Entrepreneur Enters Toy Industry with Diverse Line of Toys

Written by The Indianapolis Recorder

J’Mel Dowdell’s thirst for entrepreneurial life started when he was young. “My mom and I moved to Los Angeles; we were living in a hotel for months,” he recalls. “She had a hot plate and she’d fry chicken and fish and make sandwiches. We’d go sell them in MacArthur Park close by. We used the money to survive. That’s really what gave me my fearless, entrepreneurial spirit.”

Growing up, Dowdell and his mother moved around a lot. No matter where his life took him, he was always drawing. When his aunt applied to Vincennes University on his behalf and he realized he could major in art, he jumped at the opportunity. “I fell in love with college and never wanted to come back,” he said.

Upon graduation, Dowdell began working at Honey And Me in Franklin, Indiana, as a graphic designer. He went to a trade show and quickly became one of the top sales associates. His boss began sending him to shows across the country, where he’d consistently sell the most products. That’s when he envisioned creating his own products to earn money.

In 2009, Dowdell drew his first set of Button Nose Kidz, named after an old nickname a friend gave him. After creating them, he drove to Atlanta hoping manufactures would license his characters. All he heard was no.

“That was the fuel that lit the flames. I went to work even harder,” he said.

While doing trade shows for Honey and Me, he spoke with their manufacturer. He contacted them three years later and they wanted to work with him but needed prototypes. Dowdell’s aunt made his first prototype, and he found a designer who turned them into mascot costumes, but he needed money.

Dowdell began meeting with people around the city who he thought could help him. Along the way, he picked up business partner Hilary Ricks, a criminal defense lawyer and family friend.

“After he created the kidz, he stopped by and showed me the portfolio,” Ricks said. “I started checking in and becoming useful until he agreed to let me in.”

Now, Ricks serves as the vice president of operations and oversees the non-creative side of the business.

Together, they went to Ken Thorpe’s office, an investor Dowdell knew from his college fraternity. This was Dowdell’s third time asking Thorpe to invest in his business; this time he had prototypes, books and a new partner. When they arrived, a chalkboard in Thorpe’s office read “No Investing in New Companies.” The pair was momentarily defeated but continued with their pitch. Thorpe loved it. He gave Dowdell an apartment and enough money to work on the Button Nose Kidz full time.

Thorpe’s investment, among others, has taken the business to new heights. The company hosted a trade show in Los Angeles to launch the brand. Dowdell is now a member of the Toy Association, a nonprofit representing the top toy manufacturers in North America. The Button Nose Kidz has been featured at six international trade shows, including three appearances at the International Toy Fair New York, the largest toy trade show in the world.

Today, the company has 33 products including 16 books, sold on their website and Amazon. Each Button Nose Kid has a back story, and they’re all from diverse backgrounds. Ricks thinks this makes the characters relatable. “As a criminal defense lawyer, I see problems arise because kids don’t have good role models,” she said. “I see these characters as role models. They’re funny and aren’t always well behaved, but they learn from their mistakes.”

The entrepreneurial life isn’t all roses. Dowdell still faces challenges when looking for financial support, but he refuses to let that stop him. “The thought of being the failure that everyone expects me to be is what keeps me going,” he says. “Every time someone tells me no I just say, ‘I’m gonna do it myself, I’ll be back.’”

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