There once was a young man trying to chart his course in the world who became enraptured by the siren song of Elastomer, a chemical polymer with weak intermolecular bonds.
This was the early ‘80s and Alan Dorfman had graduated from Philadelphia College of Textiles and Science and briefly taken a shot at law school. He wanted to get into advertising but settled for a job as an inside sales rep — which is telemarketing dressed up in a suit and tie — for a company that sold novelty items.
One day, the boss came back from a trade show carrying a wad of Elastomer formed into what looked like a tiny octopus. He threw it against the wall. It stuck — for a moment. Then it slid off, and stuck again, and slid and stuck again and again, its tentacles flopping as it seemed to walk drunkenly down the wall to the floor. Thus was Alan Dorfman introduced to the Wacky WallWalker, which would become one of the biggest toy fads ever.
“I thought it was the greatest thing I ever saw,” said Dorfman, who lives in Langhorne. “I got on the phone and sold out the first shipments of them. And it put me in the toy business. I knew it was my destiny.”
Even as a kid growing up in Northeast Philly, Dorfman said, “I always liked to get caught up in the life of trends.” He can rattle off a list of famous toy fads: Silly Putty, spinning tops called Whizzers, Clackers, yo-yos.
“That stuff seemed to fascinate me,” Dorfman recalled on a toy business podcast late last year. “Stuff you’re crazy about for a couple months and then it winds up in a drawer. Later, you’re packing for college or moving out of your house and you find it and all these memories come flooding back.”
For Dorfman, it was a squirt gun that started a deluge of business success. For a short time, he worked for a small local toy company called Larami, which developed a squirt assault rifle called the Super Soaker. It became a huge hit. Dorfman’s big idea was to think small. He licensed the rights to the Super Soaker and made a working version that measured about three inches. Then he put it on a keychain. Eureka!
“We sold several million pieces in the first year,” he recalled. “Kids collecting key chains became a trend … and it never really went away. Whenever you see a keychain hanging from a backpack, you can trace it back to the Super Soaker.”
His obvious next question: “What else can we make small?”
Hence the working Etch a Sketch, smaller than a wristwatch. The Elf on a Shelf, tiny enough to sit on a stack of pennies. Rubik’s Cubes the size of 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 following fads could be a solid long-term business plan: They’re recyclable. Over the years, Alan Dorfman has done quite well by letting the kids keep growing and shrinking the toys. He was recognized in 1996 by Entrepreneur Magazine as a young millionaire before he was 40, then leading a company with annual sales over $10 million.
In 2008, he sold the company (confidently named Basic Fun) in a deal he will only characterize by saying: “We did OK.” OK, enough to retire right then, he admits, but it turned out he couldn’t stay away from the hard work of play.
About five years ago, Dorfman recognized that his former company had drifted away from marketing miniature toys. “We realized there was a void in the market,” he said.
He jumped in and created Super Impulse, which now has eight workers based in a historic rehabbed mill building on a canal in Bristol, six others working remotely in the U.S., and a dozen people in an office in Hong Kong. Though he insists on keeping sales figures private, Dorfman hints at sales volume topping a million units annually.
On a rainy Tuesday late 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 Convention Center on the west side of Manhattan. Super Impulse was participating in the New York Toy Fair, the largest industry gathering of the year. Stalking around the temporary showroom he’d set up, Dorfman, who is nearly 60, with a collar-length mane of graying hair, was dressed in jeans and a stylish sport coat accented by a jaunty patterned pocket square. He gave off the air of a successful rock’n’roll promoter.
Starting a tour of his display space with an AARP-eligible visitor, Dorfman swept his arm out and said, “Your entire childhood is laid out here in miniature size,” and ticked off his company’s wares.
“Here’s the world’s smallest Barrel of Monkeys,” he said. “That’s brand new this year.” As he walked down the wall lined with tiny toys, the roster 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 gun that squirted water across the room.
“The toy has to work to be fun,” Dorfman said. Among his latest line of miniatures are fully functioning arcade games, like Pac Man and Space Invaders, that have been shrunk from the original refrigerator-sized cabinets to something palm-sized.
Oddly, for a man who built one company called Basic Fun and now leads another called Super Impulse, Alan Dorfman seems the opposite of impulsive and talks about fun in the same tone you might use while giving directions. (As he posed to have his picture taken in the Toy Fair booth, his wife of 35 years, Michelle, who is chief financial officer of Super Impulse, expressed surprise that he was actually smiling.)
“I really enjoy the creative process and getting a product out there,” Dorfman said, soberly. “But business is business. Yes, it’s toys. There are a lot of duller things we could be doing.
“The nice part about the toy business,” he added, “is that if something takes off there is 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 back to the serious business of making something wacky that will stick to the wall.