After 20 years of being in business, this is what I know for sure: Making customer service a priority is one of your best forms of protection, hands down.

What does putting your customer first look like in practice? Asking them about their experience. Answering their questions in a timely manner. Delivering on your promises. Being consistent, truthful, and transparent. Developing products and services that actually solve problems, inspire joy, and then continuing to improve on the experience. Treating each and every person who engages with your brand like a friend. Refusing to settle. Taking responsibility for your mistakes and learning from them.

Never forget: Establishing trust takes time, and can be lost in an instant. To build a successful business today, you must truly care about your customer.

Few entrepreneurs I know embody this philosophy more wholeheartedly than Marissa Louie, CEO and chief designer of the hit magnetic stuffed animals, Animoodles. The limbs of Animoodles are detachable and magnetic, meaning they can be reassembled, combined, and attached to surfaces in thousands of unique ways.

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Louie is a former designer for Apple and Yahoo who avidly collected and played with stuffed animals as a child. At Toy Fair in New York City last month, she was recognized as the 2019 Women in Toys Rising Star.

Louie estimated she spent three to four years teaching herself the skills needed to launch her toy company and develop contacts in the industry, including mentors. Before launching their crowdfunding campaign, her team traveled to Asia three times over the course of a year in search of the perfect production partner. To ensure they had designed the cutest possible versions of the first collection of Animoodles, Louie tested prototypes with more than 100 children across six US cities.

Within 11 hours of launching on Kickstarter in October of 2017, they surpassed their goal of raising $25,000 for the first collection of Animoodles. The campaign would go on to become one of the most highly funded classic toy campaigns on Kickstarter.

"Those trips felt like the minimum," Louie explained in a phone interview. "Even though we had done all of that planning, there is always a risk of shipping late. We didn't want to let our first supporters down. So we went out of our way to make sure we did everything in our power to ship on time."

Their diligence paid off when they shipped Animoodles to their Kickstarter backers three months ahead of schedule.

"For me, customer satisfaction is number one," she said. "Manufacturing is synonymous with that. If you don't make your first customers -- who took a chance on you -- happy, then you may have lost your shot at future success."

This fall, Louie successfully funded the second collection of Animoodles characters (which were determined by fans on social media) using Kickstarter.

In a LinkedIn post over the holidays, she opened up about a dilemma her company faced and how she dealt with it. In the last quarter of 2018, toy makers feared that the US government would impose a tariff their imported goods, so they scrambled to import goods to the United States. This resulted in congestion at the Port of Los Angeles, which caused Animoodles to be held for two weeks past their scheduled release date.

"Talking about cutting it close to Christmas," she wrote. "We were at risk of shipping Animoodles late. We were faced with the choice of ruining Christmas, or paying up to $XX,XXX to upgrade shipping. We didn't want to ruin Christmas for even one child, so we paid to upgrade the shipping for all our US orders. We did the right thing, with no questions asked. Customers first, always."

Her decision meant that her supporters who backed the second collection of Animoodles on Kickstarter received their orders in time for Christmas in the United States.

In fact, Louie routinely goes out of her way to show her customers how much she appreciates them.

"Some days I just feel like waking up and making something for our fans because I can," she confessed.

A few days before Halloween, she released pumpkin carving stencils featuring the new Animoodles. As her second Kickstarter campaign wrapped up, she announced that backers who purchased all six new Animoodles would also receive a plush hero cape accessory. To accompany holiday deliveries of Animoodles, she designed paper ornaments that backers could craft at home.

She's out in front, telling her origin story, advocating for increased representation of women in the industry, and peeling back the curtain on her success over and over again. This strategy is golden, and it's clearly working for her company. Animoodles are currently sold on Amazon, in Nordstrom, select retail stores, and on the Animoodles website. She's received numerous licensing inquiries, including interest from toy companies.

"I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing if I weren't truly passionate. This is not an easy industry to be in, or an easy job to have," Louie said. "It's not for the faint of heart."

Louie is wise to prioritize customer service, especially considering the ubiquity of copycats. If you focus on making your customers happy, they will become raging fans who promote your brand without having to be asked. They will defend you against trolls, silence your haters, and spread your goodwill for you. I've experienced this phenomenon firsthand many times. 

Love your customer and they will love you!