Slumberkins amazing success story for former Oregon, pro volleyball player Kelly Russell Oriard

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Kelly Oriard-Callie Christenson-Slumberkins-Oregon volleyball
Kelly Oriard, left, and Callie Christenson, the co-founders of Slumberkins

Kelly Oriard joked that back when she was Kelly Russell the volleyball player she could never get into the old Volleyball magazine.

But here she is, and the hook is that she was a pretty good player, playing at Oregon before embarking on a pro career in Europe.

That, however, is not what this incredible story is about.

No, it’s partly about going on Shark Tank to pitch her company called Slumberkins. Slumberkins are “cuddly creatures,” a line of tools to help parents teach early emotional learning to their children. Each creatures comes with a book.

Slumberkins has grossed more than $8 million since it began.

More on that in a bit, but as Oriard said, “being an entrepreneur is the ultimate sports analogy. I didn’t know I was going to be an entrepreneur, but I feel more in the zone similar to what I did on the court when I’m doing business than I ever did in any other job.”

And being in Volleyball magazine? Next year, Slumberkins will be part of an international TV series produced by The Jim Henson (think Muppets) Company. Talk about a career after athletics.

Oriard and her business partner, Callie Spooner Christensen, grew up in Vancouver, Washington, about 10 miles north of Portland, Oregon. They have been friends since they met at freshman volleyball tryouts at Prairie High School.

Kelly Russell playing at Oregon

Kelly, a 6-foot-1 middle, went to Oregon to play volleyball, while the 6-foot-3 Callie went to Hawai’i, where she played basketball.

After her Oregon career (2002-05), Russell went on a Bring It USA tour to Europe with Tim Kelly, which set her up to play professionally. She started with a pro team in Spain, and then went to Switzerland. Callie even came to stay with her for a while and got to play some pro basketball. 

In 2009 Kelly called it a volleyball career and went back home to Vancouver.

“I had my degree in psychology with a minor in special ed,” she said, “and I knew that I wanted to be a therapist.”

So she went back to school and got a dual master’s degree from Portland State in marriage and family therapy and school counseling in 2013. 

Colin Oriard and his boys reading a Slumberkins book

During that time she met her future husband, Colin Oriard, who was in the teaching program at Portland State. Colin is a Spanish teacher, and they have two boys, 5-year-old Aidan and 3-year-old Oliver.

As she earned her master’s, Oriard got a job as a therapist in a school in Portland. 

At about the same time, Christensen was getting her master’s in special education and early childhood education and got a job as a teacher.

They stayed on the same schedule, of course, and went on maternity leave together. Callie has three kids.

“We had time in the summer and going into the school year a little bit where we were hanging out all the time with the new babies talking about what we saw going on in the schools,” Oriard said. “There was a lot of difficulty around emotional wellness. We’d talk about the ways we thought that could be addressed.”

She saw that handmade shops were taking off on Instagram.

Oriard laughed.

“And we were like, we could do something like that.”

Yes, they could.

“And we could even address this bigger problem that we’re seeing, which is kids coming to school not with a lot of emotional skills. We wanted to address emotional wellness at the earliest of ages.”

But a business?

“We didn’t know anything about business. Well, Callie took some business classes, but I did not.”

But making what they now call “cuddly creatures?”

“We taught ourselves to sew,” she said with a laugh, “and we wrote this stories to address the emotional wellness skills that we were looking to solve at that time, like relaxation, helping kids get to sleep, self-esteem because bullying was on the rise then, and we wanted to support kids who were feeling they were made fun of. And mindfulness.

“We borrowed 200 dollars from my mom, because we were on unpaid maternity leave and had no money.”

They went to the craft store to buy supplies, printed the stories on card stock, and sold them at craft fairs. 

“They sold out and we were like, ‘Hey, maybe we have something here.’ ”

That they were.

They started selling on Etsy.com and Instagram — Callie’s specialty — and “we started getting this big organic following for Slumberkins and every time we would work on the weekend to sew them ourselves we would drop them and they would sell out in seconds.”

