Melissa and Doug Bernstein, the married creators of the Melissa & Doug toy line, built their $350 million conglomerate using creativity and hard work. And they’ve never paid for a single ad.
They’ve also never invited TV cameras into their home. Until now.
ABC News’ Juju Chang visited the couple inside their Westport, Conn., home, where they talked to her about what made a good Melissa & Doug toy.
“We take old-fashioned categories but we inject real ... excitement and pizazz,” Doug said.
He agreed that the company’s products tend to slow down childhood, saying “that’s exactly what we want them to do.”
Added Melissa: “What we’re trying to say, in our simple way, step back and engage in some time together ... just play.”
“That is the essence of childhood. Through imaginary play you discover who you are. You explore,” she said. “You create ... You try things and fail. And it’s OK because it’s just imaginary. So you learn to take risks and discover in that who you really are.”
Studies show that children learn best by interacting with people and not screens. The Melissa & Doug philosophy matches the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendation that parents limit screen time for young children.
The Bernsteins also say boredom is key.
“We believe that boredom is a great thing because from boredom, all creativity comes,” Doug said.
Melissa likened boredom to “staring at a blank canvas and saying ‘oh, my goodness, I need to fill this up. What do I do?”
That’s when “magic happens,” she said.
From dress-up to playing grownup and puzzles to crafts, Melissa & Doug toys flex every muscle of a child’s developing sense of identity – and the toys are often tested by their six children.
After 28 years and more than 5,000 products, the Bernsteins’ company –- which started as a humble operation in Doug's father garage -- is now in the same league as toy titans Mattel and Lego.
“When we first started making products, we threw them in the back of my father’s old Malibu station wagon and ... we’d go into stores,” Doug said, adding that they “literally begged” retailers to give their products a try.
Melissa chimed in that they “cried sometimes.” The two recalled that they ate “chicken hot dogs and ramen noodles” for about two years.
"Ramen were 10 pack for 99 cents and we had one-burner stove. And we ate that for basically two to three meals a day because that was all we could afford," Melissa said.
The Bernsteins have come a long way since then. Their home sports its own basketball court and bowling alley, all built for family fun.
Doug credits his wife for the philosophy behind their company’s success.
“When you see Melissa’s face talking about this, you know why this works. Because there is no one more genuinely and authentically living and breathing this, and she is. And that’s where this all comes from ...,” he said. "She has never once done a marketing study. She has never once polled anybody. It all comes from her own inner excitement and frankly tapping back into her childhood where she was extraordinarily creative and playing with crafts, all day long, making her own dolls, making all her own crafts. And I think that’s what she took with her throughout life."