Melissa Bernstein’s whole life revolves around kids. As co-founder of Melissa & Doug and mother of 6 (!!) – ranging in age from 8 to 22 – she’s got some, ahem, experience in child rearing.
Melissa and her husband Doug started the toy company 28 years ago while they were childless and just dating, but their focus hasn’t wavered over the years. She told us,
“We have always believed that childhood should be full of discovery and free play, but we’ve never vocalized that to our customers. We’ve never felt we had the right to talk about it, but overscheduling and over-usage of technology is like a tsunami taking over childhood, and we have an opportunity to connect with parents and bring the magic back. I believe too much screen-time will be viewed as harmful as the sun, smoking, and certain foods were a generation ago.”
Melissa is no longer staying mum on the matter. She just launched her new missive – Take Back Childhood! – on the site, and it’s full of tips on how to embrace it with your own kids.
Read on for her success story, her epic fail, and a whole lot of terrific parenting advice from someone who’s truly been there. Meet the lovely powerhouse, Melissa Bernstein!
We are becoming robotic programmed people who can’t think for themselves. Boredom can be painful, but it’s what gives people the chance to think for themselves. It’s a skill: You have to dig deep and figure out what will make you happy by trying things and seeing what works. We all need that skill – it’s through that process that you discover who you are!
I was 19 when I met Doug: Our parents knew each other through another family and had been trying to introduce us. Of course, we both said we didn’t need help meeting people, but in a desperate moment, he called me – we talked for hours, went for dinner, and have been together ever since.
We started the company 3.5 years after we met, while we were still just dating. We both wanted to make great products for kids. We started with videos that got kids interacting with toys, so the step to making toys was simple. Our first product was a puzzle. We wanted one with various textures for kids to touch and feel. They were a huge hit, so for the first 10 years we reinvented categories that needed an upgrade, like dolls.
I wasn’t a fan of coloring books for several reasons:
- The binding never stayed flat when you colored.
- When you tried to rip a page out, you usually ripped the image.
- They were always printed on gray newsprint, and markers would bleed through and ruin the image on the other side.
- Most of the artwork is not well-done, so my kids would fight over the same images and some would stay blank because no one wanted them.
So we made a better coloring book!
- They’re large, horizontal pads, so there’s more surface area.
- We printed everything on white paper, and each piece has an image just on one side, so nothing bleeds through.
- They’re perforated and easy to tear off.
- They’re in themes that kids love.
We sold close to a million the first year! Even in a crowded category, we hit on something because we improved upon its flaws.
I love getting notes from parents! I got a note from a mom recently saying our stuffed Beagle has been her daughter’s (who doesn’t speak) best friend for 4 years, and they have repaired him multiple times. Such good stuff.
As entrepreneurs for 28 years, we’ve had our share of failures, but we have learned from all of them. We did a line called Puzzle World that took a year to develop (and our entire savings) – big, complicated sets with beautiful graphics. We thought it was going to be amazing. Retailers wanted things to make them stand apart, and this was it! The sets were expensive, and we went to a toy fair with $1M of inventory – within a day, we sold all of them because it looked so amazing! Because it was a complicated purchase, it was going to take a lot of work on the retailers part to educate customers. Everyone bought into it. We shipped it, and stores said it wasn’t selling. We kept pushing them to educate customers. We sat for hours at in-store play tables and educated customers, and they would sell. But without that, they didn’t. We had sent them to 1000 stores, and 10 did well with it. For 990, it was an epic fail (and $1M down the drain). We were bitter for a while, but we shouldn’t have assumed stores were capable of educating customers. Learning that was an incredible gift – toys have to sell themselves.
I am the luckiest person in the world. I found my passion and have been able to turn it into a career. I’m a heady, deep person so I’ve always had internal angst and did a lot of creation to solve for the pain I was feeling. I never thought you could create out of joy, but this career has shown me you can, and it’s an amazing feeling.
Work / Life Balance
There is none! We have never had a separation – our business has always been one of our kids. We are always talking about it and, they have always been involved, so there is just no separation!
We have date night every Saturday night, but we didn’t for the first 10 years. That wasn’t good – we would lose that connection. Driving away with the wind in your hair and no kids is magical. It always involves the top being down in the car, a long drive, and discovering a new restaurant or a quirky hidden gem.
Relax & Unwind
My job is the least stressful thing I do – much less stressful than parenting. I unwind by going to work.
The Hardest Part
I wear my heart on my sleeve and am very sensitive. I’m devastated when my kids don’t love me unconditionally, and I show it in a very powerful way. You’re supposed to be unflappable as a parent! I know it’s not really about me, but I ride every wave through the depths of despair, and that doesn’t work so well for me. Working on it!
Projecting yourself on your kids is a parenting no-no. I was a guitar player and always dreamed one of my kids would be a musician. I thought my first child was it! I signed him up for guitar lessons, and he was so not into it. One day when I encouraged him to practice he asked to talk to me (he was 9) and said, ‘I’m not a guitar player. I am a baseball player.’ I was like, ‘Ohhh I get it’. Then he asked if i was mad at him. I had forced him to do something he had no interest in, all for myself. Thankfully he had the courage to tell me.