“We Wouldn’t Let Them Win”: An Interview with Melissa Bernstein of Melissa & Doug

In 1988, when Melissa and Doug Bernstein were in their twenties, they abandoned their promising corporate careers to do something everyone close to them thought was crazy: start a toy company. Working out of the garage in Doug’s parents’ house in Westport, CT, they turned their shared passion for children and the imagination into a distinctive line of toys and games. Now, twenty-five years later, Wilton-based Melissa & Doug is one of the toy industry’s most recognizable and respected brands,  having seen double-digit growth every year of its existence. What’s more, the company has thrived by going directly against the grain of a culture increasingly saturated by all things digital—sticking, instead, to the basic values and qualities of age-old classics, as well as a fundamental belief in the crucial importance of active imagination and play. Recently, Melissa Bernstein spoke to The Whiteboard about her experience as an entrepreneur, the secrets to her and her husband’s success, and why she feels more of a sense of mission than ever before.

What’s the origin story of Melissa & Doug? Why and how did you found it?

About 25 years ago, Doug and I had both finished college and were pursuing careers—he in advertising and I in investment banking. They were both amazing jobs at companies that were leaders in their industries, but they didn’t feel right for us. We had started dating, and we realized that we were both incredibly unfulfilled in our jobs, miserable, like flowers without water. We were just going through the motions and not pursuing our passions. We wanted to pursue something we believed in, where we could thrive and contribute greater value to the world. Both of us loved children and came from families of educators, so we decided immediately to start a venture focused on products for children. People thought we were out of our minds—quitting to create what? Pooling our life savings to create children’s products without having a clue what we were doing? And we were only dating!

How did you get it started?

We started with nothing, with an idea, and it wasn’t the right idea—we made interactive video tapes for children, to get them off the couch and moving. The company was actually called Lights, Camera, Interaction! and our first video was “You on Kazoo.” If we’d stuck with that, we would’ve been gone a long time ago! But in taking the wrong idea to market, we developed some key areas of knowledge and skills that are still with us today. That was important, and it’s been true the whole way. In 25 years, we should’ve been out of business 50 times. We’ve made every mistake in the book, but we’ve learned from each and every one.

So failure was crucial to success.

Yes, you need lots and lots of failures before that big success. Even today, maybe one out of ten products that I design ends up being a true “wow” success. That means nine out of ten aren’t!  I need to go through lots of ideas and experiment constantly. And I think that’s hard for a lot of people to realize. Most ideas don’t work, and you have to go through a ton before you find the one that you can run with.

The best lessons we learn are through failures. It sounds cliché, but it’s true. The lessons in your failures and mistakes are valuable because they lead to successes and prevent you from larger failures down the road. They change your whole mentality going forward. So I always try to take stock. It’s easy to sweep mistakes and failures under the carpet, but I try to say, Okay, this was painful but it can guide me now; it can help me change my strategy, and my percentage of successes will go up.

The important thing is to keep moving forward, learning from your experience but holding true to the principles that got you there. We’ve changed 180 degrees since those early days, but we hold the same principles dear.

What are those principles?

It’s about doing things for the right reason. We’re both very simple and basic and straightforward people, and that’s guided what we’ve done. We don’t overthink and we don’t go the way everyone else is going—faster and faster and more and more. We’ve always been about cutting through the clutter, simplicity, great design—that’s what’s guided us from the beginning. We don’t look at trends and hot properties. We look back to look forward. We take what’s great from the past, inject pizazz into classics, and make them relevant to children today.

But sticking to those principles in the face of repeated failures must have been difficult. What’s been the key to your perseverance?

What’s gotten me through it all is my partner. One of the biggest pieces of advice I can give to an entrepreneur is to have a partner in your venture. A lot of times partnerships don’t work, of course, and that’s a problem, but you’ve got to have one. I could never have gotten through it alone, and it’s the same for Doug. I could have quit if I were alone, and I would have, but we were always there to prop each other up, and it got us through.

We also had a dream, and we were going to do whatever it took to make it happen. After 10 years, 12 years of pursuing it, we just couldn’t fail. Failing would’ve meant going back to riding the train into New York and working for someone else, and then it’s over. We always knew we were doing something good and right. But it’s a ruthless world out there, and it shows no mercy. They will swallow you if you don’t get bigger than they are. It’s challenging but it’s intoxicating, too.

We’re gamers. We wouldn’t let them win. We had to prevail.

You’ve prevailed during a technological revolution in children’s toys. How has your approach, both to making toys and to doing business, changed?

It hasn’t. In fact, now we have even more passion for the mission we’re on.

We did this for so many years without a real enemy. We just believed that childhood should be magical and simple play should rule. We believed in stimulating curiosity and building imagination as investments in the future. That was the mission. We were doing it and we were successful.

But what’s a good drama without a foe? Five years ago or so, this amazing foe emerged, theoretically insurmountable, called “technology.” Suddenly there was this added urgency to our mission. It was no longer just “la, la, la,” building childhood minds and imaginations; now it’s the fight of our lives.

What are you fighting for, ultimately?

The consequences of too much technology at an early age are scary. We won’t even know the damage it’s doing until the next generation, but it’s going to be so far-reaching and terrible that people will wonder what we’ve done to our kids. With so much of today’s technology, the experience is just reactive. You’re not creating something from nothing. If kids are using these technologies from the time they’re babies, they become reactive robots with no imagination, no ability to think on their own without being told how to respond.

I’m not a very public person—I like to speak through my own creativity and example—but I feel this problem is so urgent that it needs to be spoken about. We’ve done this for 25 years without a voice, just doing it, without speaking to our audience about this issue. Now, for the first time, we’re really starting to see it as our cause—fighting against this tide of tech that’s overtaking our children.

Do you live your own life and raise your own kids according to this philosophy?

Yes, in every way. It comes from my own experience. I had a very boring childhood, without a lot of friends or money. I wasn’t overscheduled. I had to create something from nothing every day. Being bored put me in a panic, and it still does. Nothingness is mortality. I have to have something to do.

The only thing we really did as a family was play games together, especially board games, and I became obsessed with them. Now, with my own kids, we play a game every night, and I’m obsessed with finding interesting games to try.

Games are an incredible way to connect as a family. There are so many skills involved, body cues, numbers, adding, strategy, quickness of mind, problem-solving, a perfect activity at various levels. With all the tech these days, there are more games than ever, but it’s often with an opponent you don’t even see or know; there’s no human contact. So communication skills are another thing that today’s tech destroys.

What advice do you have for entrepreneurs? What lessons can you draw from your experience?

Never make decisions based on money alone. Any decision based only on money will be wrong. Always make it for the sake of the product or the customer.

Listen to your customers and the people around you. That’s really important. They see you in a different way than you see you. They’re the ones using your service or product, and they have valuable feedback. So many people don’t listen to feedback and refuse to change.

Treat people like you want to be treated—everyone. You never know when a person might come back to you.

If you’re going to be a leader, lead by example. Always engage in heavy-lifting yourself. Don’t think you’re above any task. The more you’re involved in every task, the more you know about your business and the more your team will respect you.

Most important, always keep reminding yourself of your mission—constantly. So many businesses fail because owners get tired of their mission and veer off into something else. The problem is, they’re probably not expert in it—it may be fresh, but they don’t know it. Or they don’t believe in it. If your business is doing well, there’s a reason.

You need to hold dear to the principles that made you successful in the first place. Of course, you need to make changes to go forward, but never lose sight of what got you here.

About Michael Romano

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