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Mark Thoma - Target to Buffalo Games, Crossfire!, Canned Pumpkin and More!

What do you do in the industry?

I’m a newbie at Buffalo Games as their VP of Business Development. So, what does that mean? One day it could be evaluating a board game concept. Another day it’s pitching licensors. The next it’s brainstorming with a colleague a new business model to take to market. In short, I get to work on innovation, ideas & making connections.

What are you working on now?

Being 90 days in, I have much to learn from the team at Buffalo. I’m asking a lot of questions to learn the manufacturing side of the industry. I’ve also been spending a good deal of time assessing more macro trends and assortment gaps to develop a point of view on product for 2019-2020.

Why and how did you get into the Toy and Game industry?

After a variety of roles at Target, I became the buyer for board games, trading cards and puzzles. I was in this role for my final 4 years at Target. I loved it. I was fortunate to work with a super talented and motivated Target team while getting to know many of the creative personalities in the industry.

I wasn’t a gamer when I started the buying role, but as I started to play games from Spiel winners to kickstarter concepts I became hooked. I became determined to introduce more games with different mechanics and higher quality components than were historically offered in the mass market. I believe when more people play new games & have a positive experience, all ships rise. Over the course of my 11 years at Target, I increasingly enjoyed partnering with manufacturers to build concepts together & bring them to market, so it was natural next step for me to explore the industry from a different angle. I couldn’t have landed in a better spot.

What trends do you see in toys or games that excite or worry you?

I’m equal parts excited and worried about the amount of content there is out there for consumers. We’re still breaking box office records, alongside weekly new series launches on Netflix…all combined with daily influencer videos on YouTube. The content is stronger than ever, consumers are digitally connected, and we have data to support decision making. However, while it’s exciting to know the next big thing could be seen by millions tomorrow, developing that toy or game before consumers & retailers move on to the next trend poses a challenge. Speed and flexibility are more important than ever.

(Mark and his nephew, Liam)

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Watching sales after that big bet paid off.

What advice can you give to inventors who are presenting new toy or game ideas to you?

Answer these 2 questions: What’s your story? What’s the story behind the new concept?

Then, most importantly let’s PLAY. PowerPoints go in the garbage.

What advice would you give a young adult graduating from high school or college today?

Be authentic. I wasted a lot of energy early in my career trying to conform to a specific leadership and communication style, one that wasn’t my true self.

What is the worst job you’ve ever had and what did you learn from it?

I was an Inventory Manager in Grocery and we ran out of Libby’s canned pumpkin puree and sugar before Thanksgiving. I’m sorry. I probably ruined Thanksgiving for many of you back in 2009. I learned about urgency, leading a team through a challenging time … and the world’s largest pumpkin patch is in Illinois.

What was your favorite toy or game as a child?

Crossfire! I think all commercials should have lightning bolts.

Where were you born?

Sherrill, New York. It’s the smallest city in New York located between Syracuse and Utica. If you are driving through upstate, stop at The Hill for wings.

What do you read every day, and why?

I don’t have the patience for long reads outside of vacation. While I read the Sunday NY Times, I’m much more of a fan of podcasts to consume content. Daily, I listen to Marketplace to get a business spin on the news. For inspiration, I listen to Loose Threads. For a long car ride, I binge Revisionist History.

What is your favorite gadget, app or piece of software that helps you every day?

I’m a huge OneNote fan. It never closes from my laptop or phone. It’s the best software I’ve found to brainstorm ideas, capture photos or websites, and organize both my professional and personal life.

How do you jumpstart your creativity when you find yourself stalled on a project?

I need to talk about the project to someone. They don’t even need to respond. Somehow audibly speaking my thoughts to someone helps me get back on track. My husband, Carter, takes the brunt of it and has personally vetted many concepts that have hit shelves.

Do you have any pets?

We have an 11-year-old yellow lab, Corby, and a 4-month-old golden retriever, Finn. Corby is a neurotic sweetheart that is scared to walk down the stairs in our new house & Finn is a typical puppy that has a keen sense of finding every stick on our walks. Fun fact: Corby and Finn were named after my 2 favorite college bars at Notre Dame.

Do you have any kiddos?

Not yet. For now, I’m happy spoiling my 1 year old nephew, Liam, who lives down the block from me.

What’s your favorite TV show?

Game of Thrones, Billions & Stranger Things.

What’s the furthest you’ve ever been from home?

New Zealand.

What are your hobbies?

I’m equal parts athlete & foodie. Each year I challenge myself explore a new physical activity that I haven’t tried before. It could be as simple as trying out a new workout class to something more challenging like running a marathon. I’m not afraid of trying something new and I usually get infatuated with improving this new activity. A great Saturday for me is a bike ride with a new restaurant or brewery along the route.

What’s next?

While I’ve helped to provide vision or steer games along a certain design path, I can’t say that I was the sole driver of a game from concept to final product. At some point, I’ll make that journey.

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