Why and how did you get into the Toy and Game industry?
As with most inventors, my career had a certain unplanned quality to it. I left college permanently during the middle of my Junior year. I‘d been a 4.0 student up to that point, and within one semester I just completely crashed. Maybe it was burnout, or maybe disillusionment. I’m still not sure. I don’t like to say that I dropped out, though. That makes it sound too elective. I prefer to say that I washed out, in the sense that I really did try to stay. The system simply rejected me, and that’s precisely what it’s designed to do. I was never cut out to be an engineer. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was actually an inventor. The problem at the time is that there wasn’t a degree program for that.
I spent the next ten years or so doing R&D projects on a freelance basis for universities and science museums – always with the goal of someday starting a consumer products company with dedicated engineers and manufacturing capability. Things really started to pick up when I moved from Michigan to NYC. I started out doing contract R&D projects for local universities, and then transitioned to doing work-for-hire jobs for product development firms in the area. One of those firms was Creative Engineering, Inc. which was founded by a very talented former Hasbro-engineer named Paul Dowd. I did freelance work there for almost three years, and during that time, I had the opportunity to observe a world-class engineering consultancy up close. Since many of their clients were major toy companies, I also gained an insider’s knowledge of the toy industry. Right from the start however, I knew that I didn’t want to do consultancy work as a career. I therefore spent every free moment working on concepts of my own. Fortunately, I also happened to have a fully-equipped prototype lab in my tiny 500 square-foot New York City apartment. There was a lathe, milling-machine, and drill press in the living room, an air compressor and radial-arm saw in the kitchen, and shelves full of hardware and raw materials in the bedroom. I also had a very tolerant landlady. My first concept to get picked up was a small folding glider for Jakks Pacific. I then presented about eight Super Soaker concepts in a row to Hasbro – all of which they passed on. That was pretty tough on me, since my method of operation is to build fully-functional prototypes rather than just present concept artwork. Fortunately, Hasbro’s inventor relations person at the time, Dave Maurer, saw some potential and was actually quite encouraging. A few months later, I presented a couple Nerf concepts and one of them got picked up. That was in 2009, and I’ve worked exclusively with Hasbro since then.
What trends do you see in toys or games that excite or worry you?
I’m not an industry expert, but I’d say the same thing that I think everyone else would probably say - There’s a definite trend toward digital, and the challenge for all of us who make things out of plastic is to figure out how to integrate those two worlds.
What advice can you give to inventors who are presenting new toy or game ideas to you?
I have a pretty poor track-record when it comes to partnering with other inventors. However, I’m quite encouraging of inventors who are interested in presenting their concepts directly to toy companies themselves. My first piece of advice is to remember that toy companies are indeed “companies”, and companies are full of busy professionals who like to work with other professionals. So, my first piece of advice to aspiring toy inventors is don’t be a whack-job. Eccentricity is cute in small doses, but it doesn’t get you very far in business. Use deodorant, wear clean clothes, know how conduct yourself during a meeting, how to write an email, how to make a phone call. Above all else, don’t be paranoid. That’s the most common disease that afflicts inventors. Toy companies are not out to screw you. As far as an inventor is concerned, even the largest multi-national corporation is made up of probably three or four key individuals, and you’re in the process of establishing a personal relationship with those people – not with a monolithic corporation. If you don’t like and trust those few people, and if they don’t like and trust you, go somewhere else. You’re wasting your time and theirs.
What was your favorite toy or game as a child?
I really loved my first BB gun. I had a pretty liberal childhood. I still remember the first time I ever fired it. My father nailed an empty plastic container to the side of the deck to use as a target. We backed up about 20 feet, I raised the rifle to my shoulder, and in my peripheral vision I remember seeing my dad cover his ears. As a child, he was a war refugee, and he grew up around guns and tanks and hand grenades. When my BB gun made a little pop instead of a big flash and bang, he decided it was harmless, and he wandered off and left me to myself. From that point on, I was the terror of the neighborhood.
What does your typical day look like?
My schedule is pretty unconventional, and I’ve been telling myself for years that I’m someday going to adjust it. I usually make it into the office around 2 pm. Our office manager Saba is on a pretty structured schedule, and she leaves at 5pm. As a result, we usually only have a few hours to interact. Another of our engineers, Vlad, leaves at 6:30 pm, so I usually have just a few more hours with him. Our other engineer Chris keeps a schedule similar to mine, so he’s usually at the lab until around midnight. I typically stick around a few hours after that, usually leaving at around 2 or 3am.
(picture - Saba making Turkish coffee.)
What is the worst job you’ve ever had and what did you learn from it?