Friday, March 28th, 2014
Imagine if your job was to think up the next big children’s toy. For Melissa Bernstein, co-founder of Melissa & Doug, it’s just another day at the office. As the ideas person at the toy company (her husband Doug helps with operations), she’s responsible for overseeing the design process of the products your little one adores. Though the company began humbly in Doug’s parents’ garage 25 years ago, today it’s a major toy manufacturer, with more than 250 products launching in the next year. Parents chatted with the mom of six to see where she gets her inspiration (take a guess!) and what it’s like running her own business.
P: How has being a mom influenced your toy ideas?
M: I’m always watching how my children play and what they enjoy. They test every single product we make, and a lot of times really help hone the idea and help improve it throughout the process. I told them I never want them to just tell me they like something because I’m their mom, so they are very critical. Many toys they’re just kind of like, “Eh, they’re OK.” I know when we have a winner because they’ll react a lot differently.
P: Are there any specific products that were inspired by your children?
M: In our house, role play has always been a favorite activity. That inspired costumes they can try on and become other characters. They also love food preparation and serving, and that inspired a lot of our pretend cooking and cleaning items, like our Let’s Play House line and Order Up Diner set coming out next December. Another thing that our kids love to do is make play food in the sand. I used to take tupperware containers and old spice jars from our house to the sandbox, and they would make sand cakes and pies with water. The lack of fun activity-based sand toys sparked us to create items where you can actually make sand food, like ice cream cones and pizza.
P: If you had to pick one favorite toy you’ve made in the last 25 years, what would it be and why?
M: For me, it’s our coloring pad because I love taking something that’s out there already and improving upon it. I was never a fan of coloring books. Many of them are so thick you can’t lay them flat on a table or counter, making it hard to color. When you go to rip out a page, it leaves this jagged edge. I also found the grey newsprint paper not very nice for getting colors to pop. Since the images are printed on both sides of the paper, when you use markers it bleeds through and you lose one of the images. The other thing I never liked about coloring books was that my kids could never find an image they wanted to color and would end up arguing over the same one or two pictures. About five to seven years ago, we created a coloring pad that was actually a bit larger than a coloring book. It faces horizontally, so there’s more surface area in front of a child. It’s printed on white bond paper, so the colors stick out. Plus, the images are printed on one side so there’s nothing to bleed through and the pages are easy to rip out because of the binding at the top. Most of all, we created the images in conjunction with children, so every single picture on every single pad is 100 percent child-approved. They will be just as excited to color that 50th page as they are the first.
P: How did you and your husband come to realize the toy business was where you wanted to be?
M: Three out of four of our parents are educators, so we always were instilled with an educational philosophy growing up and really loved children from the beginning. When we decided that we wanted to do something on our own, children was pretty much the first thing that came to mind. We were both like, “Kids, we got to do something with kids.”
P: What helps you two maintain a good working relationship?
M: Believe it or not, for years we actually shared the same desk. That’s how close we’ve been! We are really fortunate to be two halves of a complete circle. We’ve always focused on different parts of the business. Because we’re dealing with separate areas, we can ask each other what we think of an idea and be somewhat objective because we’re not standing over each other every day. Without the support of each other to help us through, I can’t imagine making it through the last 25 years.
P: What tips do you have for other moms looking to start their own business?
M: Don’t let fear get in your way. Everybody told us not to do it. People thought our business wouldn’t work because we were not only creating toys, but also doing a lot of things counter to what was being done. We just listened to our hearts and never really thought about what people said because we knew we were doing the right thing. Follow your dream before it’s too late. Yours is probably just as good as ours, if not better. The first idea we started with isn’t what we’re doing now. We morphed along the way by listening to the market and reacting to what’s going on. As long as you’re open to listening and making changes, you’ll find your way.
P: Your company was founded on the principle of educating children. What makes you so passionate about that issue?
M: When we started it was all about nurturing minds through simple play. Then technology came into the picture. While it’s an amazing tool for society and our business, it can disrupt children’s creativity and their ability to problem solve on their own. Now moms like me are struggling to make sure their kids aren’t tethered to technology 24/7. That’s what keeps us coming into work everyday, this mission to really promote parents to connect with their children through play.
PS Ready to get creative with your kid? We’re rocking these pom-pom flowers in our Parents office!Add a Comment