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Spotlight on: Melissa Bernstein, Duke Alumna

April 21, 2017 | By Ekim Buyuk and Marielle Rodgers

Melissa Bernstein is the co-founder and chief creative officer of Melissa & Doug, a global toy company committed to igniting imagination and a sense of wonder in all children. Concerned this generation of children is missing out on the kind of unstructured downtime that enables them to find their passions and purpose, Melissa is leading a movement to Take Back Childhood to fight for free time and all the countless ways to enjoy it.

Melissa is an alumna of Duke, but not of BOW.

Melissa Bernstein

What made you take the risk to start your own company from your garage?

We went the path of convention initially, and I went into investment banking and my husband into advertising and very quickly, I more than he, felt like a flower without sunlight and water. I wasn't doing what made me feel good about myself, and that career for many is their passion and they can look at numbers and make them do things that no one could ever think and turn them into something magical. But for me, when I looked at a number in a spreadsheet it just looked like a boring old spreadsheet. And I think Doug was in a more creative pursuit and enjoyed it, but we both felt that itch to be doing something that had greater meaning and made us feel like we were able to impact someone outside the corporations we were in. We were at the point where we didn't even think it was a choice, it was crucial to living to get off the treadmill and do something else.

Looking back, what was the biggest mistake you wished you had avoided?

Everything. Just everything--from making mistakes in products, to making mistakes with people, to making mistakes for strategy. I mean we basically never had a mentor and did it all on gut, only the two of us, and because of that, made every conceivable mistake you can make. The only reason we're still here is one, because we learned from that and changed, and two, because we didn't give up and just quit. So I don't think there's a mistake we didn't make.

What has been your favorite part about leading the Melissa & Doug Entrepreneurs program so far?

Making it so that they don't make the same mistakes that we do. And it's sort of the perfect culmination of nearly 30 years of doing this business and over those years you learn those things. There were, of course, a lot of trials and tribulations, and being able to take that knowledge and use it to help others before they make a lot of those same mistakes is so powerful.

How has your role within the company changed over time as it’s grown and evolved?

At the beginning in any start-up, you are everything and you wear every single hat. I was our only sales person for a dozen years, and I created all the product. As we've grown the real joy for me was I was able to step away from sales and focus 100% on creating the product. So, that's what I do now--I run the whole creative team, and that's my real love and where I can make the biggest impact so I focus as much as I can on that.

What influenced your decision to switch from just making educational videos to toys and what was the hardest part about changing direction?

We didn't change direction, actually. Our philosophy from the beginning was to create playthings that are a Launchpad for a kid's creation. The videos were that we couldn't stand kids just robotically watching T.V. and that if they had to watch T.V. we are going to make them interactive and get kids engaging with what they're watching. The key philosophy has held true through that and through today. The puzzles, which were our first category, were really just an articulation of that philosophy which is to create playthings that are different, fun, fresh, and rethink play patterns that have been around forever in a different way.

We never believed we were a niche. Every category we went into, people tried to sort of put us in a box. They would say, 'Oh, they're a wooden puzzle company' and then we created wooden toys so they said, 'Ok well they're still wood so they're just a wooden toy company'. Then we created a stuffed animal/plush category and they were kind of like, 'Wait what do we call them?', but we're a Children's company. People feel that need to define you but we never felt that need. We always said that anything that helps aid a child to reach their full potential and facilitates play in any sense is something we could conceivably do.

How has the startup scene changed since you created your company?

When we did it, nobody did it. Today it's very conventional to get off the fast track and do a startup. When we did it people looked at us like we were crazy and told us we were crazy. If I can do it having zero experience in the industry and even in my role, anybody can do it. It's really more the attitude and desire than the actual skills.

What advice would you have for those interested in entrepreneurship or starting their own companies one day?

There's really one key learning or advice I would give everyone. I always joke that we should make a T-shirt that says 'Just Focus on the Product, Dammit'. My advice would be to not get distracted with anything other than the product. What I see, almost continually with young entrepreneurs and millennials, is they want to focus on a lot of other things other than their product. They get really excited about the route to market, and their branding and their logo and messaging and marketing strategy and photography and packaging. They forget that without the most amazing product ever that is solving a problem, and within 30 seconds they can tell me the 3 things that make it better than anything on the market, without that they have nothing. All of those other things don't matter until you have a product that is transformative.