by Adam Hocherman | 07 Apr 2022
Biographies and Interviews
Adam, you've gone from a two-time toy company entrepreneur to product acquisition and new business at PlayMonster and this month you’ve taken the role of SVP, Product Development & Innovation at Fat Brain Toys. What does that entail?
I’m grateful to step into a role at Fat Brain Toys that combines expertise that I’ve gleaned from my years as a product entrepreneur with the experience that I acquired at PlayMonster as the head of inventor relations. In my new role I’ll head the PD team at Fat Brain in addition to spearheading inventor relations. In fact, these two roles are closely related.
That sounds exciting! Let’s go back further. As a child, were you somehow destined for the toy industry?
Well I certainly wasn’t destined for the video game industry. Back in the early 90s I loved tinkering with computers. In those, days, the state of the art in video games looked something like this:
Don’t be so quick to dismiss! This was a really fascinating game called ZZT created by Tim Sweeney. Tim used to send out packets of 3.5” floppy disks and newsletters in the US mail. He and I had a correspondence on something called “paper” in which I advised him to stay with the ASCII text-based universe and eschew hi-res graphics. For those that don’t know, Tim went on to create the Unreal Engine and subsequently the game Fortnite. He’s worth something like seven billion dollars. One of us was right.
So you’re not much of a video gamer today, I assume?
I am not. In those days, life was in the real world and the computer was an enigma. Today life exists on a screen and I can’t bear the idea of spending recreational time in front of it. I’m a pretty analog guy – among the reasons that the toy and game industry suits me so well. My favorite type of tea is coffee and my favorite video game is board games.
So what did you play with as a child?
My fondest memories as a child are building, racing and fixing Tamiya radio-controlled cars. What a fantastic hobby! There was engineering, racing, tinkering, modding and problem solving all wrapped into one. Today we call it STEM but back then it was what led me to a career in engineering. Amazingly, Tamiya still makes the exact same model car that I started with over 30 years ago, called the Hornet. It looks exactly the same in every way. How many toys have had a run like that? That said, R/C cars just don’t seem to have the presence in the toy industry that they must have in day’s past. I stumbled across a Tamiya display in London just before COVID but local “hobby shops” don’t really exist today in the USA.
Along similar lines, I also did a lot of model railroading (another lost art) and built a lot of Revel models (a third lost art).
And so, this passion for these types of toys led you to the toy industry, as an adult?
Not at all. Today my 10-year-old worries aloud that she’s not sure what career she’d like to have. In contrast, I never thought much about that. When I was 17, someone told me that “inventors” are actually called engineers and I should study that. So I went to Cornell and did that.
And then you graduated and got a job in the toy industry?
Nope. My degree is in mechanical engineering and, specifically, I studied automotive design. I thought I would go work for one of the big auto companies, but I got wooed away to a fancy consulting job programming corporate enterprise systems in Java (a brand new language, at the time). I really enjoyed computer programming until I woke up a few years later and realized that I was spending 10+ hours a day in front of a … screen.
So then you stumbled into the toy industry?
Almost there! In an effort to avoid screens I decided that I would go back to my roots and start a company building consumer electronics. The company was called American Innovative and I built a series of gadgety products beginning with an alarm clock designed for college students called the Neverlate. Here’s a photo of me, the owner of the factory and the project manager in front of the very first commercial shipment of my career. The year was 2005.
Adam, the toys. Where are the toys?!
Stick with me here, this all comes full circle! This was early days. There was no Kickstarter. The Shenzhen Special Economic Zone had only been in existence for ten or fifteen years when I launched the Neverlate. Luckily, I had some early success with the Neverlate which allowed me to bootstrap the company along making other alarm clocks and then kitchen timers. When I was running out of “clock-like” things to design, I decided to do a kid’s product and the Teach Me Time! Talking Alarm Clock was born. This is the product led me to where I am today. I took the product to Toy Fair in 2008. I couldn’t find a photo from that year but here’s one from the following year during setup.
Now here’s where it gets fun. Apparently this was the year that I met Mark Carson. Shortly after this photo was taken I wrote a letter to Fat Brain Toys, which I stumbled upon recently.
How cool! And Fat Brain picked up the product?
Yes they did! But as important, I established a relationship with Mark and Karen. They are such kind and down-to-earth people and I was always in awe of what they were doing. As I remember it, each year at Toy Fair I would kind of lurk around the Fat Brain booth and grab five minutes to catch up with Mark and/or Karen. Their booth was always so grand – bustling with customers and brightly-colored product. I was happy to get the five minutes and figured I was annoying them in those early years, but apparently the feelings were more mutual than I thought!
So this was your first week as an employee of that very company!
That’s right! At the end of last year, Mark and Karen reached out to me about a leadership role at the company. I had a lot going on at the time but over the course of a couple of months we talked and explored the possibilities and I got more and more excited about the role. My first week has been just great – I am really so pleased with how this worked out.
And what happened with AI? And you also founded Tinkineer and spent five years at PlayMonster between 2009 and today, right?
There are some great stories in that period but I’ll have to save them for a second installment lest my interview get long in the tooth. In short, I sold AI in 2014 to PlayMonster. I then founded Tinkineer (the creator of the Marbleocity line of laser-cut wooden STEM kits) in 2014 and sold that to PlayMonster in 2017, at which point I joined the company. I had a great 5-year run there, mostly under the inspired leadership of Tim Kilpin, before taking the role at Fat Brain Toys this month.
Wonderful! Any parting words of wisdom?
Only that my story is a great example of how life kind of leads you where it leads you. You’ve got to take the broad strokes but the tighter turns may be unpredictable. Who knows? If I’d built a toaster instead of the Teach Me Time! I’d probably be working for Cuisinart today but I wouldn’t be having nearly as much fun!
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