How did you get into the Toy and Game industry?
I stumbled my way into the industry when I was 17 years, while skateboarding at one of our local San Gabriel Valley skateparks. The future owner of Razor was there filming skateboarders for a promotional video he was working on and I struck up a conversation with him that led to us exchanging info. Three years later he reached back out to me to see if I could help him make a “skateboard-style” video using a new, folding, aluminum scooter that was being sold as an expensive executive’s item at that time.
I agreed and, in doing so, began my 18-year relationship with Razor and career in the Toy Industry.
What trends do you see in toys or games that excite or worry you?
The rapid rate of technological advances will have an impact on toys and games that both excites and worries me at the same time. I am excited by the superior play equipment and lower prices these advances may lead to, but at the same time I am alarmed by the possibility of these advances becoming substitutes for the physical play that I believe is a crucial to a well-rounded childhood.
What advice can you give to inventors who are presenting new toy or game ideas to you?
My advice is to stop and ask yourself where and at what scale do you see your concept being sold. The reason this is important is that answering these questions should help you narrow your search for the right company to work with.
At Razor, for example, a concept is not likely to be green-lit unless it shows the potential of strong sales on a mass-market scale. If someone comes to us with an amazing new product concept for use on ice or, say with an awesome idea for a beach item; we are not likely to take on such a project because of the limited scale they inherently present.
I suppose at least two pieces of advice can be derived from this: 1. If you have an idea that you are trying to shop around, prioritize your list of companies by those that currently sell in the stores you think your product would sell in and at the scale that you think your product would sell, and 2. If you don’t have an idea already, you can back your way toward a great idea by designing with a specific company in mind.
So if you’re coming to Razor with an inexpensive new wheeled toy that all the kids in your neighborhood are going crazy for, you are definitely cooking with fire. If, on the other hand, you have an awesome new doll or video game concept, then you’d probably be better served finding a company that specializes in those respective markets.
(Ali, Sheena Stephens and Carlton Calvin)
What was your favorite toy or game as a child?
Without a doubt, my favorite toy or game growing up was a book of puzzles and brainteasers that my parents would put together for me as my big present each Christmas. The idea was simple: instead of spending a bunch of money on a gift that I would unwrap in minutes and then disappear outside with to play, my parents would construct a book that consisted of various games, puzzles, and other challenges, each of which they had assigned a time limit for and dollar value to. The harder the question or challenge, the higher the dollar value, but I would only get paid for the right answers I came up with in the allotted time period.
I loved this present as a kid because the excitement of winning money was sustained and heightened over a period of hours each Christmas morning as my parents and I worked our way through the varied subject-based chapters they had created. I remember it being so much fun to answer questions and watch my parents act like they were being burned by the “large” amounts of money I was winning from them!
Now, as an adult, I love this present for reasons I couldn’t completely comprehend as a child. Knowing how hard my parents were working to make ends meet, I am awed by their creativity and humbled by the thought of the time and love they invested to create these books for me each year.
What does your typical day look like?
These days my mornings start with a diaper change between 5:30am and 6:30am, after which I get up and enjoy an hour or so to myself to have a cup of coffee and read a few pages of whatever book I’m working on before I start getting ready for work. My boys usually wake up as I’m getting ready and I try to keep them entertained enough to let my wife sleep in a few extra minutes before she’s stuck with both boys all day with no help (yeah, she’s amazing)!
I usually get to the office between 9 and 9:30 and am there doing whatever the day calls for until around 1pm, when I head to the skate park across the street from my office. I usually get an hour or two of skating in before heading back to the office for the second half of my day.
I leave the office anywhere between 6 and 8pm depending on what we’re working on at the time. I find that I usually hit my flow state around 4pm, so I usually try to milk that for what it’s worth before heading home for the night.
When I get home it’s time to play with my kids and give my wife a little break. We’ll usually burn energy until around 9:30, then put the boys in the bath and get them ready for bed. My day usually ends there if I am the one putting my older son to sleep. If, on the other hand, my wife is the one putting him to sleep, I can usually sneak an extra hour or two of work in on one of my personal passion projects before falling asleep.
What is the worst job you’ve ever had and what did you learn from it?
I’ve honestly appreciated every job I’ve ever had, so I’m hard-pressed to pick a ‘worst’ one, but when I think about jobs that I learned from, one jumps out at me: a busboy position at a local restaurant that I took in the hopes of working my way up to the more lucrative, Server position.
I remember thinking that the best way to move up to being a Server would be to REALLY impress the managers with my work ethic and hustle, and so I committed to myself to be the best busboy they had ever seen. Long story short, after around a year of doing absolutely everything I could think of to make an impression (from making sure I was always on top of my work and helping to relieve the servers of some of their less-desirable tasks, to always volunteering to do the dirty jobs that no one wanted to do [I’ll spare you the details]), I felt like I’d never move up, and so I quit my job, disheartened.
The lesson from this job came immediately after I quit. As I was walking to my car, the store manager came outside to talk to me and give me a little perspective that I carry with me to this very day. She asked me if I knew why they hadn’t offered me a server position despite numerous openings in the past months and I said I didn’t. That’s when she explained that as a manager, she didn’t want to risk losing the very best busboy they had ever had to fill a server position that I might be mediocre at.
I remember feeling so burned and betrayed at that moment, but I definitely learned a few lessons that day. The obvious one, about being careful what you become an expert at, but also the not-so-obvious one about the difference between a manager who uses their staff and a manager that grooms and develops their staff.
(Ali with Howard Morrison, TAGIE Lifetime Award Honoree 2013)
What inspires you?
The direct impact my work has on the amount of fun and quality of play for a whole generation of kids is my main inspiration. I remember that handful of toys that stood out as particularly awesome or fun when I was a kid and I aspire to help develop and deliver those kind of standout toys for the next generations.
Truly believing in the projects I’m working on is another great source of inspiration for me. People often remark about my passion when talking about the Crazy Cart, which doesn’t surprise me at all as I absolutely love the product and honestly think it is one of the absolute most fun toys/vehicles I have ever played with. When you feel like that about the product you are promoting, finding inspiration to put in the extra hours, go the extra mile, and do absolutely anything and everything it takes to share your gift with world is a pleasure, not a chore.
Where were you born?
I was born in Norman, Oklahoma, where my father was a foreign exchange student finishing his last days of graduate school. My parents had planned to move back to Iran after my father’s graduation, but then the Iranian Islamic Revolution of 1979 happened and suddenly plans changed. About a month after I was born, we moved to Los Angeles county where I have lived ever since. It’s crazy to think how close I was to growing up in a third-world country… or even worse: in Oklahoma!