Jensen Wheeler Wolfe, a Manhattan mom and yoga instructor, was teaching a pre-K yoga class at her daughter’s school. Her pint size yoginis were doing some poses but also running amuck. She wanted to tame the chaos. She thought mats would help.
That evening Jensen and her husband Gregory pulled out the extra mats she stashed for her students who didn’t have mats and cut them to custom fit toddlers. She didn’t need many. One adult mat became 4 mini mats. Jensen brought the 20 mats to school the next day and gave one to each student. The teacher helped her fan them out in a circle for class. The kids loved them. The teacher loved how they organized the class and gave each child a safe zone: their mat. The class was no longer chaotic.
Mats went home with each child and parents started calling Jensen, wanting to place orders. When Gregory walked to school with their two-year old daughter, who proudly carried the yoga mat tucked under her arm, she was stopped on the sidewalk and asked, “Where did you get that adorable mat?” At this point, Jensen’s husband called her and said “have you thought about this as a business?”
Jensen’s background as a researcher helped her at this point. She jumped online and started investigating the idea and seeing what other mats were out there. She’d also been looking for a niche in the field of yoga; a world she’d been part of for 15 years as a teacher and loved so much. A way to leave her day job as a magazine fact-checker and do work that mattered to her.
Jensen couldn’t find any yoga mats for the pre-school market online or in stores but what she did find was that yoga for small children was becoming a staple in preschools around the country. Schools were finding that the practice was helping kids cope with stress and find balance. Children learned to take time to breathe, focus and yoga strengthened their bodies. She knew already that kids classes are also playful and stir the imagination. It’s a practice that children can carry into adult hood. City children in particular are exposed to a barrage of stimuli and it’s easy for kids to overload. Yoga can help. Doing yoga with your child can also be a nice bonding experience. She read that research was proving that boys and girls who practice yoga were more self-confident and better able to focus in school. What parent wouldn’t want that?
This had an organic beginning she trusted and a concept she could get behind. The reason was clear but the how to was not. Having never manufactured a product or started a business Jensen spent the next two years in research and development. She found a designer, started corresponding with a mat factory and putting all the other pieces together to create a company.
Because her target age was so young (0-4) she wanted to create an eco-safe mat that was hypoallergenic, biodegradable and recyclable. A clean sustainable product that hip stylish parents would appreciate. Also important was a good grip, cushion-y texture, and extra thickness.
The design needed to be about yoga and nature driven. Jensen’s designer, also a yogi, created two designs based on yoga poses: lotus and sun.
LOTUS, the national flower of India, grows in mud and rises above the surface to bloom with remarkable beauty. The lotus flower represents long life, health, honor and good luck.
SUN salutations are a sequence, typically performed in the morning, to greet each new day and give thanks for the sun’s offerings of light, heat and life.
Jensen settled on TPE (an eco-friendly foam like material) and soy-based inks.
In January 2011, The Little Yoga Mat launched online.
The momentum has been steady. Sales have doubled every year and currently the mats sell in 150 stores nationwide + a few studios and shops internationally. “I knew the mats worked in a class room setting” says Jensen “but didn’t realize how happy kids would be to have a mat that’s just their size. I hear stories of tots teaching their parent’s yoga, doing it side by side and independently pulling their mat out and striking a few poses. They send me photos!”
Not only did Jensen stock preschools and yoga studios, she also sold to toy stores, baby shops, and department stores. Pediatricians bought them to sell in their offices as tummy time mats. It became a mat for naps, play and yoga. Something she hadn’t envisioned.
It helped that the industry was growing steadily too. According to a Yoga in America market study, yogis and yoga parents spent $10.3 billion on yoga apparel and classes in 2012. Twice as much as they did in 2008. “It’s considered one of the fastest-growing sports in America, and the latest trend is an increase in the number of pint size practitioners,” said Jensen.
Marketing for The Little Yoga Mat has been mostly grass roots and relying on Jensen’s skill set. As a fact-checker at Glamour magazine for 10 years, she knew how to pitch to magazines and write her own PR. Jensen also personally knew editors and writers at other magazines who were rooting for her product. Friends at Redbook, Parenting, O, The Oprah Magazine, In Style and Cool Mom Picks wrote articles.
As a former stage actress she was not shy about TV appearances or radio spots. Alibaba.com shot a video about her entrepreneurial success story, Ebru TV and Josh Smith of Biz Talk Radio followed.
The Little Yoga Mat won numerous awards and most recently the prestigious Dr. Toy’s Best Green Toy of 2014.
Plans to add another mat design and jump up a size (for ages 5-10) are in the works. Also some teaching tools: a yoga game for toddlers and quite possibly an app. Although she’s had offers, Jensen has been able to keep the business running without the help of investors or bank loans. “It means slow growth, but the independence is worth it,” says Jensen. “I have help, but still do the bulk of the work. I look forward to handing off more day-to-day responsibilities as we grow, but it’s difficult. People still like to see and talk to me – the face of the company.”
“The best part is that all these kids are learning yoga and I’m so happy to be a part of that. My mat is just a tool. It’s the journey on the mat that’s important. The magic carpet ride. I tell my daughter, now eight years old, that it’s possible to have an idea and not know how you will make it happen but believe in your ability to figure it out and you will. I did.”
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