My startup turned 5, and I feel weird.

Ilana Ben-Ari
4 min readJan 2, 2018


My startup Twenty One Toys turned 5 years old this summer, and I feel weird about it.

I knew when we turned 5 that it was a big deal. Statistics show that 50% of all new businesses fail within the first 5 years. Just ‘not dying’ is a HUGE achievement. But, we’re not just ‘not dying’, we’re thriving.

So, why do I feel weird?

Well, I’m not a parent. But the best comparison for my company turning 5 that I can think of is… well… an actual human 5-year-old.

When I look at a typical 5-year-old child I think: Wow, they’re like a little adult. In just a few years they’ve learned to walk, talk, reason, even have a functioning digestive system. But at the same time, I’m also like… What have they really done? Nothing. They haven’t really done anything yet.

You’ve done nothing, baby

What I’m trying to say is: at 5 years old a child has accomplished GIGANTIC, unfathomable things — giant leaps towards self-sufficiency — but at the same time, they haven’t actually started doing anything overly meaningful.

For example, in my startup’s first year we sold 75 Empathy Toys to schools — toys which, at the time, were relatively unknown and untested in the market. That is both phenomenal and not a big deal at all. If I told a venture capitalist that I sold 75 toys in one year they would kick me out of their office. But if I saw a baby crawling, attempting to take their first steps I wouldn’t think Ya, good luck with that, baby. I would think… Look at that little human almost walk. That’s amazing.

A similar thing happened when we turned 2. We got into TIME magazine and secured over 400 new customers. Huge deal, right?! Well, as far as the bank was concerned — that’s nothing. Forget a line of credit, let alone a company VISA… they wouldn’t even allow me to fill out an application for one for another few years. To the banks we were poor babies. And by ‘poor’ I mean literally poor. They didn’t care about any awards, press, or customers — we were too risky. To them we were just too young and inexperienced.

Looking at our third and fourth years? My team grew from me and 2 contractors, to 3 full-time employees. We launched corporate workshops and travelled around the world. We were featured in Forbes, Fast Co, and won almost 15 awards, including the incredible SheEO Radical Generosity Award. Yet — I was still working until 2am almost every day and borrowing other people’s pants for important presentations (like this one at Toronto City Hall). Because, well… startups.

And now, with our 5th year wrapping up. We will officially be embedding the Empathy Toy into the leadership programs of one of Canada’s largest banks — reaching over 20,000 of their leaders. Our team of facilitators is now at 12, and we won an award to launch our 21 Leaders Program online — bringing empathy directly into classrooms around the world. And yet… we’ve just taken a few of our first steps. And it feels weird.

We still haven’t launched our next toy (The Failure Toy)

We don’t have an online school (yet)! Nothing!!

Nobody puts baby in a corner

When I sat down to write out our 2017 Year in Review I couldn’t help but wonder if this is how other startups feel. Celebrating and reflecting on these milestones is so important but it also feels weird because you can see all the things you still haven’t done.

For us it feels weird because we’re SO OLD, and at the same time we’re still new. We look more like little adults, than big babies. Weird also because we’re mostly surrounded by actual adults, who not only can walk and talk, but also have driver’s licenses, jobs, and sometimes even pets. Weird because people are starting to talk to us like we’re fully grown humans, and sometimes forget that we’re just 5.

Not a girl, not yet a woman

All I can say is that I’m incredibly excited that we’ve hit this milestone. We’re still here and I truly believe that the following years are bound to be our most exciting yet. There will be new growing-pains and awkwardness coming our way. Possibly a brief “My So Called Life” period, maybe even some heartache — but I’m glad that our first 5 years are behind us.

We’re potty trained, we can dress ourselves, and if all goes to plan — we start Kindergarten this year. That’s where shit gets real.

*See the video of our 5 year birthday party here.

Want to connect? I’m trying out an experiment where I host a virtual #coffeetawk once a month for people from around the world to connect and ask me anything about business, the design process, and how they might be able to self-finance their own startup.



Ilana Ben-Ari

Toy designer turned social entrepreneur, founder of @21Toys and #EmpathyToy #FailureToy inventor —