn about: 

How Jason and Angelica navigated Naturally Perfect Dolls from a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign to a deal on Shark Tank

The social mission behind Naturally Perfect Dolls

The obstacles first-time entrepreneurs face when tackling unfamiliar markets

Just Like Grape: What first gave you the idea to start Naturally Perfect Dolls? 

Jason Sweeting: Well, we didn’t want to start a business at first. We picked up our daughter from school one day and she was crying. She was crying uncontrollably. So we finally got her to calm down enough and you know finally my wife and I said: “Hey you know Sophia, what's wrong with you?” And she says, “I'll never be beautiful. I need yellow hair and white skin. That way I can be a princess.”

Of course, my heart is falling down and out of my body. I don't know exactly what's wrong with my kid because I think we’re great parents. We read to them at night and tell them that they're beautiful. So I'm wondering how in the world could a kid not get the idea that she's precious and special because we've been telling her. 

However, what we learned was that outside influence. Whether it be the media whether it be movies, television shows or whatever are telling young girls. Not just black girls and not just Caucasian girls and not just Asian girls, not just Latino girls, but all girls telling them at a very young age that they're pretty, but just not pretty enough. 

So after being heartbroken about how our daughter felt, my wife and I decided that we had to combat her not feeling beautiful. She didn't feel wonderful. We decided that we would make a doll so that she could see her herself in the toys that she played with. 

Of course, we bought a whole lot of dolls and a whole lot of toys but none quite celebrated the beauty of our daughter. That's the moment we jumped right down the rabbit hole and we haven't looked back since. 

JLG: How did you actually produce the doll? Do you have a background in toymaking? 

Jason: No, not at all. I am a musician and my wife had a background in business and finance. We had to find people to help us create the doll. 

When you work with designers and toy makers, you have to be relentless and obsessive about what you want. Almost like a music producer or like a chef. If you know you want a certain color pink, that means you don't stop until you get that pink. 

And it has been painstaking for us. And maybe you might frustrate other people, but we know what we want to see. 

The first sculptor that we were worked with was used to producing dolls with Eurocentric features. The world has kind of applied a Eurocentric feature likeability to most every culture. So the quote unquote most beautiful Asian woman looks less Asian and more Asian-European. The most beautiful black woman doesn't look quite like a black woman. She looks like a black woman with a little Caucasian. 

But what we wanted to do was make sure that certain features were celebrated. So we didn't want the nose to be too thin because, quite honestly, black folks don't have very thin noses. We didn't want their lips to be too thin because, quite honestly, black people tend to not have thin lips. We wanted to make sure the hair was right. Because quite honestly you know kinky curly hair is not something that the world is used to doing. They're not used to putting it on dolls. 

JLG: How did you finance the initial production? 

Jason: Some of our friends told us about Kickstarter. That was summer 2014 and we did some research and we looked at it and we decided to take the leap. So my wife quit her job and we started a Kickstarter in May of 2015. I'm still very proud that we had a huge goal of $25,000 and we met that goal within 48 hours. And by the end of 30 days, we had raised nearly $90,000 dollars. 

Now, it wasn't just a doll. It was a prototype. And now we weren't just parents, we were entrepreneurs and we jumped down the rabbit hole even further. 

JLG: Wow. That’s a really successful Kickstarter campaign. What did you do with the money? 

Jason: It was May 2015 and I can remember it like it was yesterday. 

This must sound like such a romantic story. Beautiful wife quits job. Things work out like gangbusters. The campaign goes wonderfully. All the money is flowing.

Let me just put a pause on that right now. What it is is a whole lot of hard work. My wife and I never put our laptops down and we never put our clothes down for like 14 months leading up to Kickstarter, when my wife decided that she was going to let her job go.

We ended up having all sorts of difficulties to sacrifice for this doll. Before starting Naturally Perfect, I was a musician. To get things up and running, we had some hard months. One month, I played 45 gigs They're only 30 days in a month and no gig was less than three hours. So I played three hours, four hours, five hours twice a day. Six hour stretches. Whatever it took to make money so that we can at least afford to go to the grocery store let alone afford another specification update on our product

JLG: And eventually you ended up on Shark Tank, right? 

Jason: Yeah, it took us two years to get on Shark Tank. We actually had to audition four times. In our last audition, we decided that we wanted to be crazy and noticeable because we wanted to make sure that the producers and the people that we are you know really noticed who we were and what we're trying to do. 

So I dressed up as Snow White. The wig, the dress, the stockings, the works. I'm Snow White. My wife is dressed up like Belle. 

What we said is basically, “I know you think we look crazy but every day someone is dressing up and trying to look like someone else's standard of beauty. And that's crazy.”

Why are we looking or trying to live up to someone else's standard or definition of beauty? We should be naturally perfect. We should know that we all are naturally perfect and that's how it started for us. 

They ended up liking it and we shot the show in June 2016. It's nothing like television. Television makes it look beautiful and glamorous and flows. Man, but really it's an hour we stood in front of the sharks for about an hour and a half defending our business. 

Finally, Damon said, “Hey I'll do a deal with you guys.” And unlike any other deal on Shark Tank, we ended up with a deal that has social awareness built into the deal. So we cut a 30-30-30-10 deal which essentially means my wife and I own 30 percent a piece. And the people own 10 percent that we give back to. So we give back in the way of programs and in the way of monetary donations. We give back 10 percent of sales to help out and do things to empower young girls and women. 

JLG: It sounds like things are going pretty well so far. What’s a speed bump that you faced early on in your journey?

Jason: I didn't know the dolls came with underwear. So our first shipment of dolls didn’t have underwear and people were like, “Oh my god your dolls are nude.” There are always things that you won’t think about.