Aaron Muderick has spent the past 20 years building his Thinking Putty empire, creating a fidget item for adults before TikTok was even a thought. Today, the company is operating out of its Pennsylvania facility and is serving the community around it. The Toy Book caught up with Aaron Muderick, founder and executive chairman of Crazy Aaron’s about what’s new with the company this year, the evolution of Toy Fair, and new trends.
Toy Book: Crazy Aaron’s was a promotional products company for a decade. How did the company get its start and how did you transition it to be a major player in the toy industry?
Aaron Muderick: Crazy Aaron’s began with me making my own putty and selling it to co-workers at the software consulting firm where I worked. Soon dubbed “Thinking Putty,” I saw how great it was for fidgets, phone calls, network lag, and all the little interruptions during an engineer’s day. After I graduated from selling it in Ziploc bags, the online store launched in 2001 with great success.
My background in corporate consulting, combined with my software knowledge related to printing, led me to the promotional products industry. Crazy Aaron’s could customize the product label with corporate branding, and it was used as gifts for corporate events worldwide. Putty toys for children seemed obvious. I was fixated on convincing adults that they should play with it, too!
After the 2008 financial crisis, the market for corporate gifts had a major shock, so I was looking for new markets. Jeffrey Kennis of Enchanted Moments cold called me, and I was intrigued. Crazy Aaron’s was exhibiting at Toy Fair a month later in a ‘not quite legal’ half booth (5×10). Our sign was taped on top of half of someone else’s sign and blocked most of their logo! I sold my heart out on the idea of big handfuls and all the colors and effects I had developed in the prior 12 years. Buyers responded and here we are today.
TB: Crazy Aaron’s would have participated in its 13th Toy Fair New York this year. In your experience, how has the trade show landscape and the overall toy industry evolved?
AM: There has been a consolidation in large retailers resulting in fewer large customers. Mid-size retailers have also been challenged. Online sales have put a lot of pressure on retailers’ traditional models of pricing and merchandising. Everything is a phone tap away. Smaller specialty retailers have significantly evolved. The new generation of specialty toy owners is more data-driven, has embraced technology and social media, and can use their small, but mighty, size to pivot very quickly to meet consumer demand. They are more of a jack-of-all-trades than the traditional shopkeeper of yesteryear.
At Toy Fair, intellectual property concerns have resulted in more and more walls and fewer open booths. There is less opportunity to walk the show without an appointment and discover newness than there was 13 years ago. It is a complicated balancing act for all parties, but you can see the change.
There has been a significant increase in professionalization in the industry during this time. We are seeing college-level toy design programs at multiple institutions not only take root, but minting new designers formally trained in our industry’s needs. We have also seen an increase in the safety of children’s toys. This has come through information sharing of best practices, third-party laboratory reviews of products, and partnerships with the government.
TB: From a manufacturer’s perspective, what new industry-wide trends are you starting to see?
AM: At this moment, I see a lot of concern that the manufacturing hub of the industry in Southeast Asia has become very difficult to visit due to the pandemic, very difficult to move goods out of due to the shipping crisis, and is becoming more entangled in geopolitics. I know many manufacturers are exploring options to mitigate these risks with manufacturing in alternate locations including reshoring production back to the U.S.
TB: You have been serving on the Toy Association’s executive board since 2019. Why is it important for toymakers to be involved in the industry? What other ways do you encourage members in the industry to participate outside of their companies?
AM: It is my honor to serve the industry and I appreciate the support of my colleagues in the Association to steward the organization. I hope to continue to expand the innovative culture for which we are known while ensuring a level playing field for all.
All of us have opinions about all sorts of things in life. The way we move those opinions from chatter amongst colleagues into real change is through action and commitment of our time. If you are willing to give of yourself, there is room at the table, and you can make a difference. I have seen this to be true at the community level (I finished 12 years as an elected official of Narberth Borough in Pennsylvania in December 2021) as well as in our for-profit industry.
I started by emailing professional staff at the Association with my questions on various issues. When there were opportunities for in-person meetings, I took them. Don’t have imposter syndrome. No one else knows what they are doing either. Just jump in the pool and have fun!
TB: Tell us about Crazy Aaron’s social mission of being involved with the local community.
AM: We have worked with the disability community to support the production of our products since 2003. Over the years, and with our customer’s support, pre-pandemic, we had more than 800 individuals with intellectual and physical disabilities working on our products each business day. In 2018, we moved our factory and offices to a consolidated location on Main St. in Norristown, Pennsylvania. Norristown is an economically depressed city that serves as the county seat for Pennsylvania’s wealthiest county. As an old factory town, it had the infrastructure we needed as well as the walkability and community we desired. It has been a tremendous success with more and more employees coming from the neighborhood, walking to work, supporting the local economy, and placing our flagship retail store in a prime location in the Philadelphia area.
Community engagement means support and commitment at every level. During the early days of the pandemic, we were able to shift our factory production to emergency hand sanitizer, which was made available to local first responders, hospitals, local government entities, and public utilities. Eventually, we were able to support shipping hand sanitizer to local specialty toy stores so that they could safely reopen. We concluded our foray into hand sanitizer with large donations to local schools and children’s museums in the Philadelphia area at the end of 2021.
TB: Crazy Aaron’s products are made in the U.S., which certainly must be an advantage during the global shipping crisis. What other advantages or challenges are there to make products in the U.S.?
AM: Supply chain management has been a real hustle. Even with domestic sourcing, product lead times have stretched tremendously, products become suddenly unavailable, and prices have soared. One advantage to U.S. production is that there isn’t a single bottleneck (shipping and ports) for our products to get to market. Another is that out-of-stock items, when they do occur, tend to last a shorter period of time. A third is that we are able to pivot what we can make, depending on the materials available. We are never waiting and praying for a container to arrive.
TB: What advice do you have for inventors or toy companies just starting out?
AM: Get your idea out there. How quickly and inexpensively can you make a prototype or small initial production run and test it? Can you partner with a local specialty retailer to get their feedback? Can you sell a dozen or two to see how it performs for kids? I come from a software background, so I believe strongly in iterative testing. No matter how smart you are (or think you are!) you are not smarter than real-world experience. Get your product into the hands of kids!
TB: What’s in store for Crazy Aaron’s this year?
AM: We are thrilled about the new products we’ll be rolling out in the first quarter and throughout the remainder of the year. Our industrious efforts have created a buzz. Honey Hive Thinking Putty is on the way to beehives … stores near you! We are excited for this product to take flight in 2022.
TB: Is there anything else you’d like to add?
AM: I am grateful to have found a home in a very dynamic and exciting industry. Our jobs are integral to the healthy development of kids and the products we create shape the dreams of tomorrow’s inventors across all industries. If we can put smiles on kids’ faces while doing it, I couldn’t ask for anything better.
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