Daniel Grossman can’t help but compare his life to Willy Wonka’s in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” As the founder of Wild Planet, Grossman, 45, spends his day among loads of toys that he manufactures and distributes. The 11-year-old company sells eight brands of gender-neutral, nonviolent toys in the $10-$30 range, including the top-selling Spy Gear™ line, which features espionage equipment for the underage secret agent.
Like a child’s playroom, the San Francisco office is strewn with pieces and parts for new product mock-ups and has a conference room littered with colorful beanbag chairs. But in a back room lies the mother lode of company-produced toys.
“The office is like a magical flea market,” Grossman said.
It is also a very real business. And it is part of an industry that, according to Grossman, has a long history of Jewish involvement. Hasbro and Mattel both were founded by Jews (Hasbro’s owner, Alan Hassenfeld, is one of Grossman’s mentors) and so was the outlet Toys R Us. Grossman believes that there’s a historical reason for this: As a result of the discrimination pervasive in certain fields, Jews were drawn to new, emerging industries in which there were no barriers. In the last century, the toy business qualified as such.
In today’s culture, Grossman says we have redefined the toy — and these gadgets are not just for kids. Growing up in the 1960s, Grossman’s favorite toys included his Matchbox® collection (most-favored status granted to the Batmobile and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang cars, a Spirograph and a Handy Andy tool set. Today, he counts among his grown-up toys a BlackBerry and PalmPilot, but the iPod ranks above all else.
Learning Grossman’s background, one would think it unlikely for him to become a toy company executive. After graduating from Yale with a degree in Russian and Eastern European studies, he served for seven years in the U.S. Foreign Service. Next he earned a Master of Business Administration from Stanford University, and after working for a sporting goods company in sales and marketing and later at Mattel in senior management, he founded Wild Planet.
From its inception, kids have been an integral part of Wild Planet’s product creation process. Staff members often solicit the opinions of children on playgrounds concerning toy concepts, product features and package design. The company also conducts an annual national contest called the Kid Inventor Challenge program. So far, five winners have seen their toys created and sold worldwide with their picture on the package. (How cool is that?)
Also, and perhaps most fabulously, Grossman occasionally takes home toys early in their development so that his sons, Noah, 8, and Jonah, 6, can offer feedback.
“I love my job, and I love that my kids love my work, too,” he said.