‘There’s no fear of failure’: How an iconic 85-year-old company is reviving its ideas and its profits

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A Fisher-Price employee adjusts his display at the company’s annual Mix Faire, a management experiment to spark new ideas among the staff.
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Fisher Price

From alphabet blocks to Power Wheels, Fisher-Price toys are iconic.

The Mattel-owned company has been around since 1930 and is in the midst of a revival, during a time when the toy industry is adapting to a new generation of millennial parents.

When Christopher Sinclair took over as Mattel CEO last year, he was tasked with breathing new life into a struggling company, and he doubled down on the company’s recent push to embrace innovation.

Mattel reported its Q2 earnings last week, and Fisher-Price’s performance was a highlight, with worldwide gross sales up 3% (up 6% if you don’t adjust for currency fluctuation), indicating that Fisher Price is retaining its momentum from last year, after six consecutive quarters of declining sales.

Business Insider spoke with Fisher-Price head Jean Ann McKenzie, design head Mark Zeller, and 20-year Fisher-Price veteran designer David Dubois, who indicated that the reinvigoration of a struggling brand is the result of significant shifts in the company’s approach.

A fitting representation of this new way of thinking is Fisher-Price’s second annual Mix Faire, an employee expo held at the company’s headquarters in East Aurora, New York, in May.


Around 100 of Fisher-Price’s 750 employees showed off their prototypes of new toy ideas among 36 booths.

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Fisher Price

The Mix Faire is a day for employees across the company to come together and show off their entrepreneurial talent to colleagues and the Fisher-Price leadership team.

In 2014, the company created four “task forces” to drive change, and the Mix Faire grew out of the one dedicated to lowering risk aversion.

“There’s a long history of working externally with inventors, and we still do that, but there was this strong sense that we wanted to mine all of the inventors that were already within our four walls and really give them the same information or insight into where the business was going that we would give these external inventors,” design head Zeller told Business Insider.

Fisher-Price works with impressive external talent like acclaimed designer Jonathan Adler, but the Mix Faire allows for employees across the company to come up with prototypes that don’t cost thousands of dollars to make.


The ‘mix’ comes from the freedom employees had to collaborate, with junior employees working with veterans, and designers partnering with engineers. The call center employees even got involved.

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Fisher-Price

“It feels a little bit like a rebirth to me,” design veteran Dubois said of Fisher-Price in 2016. The members of the executive team “are really listening to us now.”

The Mix Faire is one of several steps taken to break down previously impenetrable walls in the company, he explained. “Even if you were in R&D, if you had an idea for a different group, it was a ‘not invented here’ type of approach” if the idea you had fell out of your expertise.

The Mix Faire is a way to open up communication in the office.

“We’re really encouraging all employees to get in the game and to value their role as being a source of ideas, and using those ideas to collaborate, and there’s no fear of failure,” Fisher-Price boss McKenzie said.


It’s not solely theoretical. The best ideas will be incorporated into future products.

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Fisher Price

When the inaugural Mix Faire launched in 2015, more than 100 employees participated, and there were a total of 60 booths.

Though there were fewer booths this year, Zeller noted, the resulting products were generally of a higher quality.

“We walked out and said, ‘OK, a third of this needs to go into line right now,'” Zeller said, referring to ideas that should go into production.


‘I think we have clearly seen higher employee engagement with this cultural movement,’ said McKenzie.

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Fisher Price

As Mattel continues to determine how it can better engage this generation of children, Fisher-Price is steadily connecting with new parents through toys that are aesthetically pleasing and use technology to teach kids.

Dubois said it feels like a different company from the one it was three years ago, and he argued that this year’s Mix Faire inspired all of Fisher-Price.

“I personally feel really good … after Mix Faire, and it carries through the year,” Dubois said. “It was really well-received.”