The first year, she said they did $200,000 in sales. But that was nothing compared to what was ahead. Slumberkins, by the way, has 201,000 followers on Instagram:

Remember, they were both working — “We were doing this kind of like a side hustle” — but Callie was a big fan of the TV show Shark Tank on which entrepreneurs go pitch their businesses to potential investors. 

And Kelly recalled Callie saying, “We should be on that show. We’re doing better than them and we’ve got a great idea.”

The next year, in 2018, they got a spot on Shark Tank.

They quit their jobs.

“We were all in,” Oriard said. 

And that’s what they wanted to project on the show.

“We didn’t know what we were doing at time, but we got a very nice edit,” Oriard said. “The first pitch we ever made to investors was on Shark Tank.”

No one invested, “but what it did was let us know we had to think bigger. From a sports analogy viewpoint, we had been on our high school team. And all of a sudden we’re getting questions on the collegiate level.”

Now they’re pros.

The next year they did $700,000 in sales and learned a lot more about the money side of things. In 2019, they did take on investors and that’s when they made the deal with The Jim Henson Company.

“As far as our brand and what we’re positioning for and trying do,” Oriard said, “is becoming the modern-day Sesame Street meets Mister Rogers for emotional wellness. That’s our vision.”

And in 2020, the pandemic actually created even more a need and want for Slumberkins. Oriard and Christensen’s husbands still work. Suffice it to say the two moms don’t sew Slumberkins any more, although the ones they personally made go for hundreds of dollars among collectors. The Slumberkins team is now made up of 30 people in Vancouver.

“The culture: “It’s like a sports team. It’s like a volleyball team here,” Oriard said with a laugh.

If you go to slumberkins.com or check out the Instagram feed, you can see that there are countless options for the creatures and books. The new arrival, for example, Bigfoot Kin, part of the Self-Esteem Collection, costs $44. The limited-edition XL Narwhal, part of the Growth Mindset Collection, goes for $74. There’s the Rainbow Unicorn Snuggler and Hammerhead Snuggler (part of the Conflict Resolution Collection), the Feels Set, and on and on.

And they sell and sell and sell.

“Yes. It’s crazy,” Oriard said. “I remember hearing on a podcast where someone said being an entrepreneur is like being in the last three points of a game. Constantly. That is completely accurate. You show up, you don’t know what’s going to happen in your day, it’s high stakes, every decision makes a huge difference, there are huge wins and there are ups and downs. I would never have known that being an entrepreneur is that life.”

And as we wrapped up our interview, she was kind enough to offer this perfect quote to end on:

“I relate this to athletics. Thinking of Volleyball magazine, it was a big deal. I got that magazine when I was younger before I got a scholarship to college and I looked at the greats who were in there. I just loved the mentality and the work ethic and the friendships and the whole thing. 

“It’s not just about getting to the top in athletics. The skills that you learn, the people that you meet. Honestly, through the connections through sports, and the different connections I’ve made and the friends I’ve made from different teams, these are the people who are showing up and working at my business who opened doors to meeting investors. Life is the court when you get older and if you can approach in that way, it’s amazing.

“I never envisioned this for myself but it feels so familiar and normal because of my athletic career. I think it’s a cool angle to bring to kids and young people. There’s always a bigger stage, there’s always more competition, but the context doesn’t change. The stakes get bigger and bigger. The numbers get bigger and bigger.”

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I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you how the idea for this article came about. I live in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and swim at our local YMCA every morning. One of the people who often swims at the same time is a woman named Marcia Green, who is from Vancouver, Washington. One day this past summer, knowing I’m in volleyball, Marcia mentioned that she has a niece who played volleyball and that she was really good. 

Yeah, sure, I thought. 

But then she told me about how Kelly had played at Oregon (that got my attention) and had been on Shark Tank (there’s a story). And that she had this company with kids dolls that was doing well.

You never know.

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