YOXO Brings “Environmentally Friendly” to Children’s Toys

How one Saint Paul toymaker is providing eco-friendly options with YOXO.
Jeff Freeland Nelson with one of YOXO’s creations.

When you ask Jeff Freeland Nelson to describe his toy company, he’ll tell you there are three words he likes to use: “creative, creative, creative.” It’s with this mentality that he created YOXO (pronounced “yock-so”), now a nationally recognized, eco-friendly brand built on the principles of simplicity and imagination.

Named for the three shapes used in each set (Y, X and O), YOXO pieces are made of recycled wood pulp. Each box set has a theme, from Pegasus to robots, but there’s no limit to what the pieces can create. Unlike Lego pieces that connect to each other, YOXO pieces can connect to anything.

“We want kids to be resourceful,” Nelson says. “Our goal is to create the next generation of problem-solvers.” In a time when apps and iPads do all the work, Nelson says he’s trying to bring back imagination.

“I remember when I was 8 years old, I got a cardboard box filled with duct tape and wire for my birthday—and I loved it,” Nelson says. “I actually suspended myself from our deck using the fishing line.”

After getting his master’s degree from Harvard and spending years traveling from his home in Saint Paul to work as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., Nelson decided he was on the wrong path. When he became a father, he noticed that he “absolutely hated” his kids’ toys. “You just pressed a button and the toy did its thing,” Nelson says. No creativity involved.

He then looked back on his own childhood and wondered, “Why did I have so much fun with that box of stuff?” So began his journey into the toy industry. Starting as a simple package of tubes, boxes and tape under the name Play from Scratch, his idea eventually evolved into YOXO in 2013.

“It was my wife’s idea to make everything recyclable,” Nelson says, of the suggestion made by his wife Alisa Blackwood. “It gives us joy knowing that none of our products will end up in landfills.” He predicts that in the next 10 years, half of toys on the market will be “green.” “Kids have such short attention spans--toys are being constantly replaced. They need to be eco-friendly,” he says.

Monica Nassif, who founded Caldrea and Mrs. Meyer’s Clean Day, is on the board of advisors for YOXO. “When it comes to startups, I get behind people with passion—and Jeff has passion,” Nassif says. “I was intrigued by his idea of a sustainable toy company manufacturing in Minnesota.”

From design to production, all of YOXO’s operations take place in one Saint Paul warehouse. In the back sits a high-power water jet used to cut out each YOXO piece—6,000 to 10,000 per day.

The fan base for YOXO is growing; the toy company has seen large spikes in sales since 2013, essentially doubling each year. “If you stacked every YOXO kit sold, it would be two and a half times the height of the Empire State Building,” Nelson says. In fact, Nelson received a replica of said building as a New Year’s gift from his employees—you’ll find it sitting at the entrance of the YOXO warehouse.

It’s not just kids who are using YOXO—right on the box, the age range is listed as 4 to 104. “We love when we see parents get down and play with our toys,” Nelson says.

YOXO is sold at 350 specialty toy stores, as well as at more than 1,200 Target stores around the country. “Right now we’re focused on U.S. opportunities, but we just started selling in Canada and hope to be in Europe in two years.” The company already has plans to expand into the building next door to accommodate their growth.