Melissa Bernstein trusts her instincts, even when they compel her to take counterintuitive risks. Like the time she walked out of the LSAT without answering a single question because she realized with sudden clarity that the legal profession was not for her. Or the decision to give up a lucrative career as a financial analyst at Morgan Stanley to invest her life savings—including money she’d been saving since her bat mitzvah—into starting a toy company.
“When I was younger, I followed the path of wanting to fit in, so I hid my creative side,” she says. “But it’s important to trust that inner voice that’s telling you when something’s not right. You have to have passion and talent to succeed at something. You can love something and not be good at it, and you can be good at something and not love it.”
In 1988, Bernstein and her then-boyfriend (now husband) pooled their savings to launch Melissa & Doug, an educational toy company that focused on updating classic games. “My parents literally thought I had lost my mind,” she says. “Here I was leaving Morgan Stanley, and job security, to start a toy company out of my boyfriend’s parents’ garage.” But the gamble paid off. Today, Melissa & Doug is an industry leader, selling products in such retail giants as Toys “R” Us, FAO Schwarz, and Learning Express, and acquiring other, smaller toy companies along the way. The company offers nearly 2,000 products and produces approximately 200 new items annually.
In the more than two decades since the company was launched, the Bernsteins have also added an in-house focus group—their six children, ranging in ages from three to seventeen (their oldest son, Brendan, will join the Duke Class of 2015 this fall). In addition to the company’s product-development teams and testers, Bernstein makes sure that any new toy the company is poised to introduce gets the green light from her children before heading into production. “Our kids’ instincts are almost always right. Just last week I brought home a castle that came with a set of furniture, and one of my daughters tried to put the bed on the top level of the castle, but the bed got stuck. Technically that part of the castle wasn’t a bedroom, but that’s where she wanted the bed to go. So we ended up shaving a bit off the bed so it could fit.”
Bernstein says she and her husband have adhered to their original mission of developing and producing toys that emphasize creative play and imagination. That’s why they have purposely stayed away from electronic gizmos or high-tech diversions. “When kids say they’re bored, I think there’s a tendency for parents to want to give them something to do,” she says. “But I don’t think you truly become creative until you are bored, because then your mind has to come up with ways to fill that void. Rather than relying on a computer game that is about artificial stimulation, our toys encourage creative play. We like to say that our company looks backward to improve on the past, rather than jumping on the latest trend.”
For example, she says, one of the company’s latest items is an art kit that contains paper imbued with paint. By dipping the accompanying paintbrush in water, a young artist “releases” the paint on the paper, creating colorful one-of-a-kind scenes. “Even though kids today have every kind of gadget there is, children of all ages loved this product. When we tested it, you would have thought this was the most revolutionary toy ever invented. Ironically, I think that because technology has become so much a part of our lives, people really respond to the simple pleasure of basic toys.”
Melissa Landau Bernstein '87
Toy story success
April 1, 2011