There are many reasons to like Hasbro’s Rich Mazel, but one that most inventors can appreciate is that he has suffered rejection as an inventor. It isn’t easy being an inventor! Rejection aside, everyone loves Rich. You’ll enjoy reading his interview which includes tips for inventors.
Why and how did you get into the Toy Industry?
Not really sure, but I know I followed my passion. I was always a kid-like questioner and disliked rules and the status quo. I started out pursuing the straight path of business school (I’m a proud Notre Dame alum, like Mary Couzin) and started my career as a bright-eyed consultant at Deloitte & Touche (now just Deloitte) in downtown Chicago. I definitely looked like I fit the bill, but I would spend every waking moment sketching (horribly), reading Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and T3, and dreaming of new products and inventions. I remember the moment in late 1999 that I looked out the window of the 18th floor at Prudential Plaza (at Michigan Ave and Lake) and said to myself, “I’ve got to start putting my inventions to use—it’s now or never.” I started in earnest that day.
My first “real “ invention was called Yard Card and involved a golf-driving range kiosk; golfers would hit a series of shots with various clubs, and the kiosk would print up their yardages and golf club combinations onto a laminated card.
I pitched my ideas to anyone who would listen. I came to realize what all seasoned inventors know: in this business, rejection is the norm. It is 99 rejections followed by one glorious YES. I took small victories from pitching my wares to the likes of Body Glove—they liked my stuff and gave me a 50% off code for any item on their website (no joke; I took it as validation and my first evidence of compensation in invention). I also take pride in my first official toy company rejection that was sent back to me—a pretty cool football with a magnet on the glove and ball so that you could make awesome catches. It’s still on my shelf at home. I can’t say all this rejection wasn’t hard, but I was and still am an optimist, and the return label was from a toy company! I was officially in the system!! That seemed pretty cool to me.
From there, I started contacting every innovator I could find who’d been featured in Business Week, Wall Street Journal, etc. A surprising number of these innovators answer the phone and spend time with you, but most ignore you, and a few try to crush you. Luckily the latter guys are few and far between.
During this time, I saw a TV special featuring the design firm IDEO, and it changed my life. I finally saw people doing the things I imagined, and somehow the next day I talked my way into the IDEO office in Evanston (outside of Chicago) for a day; that cemented the fact that I couldn’t stay in the cube world when there was a much better fit for me out there. Fast forward 10 years, and I am now a frequent visitor to IDEO’s toy lab in Palo Alto. How’s that for karma?
You worked for SpinMaster's Ben Dermer; what was that like?
It was amazing. Ben and David Fuhrer both get equal credit—or blame, depending on how you look at it—for getting me into the industry. Ben is a cool customer but also smart and focused; he sees things in toys (and people) that others don’t. That’s why he is so successful. Ben would support your creative vision even if he didn’t understand where you were going with it. That complete trust was very cool and cultivated a culture of innovation.
I’d like to think that I am one of Ben’s successful toy finds (Bakugan, Zoomer, and me?). Honestly when people ask me how I got into the toy industry, the only answer I have is an insatiable passion for new and fun plus the help of David and Ben. Everyone needs a champion, I was lucky to have two.
What trends do you see in toys?
I see a lot of people trying to figure out, first, the digital-to-physical connection (hint: I am not sure the answer here either). Only Skylanders seems to have it figured out successfully so far.
I’m also noticing a compressed business model in the world of toy invention, from the days of Marvin Glass in the 1940s on up to the Kickstarter of today; things have changed in our invention world more in the last 5 years than the previous 50.
The other trend I see is toy prices not keeping up with the cost of inflation, and as a guy with an MBA in finance, this worries me.
What advice can you give inventors presenting ideas to you?
I have so many. J Most pieces of advice are to help them avoid the pain I endured. But I will try to keep it short and to the point.
- A good idea isn’t enough. We see 4,000+ good ideas a year, and maybe 20 make it to market. You need this formula, where G = Good Idea, R = Right Fit, T = Timing, and L = Luck. G * R * T + L = a successful toy. And sometimes it’s a lot of (L).
- A “no” isn’t always a bad thing. Several successful concepts have been rejected multiple times—all the way back to Monopoly. (I’m glad I didn’t reject that one, but I’m pretty sure Mike Gray did. Only kidding, Mike. J) The truth is that people in my shoes are only slightly more well known for our successful picks than our failures, but there are a ton of misses.
- Use good batteries. As a practical matter, if I play with your toy a few times and it conks out in a big meeting, it’s going to be no good for me, you, or the toy. Also, why build a $20,000 model and then put in the cheapies? Duracells, please.
- Dougal Grimes was right in his previous interview. If you are new to invention, have fun while presenting (to us at least). We like to play and have fun. It’s a good sign if we are jumping up and down while playing with your concept. (Although sometimes it means we are crazy tired—or just have some sort of stupid bet going on.)
