Once upon a time there was a young man trying to make his way in the world who became enraptured by the siren song of elastomer, a chemical polymer with weak intermolecular bonds.
It was in the early 1980s and Alan Dorfman graduated from Philadelphia College of Textiles and Sciences and briefly took a hit at law school. He wanted to get into advertising, but settled for a job as an inside sales representative – who is telemarketing in a suit and tie – for a company that sold novelty items.
One day, the boss returned from a living room with a wad of elastomer formed into what looked like a small octopus. He threw it against the wall. He stayed – for a while. Then he slipped and stuck again, and slid and stuck over and over again, his tentacles falling as he seemed to walk drunk along the wall to the floor. This is how Alan Dorfman discovered the Wacky WallWalker, which would become one of the greatest toy fashions of all time.
“I thought it was the greatest thing I had ever seen,” said Dorfman, who lives in Langhorne. “I called and sold the first consignments. And that got me into the toy business. I knew it was my destiny.
Even when growing up in Northeast Philly, Dorfman said, “I’ve always loved getting carried away with the trendy life.” He can make a list of famous toy fashions: Silly Putty, spinning tops called Whizzers, Clackers, yo-yo.
“These things seemed to fascinate me,” Dorfman recalled during a toy business podcast late last year. “Stuff you’re crazy about for a few months, then it ends up in a drawer.” Later you pack for college or you leave your house and you find it and all those memories come back.
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For Dorfman, it was a water pistol that sparked a deluge of commercial success. For a short time he worked for a small local toy company called Larami, who developed a jet assault rifle called the Super soaker. It became a huge success. Dorfman’s big idea was to think small. He licensed the rights to the Super Soaker and made a working version of it measuring around three inches. Then he put it on a key chain. Eureka!
“We sold several million pieces in the first year,” he recalls. “Kids collecting key chains has become a trend… and it never really went away. Anytime you see a keychain hanging from a backpack, you can trace it back to the Super Soaker.
His next obvious question: “What else can we do little one?”
Hence the Etch a Sketch work, smaller than a wristwatch. The elf on a shelf, small enough to sit on a pile of pennies. Rubik’s Cubes the size of a dice. Rock ’em Sock’ em Robots that could fight in the palm of your hand. Hot Wheels cars small enough to park on a postage stamp.
It turned out that the following fashions could make a solid long-term business plan: They are recyclable. Over the years, Alan Dorfman has done quite well in letting kids grow and shrink toys. He was recognized in 1996 by Entrepreneur Magazine as a young millionaire before the age of 40, then at the head of a company with annual sales of over $ 10 million.
In 2008, he sold the company (confidently named Basic Fun) as part of a deal he would only characterize by saying, “We did well”. OK, enough to retire at that point, he admits, but it turned out he couldn’t stay away from the hard work of the game.
About five years ago, Dorfman admitted that his old company had moved away from marketing miniature toys. “We realized there was a vacuum in the market,” he said.
He launched and created Super impulse, which now has eight workers based in a rehabilitated old mill on a Bristol Channel, six others working remotely in the United States and a dozen people in an office in Hong Kong. Although he insists on keeping the sales figures private, Dorfman hints at a sales volume exceeding one million units per year.
On a rainy Tuesday at the end of last month, Dorfman found himself among a vast galaxy of toys that covered about six football fields in the glassy expanse of the Jacob Javits Congress Center on the west side of Manhattan. Super Impulse participated in the New York Toy Fair, the biggest industry gathering of the year. Walking through the temporary exhibition hall he had set up, Dorfman, who is almost 60, with a mane of graying hair, was dressed in jeans and a stylish sports coat accented with a clutch. casually patterned. He sounded like a successful rock’n’roll promoter.
Beginning a tour of his exhibit space with an AARP-eligible visitor, Dorfman raised his arm and said, “Your whole childhood is shown here in miniature size” and checked off his company’s wares.
“This is the smallest barrel of monkeys in the world,” he said. “It’s brand new this year. As he walked along the wall lined with tiny toys, the list grew – Care Bears, yo-yos, a whole line of Nerf Balls, a miniature functional Pictionary game. And his original product, a three-inch Super Soaker pistol that shot water across the room.
“The toy has to work to be fun,” Dorfman said. Among its latest line of minifigures are fully functional arcade games, like Pac Man and Space Invaders, which have been scaled down from the original refrigerator-sized cabinets to something the size of a palm.
Oddly enough, for a man who started a business called Basic Fun and now runs one called Super Impulse, Alan Dorfman seems the opposite of impulsive and talks about fun in the same tone you might use when giving instructions. (As he posed for a photo op at the Toy Fair booth, his wife of 35 years, Michelle, who is the CFO of Super Impulse, expressed surprise that he was actually smiling.)
“I really like the creative process and the release of a product,” said Dorfman, soberly. “But business is business. Yes, they are toys. There are a lot of more boring things we could do.
“The good thing about the toy business,” he added, “is that if something takes off, there’s no limit. That’s what we all want. Our goal is to work on something new.
The next day, Alan Dorfman would return to his offices in Bristol and get serious about making something wacky that would stick to the wall.