In addition to her role as founder, Marina is a health & wellness journalist and content consultant who helps mission-driven companies, founders and thought leaders tell their stories — and currently writes a Fast Company column interviewing leaders about their greatest mistake. Prior to founding Hugimals, Marina was Chief Content Officer at Thrive, a workplace well-being-focused enterprise SAAS startup, and held senior editorial roles at Women’s Health, Glamour and Cosmopolitan. All of her work centers around helping people take actionable steps to live with less stress and more joy.
You’ve been on a long journey to launch Hugimals. Can you tell us where the idea came from?
I created Hugimals as a solution to my own anxiety. My racing mind prevented me from falling asleep, and the only thing that helped was using my partner Mike's arm as a weighted blanket — which obviously wasn’t a sustainable solution. (I had a weighted blanket, but it always got too hot in the night.) I began researching other weighted modalities. The ones I found were pretty unappealing and cheaply made, and the weighted stuffed animals I saw — which I wanted to love — had their weight concentrated in a lump in the middle, rather than throughout, which wasn’t satisfying, and some were scented, which was unappealing. I couldn’t find a design-forward, beautifully made weighted plush that I’d want for myself or be proud to gift, so I created one.
What was the process like?
I’m a health & wellness journalist, so I started with a lot of research. I tapped the expertise of doctors, psychologists, occupational therapists and product designers to perfect every detail, including Hugimals’ neutral facial expressions (which support a range of emotions in a no-judgment zone), calming colors, and patent-pending removable weighted insert, which allows you to machine-wash Hugimals’ outer plush and also distributes weight evenly throughout the body for the comforting “hugging you back” feeling.
Pre-launch, I wanted to test Hugimals’ efficacy in a place where I knew we’d learn a lot, so I partnered with the Toy Foundation on a pilot program in children's hospitals around the country. The response was incredibly positive and moving.
I’d always had full-time jobs and never expected to become an entrepreneur, but when I saw how effective Hugimals were in a medical setting, I took the leap to become a full-time founder. There were definitely hurdles along the way, like some early advisors who led me down a wrong path, but I was eventually able to launch the company in line with my vision for it.
You’ve achieved tremendous success, very quickly. Can you explain your product launch process and planning?
Tremendous success is a relative term! But since we launched 6 months ago, I’ve been excited to see Hugimals resonating both in the press and with a diverse customer base, including kids, parents, teens and adults. We’re also seeing a lot of orders and positive feedback from psychologists, occupational therapists, and teachers. And there are smaller consumer groups who have found and loved this product, like Alzheimer’s or dementia patients who may need a grounding object and those who love them, and those who’ve lost a pregnancy or child and crave the feeling of holding something like a Hugimal.
My strategy was to launch in the toy industry, because I noticed a lack of anxiety-mitigating kids’ products amidst the surging mental health crisis. Also, Hugimals “read” as a kid product. But I knew they’d find a broader market because of their minimal design and calming effects on adults as well (I created them for me, after all).
Since launch, I’ve really focused on getting the Hugimals name out there organically through the press and worked with a small but experienced team to help me with setting up selling infrastructure and operations. I think because of how rampant anxiety is, and the rise of retail trends like anti-anxiety design and comfort objects,
Hugimals resonated out of the gate, winning TIME’s Best Inventions, Good Housekeeping’s Best Toy Awards, and People’s Products Worth the Hype, and being recommended in outlets like Goop, WSJ, NBC News, Travel & Leisure, Rolling Stone, and more. We also went viral on TikTok, with 13M views and counting, based on videos of people organically reacting to the comforting feeling of holding a Hugimal for the first time.
What learnings do you have for others who are launching products?
I think you have to not only believe in your idea, but have proof that others want and need it as well. My plan was to be cautious and test Hugimals in the market for a couple months. Then, if I saw the product taking off, I would go full force, ordering more inventory, and continuing to develop more of my ideas for other calming products. That’s where I am now. Being cautious was both a good and bad thing, though. We have sold out much sooner than expected, and had about a month with nothing to sell. But I still sleep better knowing this is something that people want and that improves their lives.
When I’m frustrated that things aren’t moving quickly enough, I think of the great advice that other founders have given me: we can’t do everything all at once, and it’s better to grow slowly.
What made you target anxiety? And, do you think your personal experience was pivotal to the success of your launch?
As a wellness journalist, I knew of the spiking anxiety and mental health statistics, which have only gotten worse since the pandemic. And I sensed people like me were looking for a screen-free stress relieving tool. But I wasn’t seeing a lot out there in terms of smaller weighted items that I personally found appealing. I think creating Hugimals out of a personal need is absolutely pivotal to its success thus far.
How could this community help you continue to achieve your mission?
Beyond spreading the word about Hugimals (hugimalsworld.com) and following us at @hugimals on Instagram and TikTok, I would love to connect with other founders, especially those with D2C companies, who are willing to lend some advice in the realms of digital and influencer marketing, financing, and product development. I love hearing what has worked (and not worked) for others who have been where I am.
I’ve also been working with nonprofits that have been seeing success using Hugmals with those in need of comfort, like hospital patients, child and teen victims of crimes investigated by the FBI, and siblings separated in different foster homes. I would love to hear from anyone who’d be interested in partnering on charity initiatives (a “buy a hug, give a hug” program is a dream I’m working toward.)
What other women inspire you right now?
Mina Black, founder of Rainmaker Collective, a private investment community for women that focuses on alternative investments like art and theater. She is an incredible advocate for women-founded businesses and women investors. Her philosophy that “we should all be angel investors” is pretty profound.
Arianna Huffington, founder and CEO of Thrive and my former boss. Arianna has always been several strides ahead of the zeitgeist when it comes to the science behind improving well-being through things like sleep, unplugging, finding purpose and meaning, and building stronger connections with yourself and others. And she is a master brand-builder.
Maria Duenas Jacobs, who has created a beloved and joyful brand with Super Smalls.
Mindy Kaling, a multi-hyphenate who does it all with such confidence and joy that it’s impossible not to be inspired.
Charlotte Palermino, CEO & co-founder of the skincare line Dieux. Charlotte has established herself not only as a successful founder but trusted advocate in the skincare space.
What is one product you can’t live without?
I just got a Cuyana Systems Tote with all the inserts and it’s a game changer for airport travel. No more digging in the bottom of my bag looking for something I need.
What is one trend you see growing in 2023?
Cassandra Daily, a trend forecasting agency, did a feature on this trend and highlighted Hugimals as a product at the forefront of it. Other trend forecasters have cited us as a leader in trends like comfort/wellness objects for both adults and kids. As anxiety and mental health issues continue to grow, companies have no choice but to try to meet the moment, and I’m proud to have created a brand that consumers say is helping them live with less stress and more calm.