Tim Kilpin - I’m a very proud elf. Every Christmas morning...
(Tim Kilpin, showing his roots as a Wisconsin Cheesehead)
MC: So how long have you been in the toy industry?
TK: 38 years. Well, minus 1 year for the time that I —like a crazy person — went to a Dotcom startup.
MC: Gosh, how have you managed to stay in the business that long?
TK: I didn’t, actually. I retired. Twice. Didn’t stick. So here I am again.
MC: When did you know that toys was ‘it’ for you?
TK: Well, I loved it from the first day. How can you not? My first job at Mattel was naming Masters of the Universe characters, and helping to write the mini-comics that came with the toys. If you have a creative bone in your body, that kind of work is going to be pretty appealing.
But the moment it really hit me was when I was at the aforementioned Dotcom startup (this was in 2000). I was in New York City, trying in vain to raise money from VCs. I had a break between meetings, so I wandered into FAO Schwarz. And I wandered back out and called my wife and said, ‘I’ve made a big mistake.'
MC: How did you get into the business initially?
TK: It was all my wife. She was working in Licensing at TSR Hobbies (the creators of Dungeons & Dragons). She had done a deal with some folks at Mattel, so when we moved to Los Angeles in 1984 (yes, I’m that old), she called some friends and got my resume in there. She actually got me the job. For the interview, I had to come up with 5 names for a Masters character. (For you He-Man fans, it was Trap Jaw.). I came up with a bunch of random nonsense. And she took one look and said, ‘By-Tor.’ She got me the job.
MC: I hope you’ve stayed married to that smart woman.
TK: 39 years this year. And I’m the smart one for staying with her.
MC: Tell me about Disney.
TK: Funny story. My wife got me my first FREELANCE job there when we first moved to Los Angeles. She knew the head of Disney Records. So I spent several months writing those odd little books that came with the read-along records. You know, DING! Turn the page? They offered me a full-time job. The money was horrible. I told my prospective boss I’d like to make $$ as a salary, and he said, ‘well, I can’t have you making more money than me.” Luckily, Mattel called about a month later.
MC: OK, but tell me more about Disney.
TK: I ran the Consumer Products Toy business for about two years. I took that job right after that bloody Dotcom startup. I remember the day I got my Disney badge like it was yesterday. I was elated. I know it sounds like a cliche, but working at Disney was…mostly magical. You have an opportunity to create toys based on characters that children just love, and want to have in their lives every day. We helped launch Disney Princess. We created the World of Tinker Bell. We came up with Baby Pooh. (OK, not everything worked.).
After a few years, I took on the then-new role of Franchise Management across the entire company. This was before they had acquired Pixar, Marvel, or Lucasfilm. So our focus was on the classic characters. Getting the entire company to try to ‘row in one direction’ on Mickey Mouse was tough work, as crazy as that sounds. Back then, Disney had the most amazing executive training program, called Disney Dimensions. It was a 2-week deep dive into every aspect of the business. We even went to Disney World and got to dress up for a quick spin as a costumed character. I was Tigger. Instant rock star. You want to understand the magic that is Disney, get inside one of those characters and see how kids respond to you.
MC: What was your favorite toy growing up?
TK: This is for real, I was mostly a huge Mattel kid: Hot Wheels, Whizzers, Chester O’Chimp (Google it if you must), Agent Zero M. In the interest of fairness, my Hasbro friends, I also loved G.I. Joe and Spirograph.
MC: What was your greatest failure in the toy business?
TK: I have had dozens. You can’t be in the business for as long as I have and not had failures. Maybe my most spectacular failure was Captain Power, which came early on at Mattel (1987). It was the first-ever TV-interactive toy. The toys were activated wirelessly, and would work with an actual broadcast TV show. Bad guys on the show would fire their weapons, and the starship in your hands would literally blow up — throwing the character out of the cockpit. It was awesome. We had orders for $80M the first year. We shipped $60M. We sold through under $35M. Disaster. But the toys worked.
MC: Tell me about PlayMonster.
TK: Bob Wann and his team have built something special here. They’re dedicated to delivering great play experiences, period. They started by building outward from their game heritage, but they have made smart acquisitions and built the company brand by brand, great toy by great toy. And now we are embarking on our biggest launch ever with Snap Ships. Check out the website, or the app, or the YouTube channel. (You can’t expect me not to plug something, you know.).
MC: So what about this business got you up off the couch again?
TK: First of all, the opportunity to work with Bob and his PlayMonster team was just very exciting. But for that time that I sat on the sidelines, I realized that what I missed the most was the people. I can’t speak for other industries, but toy people are really something special. It’s a small industry, really, and it’s more collegial than outsiders realize. Today, I can reach out to friends and former colleagues at Hasbro, Disney, Universal Studios, Activision, Warner Bros, MGA, Jakks Pacific, Jazwares, Tomy, Playmates, Spin Master. Maybe what I am most proud of, after these 38 years, is that I’ve been lucky enough to share all these wonderful experiences with those people — and that so many of us feel the same way about what we do every day.
MC: Which is?
TK: Make magic for kids. I’m a very proud elf. Every Christmas morning that I’ve been in this business, after the presents have been opened, and too many cookies have been eaten, I sneak outside. And I listen. Kids all over the world will be playing with the toys we all created. Magic is happening. And time stands still.
MC: And you still feel that way today?
TK: More now than ever. After the most disruptive and stressful year that we all have been experiencing, I’d say a little Christmas morning magic will be more important — and more treasured — than ever. This is a great job.
(Yes, that is Chester O'Chimp)