Marketing Fun and Innovative Toys
Alan ’82 and Michelle ’82 Dorfman
Toys tend to bring thoughts of fun, playfulness and childhood, especially during this time of year when many people are buying gifts for their loved ones. Alan Dorfman ’82 is the mastermind behind the development of products, acquiring licenses and overseeing the marketing of toys for the consumer to enjoy.
Alan did not plan to work in the toy industry. He attended Philadelphia University to study textile design. Towards the end of his freshman year, the salaries of the prior year’s graduating class were posted. That day, Alan changed his major to Textile Management and Marketing. He gravitated towards marketing, admitting that he did not enjoy the textile management courses as much as the marketing. After graduating from PhilaU, he continued with his education and during a break, took a sales job with a local company which sold novelty items. One day, his boss threw a new novelty toy, Wacky Wall Walker on the wall. “That was it for me – I sold a ton of them and used the money I earned to start a toy business,” said Alan. After a few years on his own, he took one of his product lines and joined Larami, a Philadelphia based toy company. After a year, he left with an idea to license the company’s big product, the Super Soaker, and miniaturize it. The company eventually sold Alan the license and Super Soaker key chains became one of the biggest toys of that year. “I used that springboard to develop a niche in working, miniature toys on key chains.”
In 2011, Alan sold his company, Basic Fun and worked on projects with various associates for a few years. He is currently the president of TopCat Worldwide, an umbrella company for those various projects. One of those projects, Super Impulse, took off and is now a separate company. Super Impulse develops impulse priced products for kids, pre-teens and teens, focusing on new technologies and accessories for new gadgets. Topcat loves to work with local company, Five Below, Inc., a leading retailer of trend-right, extreme-value merchandise to the teen and pre-teen market – all for $1 to $5. The company’s smaller toys like the Learning Express are sold to national chains such as Toys "R" Us. The toys are also sold internationally, with distribution on all continents.
Alan realized how valuable his education was as his career advanced. “I didn’t expect to need to know accounting, since I was dating (and eventually married) the top accountant at PhilaU,” confessed Alan. “But when I was sitting in meetings with bankers years later, I was glad to be able to hold my own.” Today, Alan can rely on his wife, Michelle (Rackover) Dorfman ’82 to assist with the business’ finances. She plays an integral role in the company, serving as a freelance accountant.
Michelle transferred to PhilaU after a miserable semester at another school. She decided to switch to PhilaU mainly because she knew students at the University, including Alan. “The most valuable part of my education was the discovery of accounting and my natural affinity for the subject,” noted Michelle. She credits accounting professors James Solano and Stuart Borowsky for sparking an interest and keeping it alive. Michelle was the first student at PhilaU to get an internship in accounting at Ernst & Young. “Michelle was a one of the best students,” said Solano. “Even more important, a she is great person.”
Michelle began her career in accounting in 1982 during a difficult economic climate. Her academic success and internship experience helped her secure a position at Alexander Grant (now Grant Thornton) where she worked in the audit department for four years. She then became the chief financial officer at a metal manufacturing company until she took time off to raise her children. Last year, she began working as an accountant once again.
Working together has its challenges. Michelle began helping Alan with financial work when he was working on a few projects. The Dorfmans did not expect the projects to grow into another full-fledged, toy company. “In business, there are always challenges,” explained Alan. There is always pressure to grow but he stresses that one should not take on more than one is equipped to handle. One of the biggest challenges is managing employees. “At first you have a couple of people helping you out, and before you know it, you have a payroll that supports spouses and kids,” said Alan. “I was always fortunate to have good, loyal co-workers, and was able to keep the staff at a level that wasn’t top heavy in leaner times.”
What Alan enjoys most is having an idea, developing the idea into a product and having it succeed. For him, the best feeling in the world is when a toy becomes a trending item and sells out. Another exciting aspect of the industry is licensing products. Alan gets an inside look on up-and-coming entertainment which includes films, television and book series. Toy companies such as Topcat get to work with the studios during the development process. Alan anticipates everything from the movie, Frozen to be a best seller this holiday season.
Alan and Michelle enjoy working with one another, and it comes as no surprise; the couple has been together for 37 years. They met on the Atlantic City boardwalk when they were teenagers and began dating after their senior prom. The Dorfmans married a few years after college. They have two daughters and a Chihuahua, Kiddle who was named after the toy, Little Kiddle doll. They enjoy traveling, tennis, boating, beaching and a good cocktail.
Alan has recently reconnected with PhilaU and has offered to serve as a mentor for the new Entrepreneurship Center, and plans to assist with a workshop for budding entrepreneurs next semester. He noted, “I appreciate the opportunity to be involved in the program and to re-connect with the university.”
Alan said some are fortunate enough to have a goal and follow a path that leads to the goal. His wife majored in accounting and built a successful career as an accountant. However, for others, the path is broader and opportunities open paths in different directions. “Follow the path that suits you – suits your skills, your likes and your interests,” said Alan. He started his career as a designer but ended up in marketing, a broad area. “I was able to find my niche and be a marketer of products that are fun and make people happy.”