- Fail early and often (I got that from IDEO). Have lots of good ideas.
- If I were on the other side (i.e., inventing) today, I would make sure I knew how to use a 3D printer and how to shoot a good sizzle video. Kickstarter alone has taught us that a good sizzle can raise $10 million+. You can improve your video immensely by using good lighting techniques, a tripod, externally captured audio, and high-quality editing. Check out Izzyvideo.com—that guy has amazing tips.
What was your favorite toy or game as a child?
Hmm. I would have to say Stretch Armstrong, which also holds its place as my most traumatic toy memory. It was THE hot toy when I got it for my birthday; then an older kid in the neighborhood borrowed it and overstretched it and ended up splitting the thing right in front of me. I’ve had thoughts about exacting some adult revenge on him, but it turns out he’s a big dude (must have been a strong kid, too, to pull that apart).
I also loved Big Traxx, Key Cars, Magic Eight Ball, baseball cards, video games (Atari 2600 and 5200), and my computer (Commodore 64). I actually remember that I had an IBM moment (circa 1983) when I declared that the Atari 5200 was the penultimate achievement of mankind (as it had matched arcade game graphics) and that video game companies should shut down because we had reached perfection. I was 7 and always looking towards the future.
What does your typical day look like?
Wednesday…those are always typical. I hate Wednesdays.
What is the worst job you've ever had, and what did you learn from it?
Not sure I have ever had a bad job—I am an optimist, after all. Wait, now that I think of it, I did have a short-lived job right after college working for a bug extermination firm. Yeah, that stunk. Best question I got was (while I was spraying bug spray), “Will this kill ants?”
I was spraying neurotoxin; it could’ve killed a horse. J Out of this, I learned not to take spraying these chemicals in your house lightly. Seriously.
What inspires you?
I for some reason laugh when I see things out of scale (large versions of the iPad at Apple store = uncontrollable laughter). I’m not really sure of the reason for this affliction, but I have offered to buy the giant iPad display at the Apple stores more than once. No one at Apple knows what to do with my requests.
I also love competitive Wiffle ball (yes, there is such a thing), golf, technology, bamboo, and French bulldogs. I also have an obsession with the movie Point Break. All that, and I am inspired every day by the inventors I work with; they surprise and amaze me.
Where did you grow up, and how did that influence who you are today?
I grew up in Lansing, Michigan, a medium sized mid-western city on the decline after losing automotive factories in the 1980s. People there worked very hard, and it will always hold a special place for me. I had a very nice childhood, but as I got older, I started to feel uncomfortable and constrained there. Instinctually, I kept moving west—to Notre Dame, then Chicago, and then I drove until I literally hit the Pacific Ocean in Hermosa Beach, California. I lived in the South Bay (Los Angeles) for 10 years and adopted it as my spiritual home. Los Angeles is the birthplace of my two boys, and I am very proud of that.
What is one mistake you made, and how did you learn from it?
Hmm, just one??
When I was fresh out of business school, I was working at Deloitte and was assigned to a major Fortune 50 financial services firm. One of the junior executives questioned my financial analysis via a “Reply All” email. He was wrong, and I responded with a “Reply All” email showing him the 20 ways he was wrong and I was right. And so began an avoidably public feud that made its way up to the CFO of this company. I learned that day that the old phrase: “Praise in public; correct in private.” I was right, but that didn’t really matter.
What do you read every day and why?
I read Engadget, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Popular Science, Core77, Flipboard, Digg, LA Times, and oddly, still the Detroit Free Press (old habit). I also find Pinterest and YouTube to be amazing tools to discover and explore trends and new ideas. Like a lot of toy people, I have a short attention span, so I like my news and entertainment to be bite sized. I start a lot of books but finish very few. The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho is the only book I have read more than once, and I have read it 20+ times.
What is your favorite gadget, app or piece of software that helps you every day?
The iPhone and iPad are a given, so I will say my Bowers and Wilkins P5 headphones. We travel a lot in this job, so some good music helps block out the noise and keeps you sane when on the road. My favorite work app is probably Evernote; it’s a place to download your brain when it gets too full—very useful. VLC media player (for playing video) and Permute (for converting videos) are must-have apps (we see a lot of videos), and Skype allows me to hold productive toy pitches in the morning in Tel Aviv and the evening in Japan. TIP: If you Skype a lot, pick up a Clear Chat 160 USB Speakerphone. It is pricey at $300, but it makes your Skype calls rival a $20,000 dedicated video conference setup.
When is the last time you laughed out loud? What caused it?
I laugh so hard I cry when I view the websites that show people’s iPhones making bad autocorrects. So amazingly funny. I also really like game show and news blooper reels on YouTube.
Thank you, Rich, for taking time to thoughtfully and entertainingly answering our questions!