Business

Cedar Rapids company kittd sells on-the-go games for kids

Business started by 2 women offers travel play sets

Kittd co-founder Maria Sanchez-Masi puts game pieces into a tin as she and her business partner and co-founder Kristie V
Kittd co-founder Maria Sanchez-Masi puts game pieces into a tin as she and her business partner and co-founder Kristie VanGorkom (not pictured) assemble components for their travel game Diner On-the-Go at Kittd in northeast Cedar Rapids on Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2020. The pair make on-the-go play sets, packed into travel-ready tins for children to unplugged playtime. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — As parents, the founders of a northeast Cedar Rapids company know how children can become bored and restless riding in a car for hours or sitting in the waiting room of a doctor’s office.

Maria Sanchez-Masi and Kristie VanGorkom, the owners of kittd — spelled with a small “k” — make and sell 15 on-the-go play sets — creative, unplugged activities in travel-ready tins.

The activities are powered by a child’s imagination, not batteries.

“Our kids have grown up with cellphones, iPads, computers and DVDs all around them,” Sanchez-Masi said. “As parents, we have been on the forefront of having those in our tool kit, but you don’t want to rely on that.”

“As our children were growing up, many of the studies were claiming that kids have too much screen time,” VanGorkom added. “They are losing their ability to focus, have patience and work on tasks for long periods of time.

“They are easily distracted because the games and videos move so fast. They lose the ability to slow down and create something on their own.”

Inside each of kittd’s snap-lid tins is a self-contained activity, designed to spark creativity and keep children entertained.

About the size of a cellphone, On-the-Go kits can be tucked into a purse, pocket or bag to have ready any time a distraction is needed.

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“We travel a lot with our kids, and we have tried a variety of travel toys,” VanGorkom said.

“None of them were exactly what we were looking for. They all come packaged in a way that you are going to either lose the packaging or the pieces.

“The kids throw it in their backpack and it falls open. The pieces go everywhere, you never see some of them again, or it is just too big to carry in a backpack or purse.”

The kittd play sets are designed to encourage individual creativity, eschewing rigid instructions.

“The only toys that we have with instructions are the games,” VanGorkom said. “Everything else is child-guided, open-ended, creative play.

“Children get it. They open the tin, pull it out and go, ‘Oh, OK,’ and just do it.

“Adults come up to us at craft fairs, open up a tin, and say, ‘How do you play it?’ We tell them to just hand it to their child and they will know what to do.”

The kittd play sets are sold on Amazon and Etsy. They also are available at a variety of Iowa retailers, including Raygun in Cedar Rapids, Iowa City and Des Moines, the Shops @208 in the NewBo district, the Early Bird Cafe in downtown Cedar Rapids, The Eastern Iowa Airport, Indian Creek Nature Center and Cedar Rapids Museum of Art.

The sets typically sell for $8 at local stores and $10 on Amazon.com and Etsy.com. The latter includes free shipping.

VanGorkom is a graphic designer by training and Sanchez-Masi is a clinical social worker.

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Neither wanted to return to their original fields full-time after their children were born, so they decided to start their own company in 2015.

“We had known each other for about five years and had worked together on projects for the Junior League,” Sanchez-Masi said. “Kristie had started her own business, working for herself, and had learned along the way that she needed another person to be involved. I had tried a number of part-time things and was looking for the right fit.”

Both women, as primary caregivers, needed the flexibility to stay home and care for sick children, pick them up from school when needed.

VanGorkom had the idea about the kits, which morphed into the travel play sets.

Sanchez-Masi and VanGorkom started with direct sales to consumers in 2016 at craft fairs and similar events as well as on Etsy.com. They also exhibited their products at the annual Chicago Toy and Game Fair.

They initially assembled the play sets in their kitchens. They eventually leased space at 5270 N. Park Place NE in Cedar Rapids for an office, assembly and shipping area.

VanGorkom and Sanchez-Masi realized they needed a sales representative and hired Amber Blomme, who was seeking a flexible job. She brought contacts with her to dramatically grow sales, the owners said.

“We have some samples out to Hudson, which merchandises the gift shops in most of the large airports in the country,” VanGorkom said. “We have a lot of things happening behind the scenes in the first quarter that will give us an idea of how fast we need to scale up production and what that will cost.”

Sanchez-Masi and VanGorkom have bootstrapped their business with the exception of a $1,500 grant awarded at the 2015 Invest in She competition sponsored by Iowa Women Lead Change.

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“We have looked at lines of credit through a bank as well as the micro loan program, which is interesting because it’s at a low rate of interest,” Sanchez-Masi said. “We have a few options.”

Garage Band looks at small businesses in their early, startup phase. If you have suggestions for a story, email michaelchevy.castranova@thegazette.com.

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