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Minnesotan To Meet: Innovative Toymaker Jeff Freeland Nelson

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) -- From theater to public service to toy maker? That's how Jeff Freeland Nelson became a huge success story.

The toymaking idea goes back to when he was just 8 years old.

"For my eighth birthday, my parents gave me a cardboard box full of tape, string and wire, and it was the best gift of my childhood," he said.

That simple toy would always be in the back of his mind, even after graduating from Hamline University, when he took a different route.

"I had a theater company," Freeland Nelson said.

He then got involved in economic development.

"I was appointed to be the city of St. Paul's first cultural development director under Norm Coleman," Freeland Nelson said.

After a short stint at McNally Smith College, he went back to school.

"I went to Harvard and got my masters in public administration," Freeland Nelson said.

And after seven years at MPR, it was time to do something out of the box.

"To have two kids and go to her and say, 'I'm quitting my job at Minnesota Public Radio' is kind of crazy. To her credit, she was kind of like, 'Oh, OK,' and from that point it was," Freeland Nelson said.

WCCO-TV profiled his company back in 2012, back then it was called Play from Scratch.

"We started out with raw materials," Freeland Nelson said. "It really was cardboard boxes and tubes and tape."

The company had operated for about a year, selling the product across the country, when Freeland-Nelson decided they needed to pivot.

"It was Creative Kid's Stuff's feedback," Freeland Nelson said. "I took our first products in there, they said we love it, but it's not going to sell, it's too big and too brown."

That's when the bright x's and o's were added, and the name was born: YOXO.

And packaged projects were developed.

The company is still small, with eight full-time employees and 20 part-time workers.

The testers are often Freeland-Nelson's kids, Laurel and Graham, but the return is big.

"We've gone from a few dozen stores now to hundreds of stores, and we're in 400 Targets, 30 Barnes and Nobles, and 300 specialty toy retailers across the country.

Maybe because the age range on the game is 4 to 104 years old.

"We've experimented with elderly care in retirement homes, and it works," Freeland Nelson said.

When you're done with the recycled wood pulp, you can throw it in the recycle bin.

"YOXO is like public policy in a box," Freeland Nelson said.

So what's next?

"We joke: world domination," Freeland Nelson said.

He is a big believer in allowing kids to take risks and try new things so they will become innovators as adults.

And his product isn't expensive. A bag of connectors sells for $12.99. A larger box in a kit sells for $19.99.

His most expensive product is $59.99, and Freeland Nelson says those are usually for big birthday parties.

How can he keep the whole company local?

He says Wisconsin and Minnesota have a robust pulp company, so it's cheaper here than it would be to get in China.

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