Melissa Bernstein | Working Mother

Melissa Bernstein

Smart Toy Makers

Impid 1845 Main Photo

Impid 1845 Main Photo

Featured entrepreneur mom Melissa Bernstein, 43, mother of Brendan, 15, Ilana, 14, Audrey, 6, Sydelle, 4, Esther, 2, and Nathaniel, 1;** founder,** along with husband Doug Bernstein, 45, of Melissa & Doug, Wilton, CT, one of the nation's leading designers and manufacturers of educational toys ** Number of employees** 300

My story: A few years after college, my boyfriend, Doug, and I told our parents that we were scrapping our Wall Street and advertising careers to design and make kids' educational products. They thought we'd lost our minds. "But you were our inspiration," we told them (three of our parents were schoolteachers). The compliment didn't inspire confidence, especially after they learned we'd be working out of Doug's parents' garage and selling a video we were calling You on Kazoo from the back of our beat-up car.

Still, we pooled every cent of our life savings, launched a huge casting call to find real kids to star in the video, wrote the script, music and lyrics, hired a crew and spent a year creating it. While kids loved You on Kazoo, distributors wanted a whole line, not a single video, so we decided to sell it ourselves at independent specialty stores. But as Doug and I were driving from one store to the other, begging them to watch a clip of the video, we had another "aha" idea: Talking about a book we both loved as children called Pat the Bunny--the one in which every page has a different texture for children to feel--one of us said, "Wouldn't that be a cool thing for a puzzle?" That's how our Fuzzy Farm puzzle became the foundation for our company. At the time, puzzles were so cookie-cutter in design. So we shook things up: fresh artwork, lots of unusual designs and great pricing. They sold like wildfire. For more than ten years, we did nothing but puzzles. Then we applied the same fresh concept to toys, and today we produce more than 1,000 products. Oh yeah, and in the middle of all this, Doug and I got married and had six children.

The secret to our success? We make sure our staff is inspired and happy. We've nurtured designers who aren't interested in the latest technology, licenses or gizmos. They'd rather create the best dollhouse or castle. We set goals but try not to focus on deadlines. We say, "If this design takes a year, it takes a year. If it takes a day, it takes a day." We also capitalize on our staffers' personal strengths. For example, we don't always hire people for a specific position; we just hire them and figure they'll end up in the right spot. A big challenge for us is to stay compelling, given how fickle pop culture is and how dramatically society changes. Children are gravitating toward computers, iPods and video games, and we're trying to keep them focused on using their imaginations and problem-solving skills. Girls used to play with Barbie dolls until they were 12. Today, they're online and chatting on cell phones by age 7. As a classic toy company, it's our mission to have children be as thrilled with our toys as they are with electronic ones--and beg their parents to buy them.

To that end, we have an edge in product development: our six children. Every toy we design is tested by them before it gets the go-ahead for production.

And it's a good thing, because I end up with tons of changes in this "final" review. Just recently we created a line of games that included a bunch of stuffed frogs. One of my daughters picked one up and said, "Mom, he looks angry. He is not cute." So we changed his eyes and put a smile on his face. These subtleties turn everyday toys into cherished treasures.

Lessons Learned ** 1 Listen to the people who sell your product We started out making children's videos, and we now make every toy but children's videos. That's because we listened to shop owners, who told us we were on the wrong track. I grill retailers for feed-back because I know I will come out of that meeting with great ideas. **2 Stay the course We're constantly teased with new "business ventures," such as making toys with licensed characters. As exciting as some of the pitches sound, I know they would divert our attention from what we're really good at--updating classic toys. **3 Accept failure **To win big, you have to be willing to lose big. For every great-selling product we develop, there are at least a dozen that are complete disasters. If I allowed that to scare me, I wouldn't have made the gambles that led to the huge wins.

4 Do your own market research I'm always attending trade shows, talking to moms, watching my own kids, doing research online and trying to find those classic products that need updating.

Ask a pro Doing Business Creatively How can you build and maintain an excellent creative team? Here, advice from Charles Day and Christine Tardio, partners of the Lookinglass Consultancy, a New York City-based strategy consultant for small businesses. Study your staff Understand what makes your great employees great, then look for those characteristics when hiring new talent. You won't always see them in a portfolio or on a resume.

Invest in a top support staff Creative chaos works in a business environment only when it's underpinned by disciplined systems and operations. So bolster your team with organized administrators.

Set sensitive standards Creativity works most effectively when goals are realistic. Plus, some people can focus only when faced with deadlines.

Celebrate individual success Create forums, one virtual (an internal blog on your website) and one physical (the last Friday afternoon of each month), in which everyone can share in one another's work. This will immediately promote creativity and satisfaction.

Loosen up Give staffers one afternoon off a month to leave the office and learn something new about their craft. It will engender loyalty and spur creative energy worth a hundred times the expense.


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