Entrepreneurs: Allison Horrocks and Mary Mahoney

Biz:  American Girls podcast

Tilt:  Connecting American Girl dolls and pop culture

Primary Channels: Podcast (860K downloads)

Other Channels: Patreon (730), Instagram (10.7K), Twitter (3.1K)

Time to First Dollar: Advertisements from beginning with help from the Anchor platform, then Audioboom

Rev Streams: Ads, Patreon, merch, Libro paid partnership

Our Favorite Actionable Advice:

  • Listen to your audience: It listeners of the podcast who asked Allison and Mary to add Patreon to their lineup, so they expanded to encompass a new revenue stream. The podcast’s social media pages have been a place where listeners can connect.
  • Open the conversation: Much like the American Girl doll brand that recognizes the power of storytelling, these podcasters do too. They bring in pop culture and relate it to give the dolls’ lessons a modern connection.
  • Be yourself: “Sometimes people would demean us as scholars or historians because they thought that to care about something like pop culture must diminish our capacity to practice history, which is obviously not true,” Mary says. “But because we stay true to ourselves in grad school, and we do it on the show. We show up as ourselves every episode (and) that has helped people really feel like they know us.” 

The Story

Episode No. 67 of the popular American Girls podcast is Through the Fire: Changes for Kaya. But before hosts and good friends Allison Horrocks and Mary Mahoney really start talking about Kaya, the fictional Native American from the American Girl children’s book series, they somehow weave the Harry Styles hit “Adore You,” TikTok, and K-pop into the conversation.

“I’m actually going to speculate that (Adore You) was ghostwritten by Kaya about her horse,” Allison says in all seriousness, at least as far as listeners can tell. 

Eventually, the duo gets to Kaya’s many challenges. But it’s that kind of banter, spinning pop culture references into a podcast that’s all about reliving the American Girl dolls, books, and fandom, that pulls in tens of thousands of listeners. The brand, which started in the mid-1980s and is now owned by Mattel, features dolls who hail from different time periods and are featured in corresponding books that document their adventures.

In the @AGirlsPod (American Girls podcast), the creators spin pop culture references as they relive American Girl dolls, books, and fandom. #ContentBusiness #podcast Click To Tweet

“It’s been so beyond my wildest dreams, this entire project,” Mary says. 

Grown-up content idea around shared childhood joy

Though Allison and Mary went to the same undergraduate college, they didn’t get to know each other until they met up in graduate school studying history at the University of Connecticut. Allison gave Mary a tour, and they quickly bonded over their shared love of pop culture and American Girl. Both say the brand led them to careers in history, piquing their curiosity as children about the time and people these dolls lived in and around.

The duo tossed around doing an extensive survey of historians about American Girl. “Thankfully, that never happened because we did this instead,” Allison says. The podcast launched in February 2019.  

The two provide content that appeals to a broad audience – not just historians with PhDs like themselves. “So much of the content that is made by academics is for other academics; it’s really inaccessible,” Mary says. “We wanted to make it a conversation that was inviting, that brought people in.” 

Creators of @AGirlsPod came about after two Ph.D. history students got together over their shared love of pop culture and American Girl. #ContentEntrepreneur #CreatorEconomy Click To Tweet

That goal drives the podcast’s style and structure. Each first segment usually focuses on pop culture. And, throughout the episode, they sprinkle the language of pop culture as they talk about history. “That’s on purpose,” Mary says. “We want people to feel like even if you think you know nothing about history, you can and are thinking about this stuff. You can be part of our conversation.” 

Unexpected promotion for podcast

Some unexpected boosts came soon after the podcast launched in February 2019. In May that year, influencer Carly Riordan, who has over 200K Instagram followers, shared her love of the American Girls podcast on her site. Three months later came an article in The New York Times by television critic Margaret Lyons. 

Raves from influencer @Carly and @Margeincharge at @NYTimes helped @AGirlsPod go from niche market to hundreds of thousands of listeners. #podcast #influencer #creatoreconomy Click To Tweet

By fall 2019, the show wasn’t just appealing to a niche market of American Girl and history fans. It reached 10K followers on Instagram and saw a spike on iTunes. “It was (then) the show went from a very small niche market to just a ton of people listening,” Allison says. 

From the beginning, they made room for advertising on the podcast, first with help from the Anchor platform, then with Audioboom. Around the same time, listeners started asking them to start a Patreon, so they did. As part of the Patreon, members get access to the podcast’s Discord channel, a now vibrant community that has triggered real-life meetups and lots of discussions. 

“Truly, our growth was not because we had an ambitious business plan and were checking off boxes as we reached different benchmarks,” Mary says. “It’s truly been this community saying to us, ‘We want this thing. Can you do this for us?’” 

Today, sponsorships, Patreon, and merchandise sales support their small business, providing money to pay interns, the artist who creates merchandise for them, and transcriptionists, among others. “I would say there are not a small number of costs that go into what we’re doing, and we absolutely are beyond breaking even,” Allison says.

The two still hold down day jobs, and neither has plans to leave them. Allison is a National Park Service ranger. Mary is a digital scholarship coordinator at Trinity College, where the two both received undergraduate degrees. They’re also writing a book about American Girl and the women who were inspired by it.

About the author

Sarah Lindenfeld Hall is a longtime journalist, freelance writer, and founding editor of two popular parenting websites in North Carolina. She frequently writes about parenting, aging, education, business management, and interesting people doing remarkable things.