From left to right: Anne Ullman, Al Ullman, Jack Ullman, Don Ullman
There are not many multi-generation inventor families, but if there were, the Ullman family would still be at the top of the list. I’ve had the good fortune of getting to know Don and Anne over the years as well as their boys, Al and Jack. Don has great stories (to start, ask him about owning an Italian Ice Shop and an Auto Detailing Shop) and has a playful soul… if you look closely, you’ll see the twinkle in his eyes that matches his mischievous grin. Enjoy reading about the Ullmans!
How did you and your family first enter the toy industry?
I was the first one in my family to enter the toy industry. My father was an engineer, and my mother was a crystallographer, both very scientific. But they did recognize and understand the value of play, so we played lots of games and spent lots of time creating fun outdoor experiences. I had an idea for a board game when I was in my early 20’s and made a very crude prototype but didn’t’ know where to go with it. Somehow, I managed to get in touch with a famous New York agent and got bullied into telling him about the idea on the phone. He told me what a lousy idea it was and that I shouldn’t waste any of my time on it – welcome to the industry! But, then in the early 1990’s a friend of mine had an idea for a board game, raised money, and self-published it. He brought it to toy fair and, since he knew I was interested, invited me along. Anyone who has been to NY Toy fair for the first time knows what an eye-opening experience it is; I was hooked. People began asking if we had other product ideas, so naturally we said yes and began to work together trying to develop some new concepts. Over time, I began to learn how the industry worked and met people that could help. Fun fact – one of the first games I ever worked on, made entirely out of wood, was optioned by Milton Bradley, so I thought I was off to the races. Sadly, it didn’t make it to the shelves, so I learned about one of the pitfalls of the business early, but I managed to keep a positive outlook and kept going. It took a long time to have some hit products, so I give my wife Anne a lot of credit for hanging in there and believing in me. With some great inventing partners, I eventually had some hits along the way like The Incredible Shrinky Dinks Maker, Soggy Doggy, Don’t Step In It, and Drone Home!
Who has been involved and who is involved now?
In the beginning I had a partner, but we were not exactly on fire, so he went on to pursue other interests – like a job. So, it was just me. Anne played a critical role though – having a steady income! Once we had kids, and they got to game playing age, they began to test games and be involved in video shoots. Of course, watching them play was inspirational! I started working with other partners, so even though my business was just me, it didn’t feel lonely. Fast forward to today and my oldest son Al is in the business. He was teaching Music in Boston and during the pandemic he decided to change careers. He came home to work with me and that was awesome – we created some great concepts together and I got to see he has a talent for the business. The plan was always for him to go out in the industry and get some experience and he has. He now works at GPI doing many of the same things that he did while working with me, but also learning the whole manufacturing side of the industry. It was super fun to see him at the 2022 POP event in Chicago as my competitor! Anne is more involved now too. She helps test games, providing great insights, is in a lot of my videos, records voice overs, and in general is a positive force for good! She enjoys going to the trade shows and loves the people in the industry and they love her back! My youngest son Jack has certainly been involved. He was an official play tester with his friends and was in a lot of my videos. He even co-invented a game that we licensed. He is now working in another industry and living in Brooklyn NY. He is a very playful type and plays a lot of games, so it will not surprise me if he gets involved someday.
Do you think the next generation will get involved?
That is hard to say but both Al and Jack love to play games so if they have their own kids, it is certainly a possibility!
How has business changed over the years?
I think things have changed for the good in a lot of ways for inventors just starting out. Technology has made it so much easier to meet companies to pitch to. Now with events like POP focused on making connections it is so easy for new inventors to meet companies from around the world. In the old days, that would involve a lot of travel and expense and even so, it was hard to meet that many companies. It’s now super easy to create compelling videos with just a phone, and 3D printers have made prototyping much more accessible to everyone. And with platforms like Zoom you can shoot a video one day and be pitching it the next. Things are also better for people that want to self-publish because there are avenues other than the big retail chains, to sell direct to consumer. On the other side of the coin, I think certain things may be tougher. As the barriers to entry have fallen there are lots of games coming into the market from many different sources, so it is extremely difficult to make a game get noticed. Additionally, licenses play such a big role in what hits the shelves. Toy and game companies are looking for something to make their product stand out in a sea of product, and they often turn to a license. Many of these games are invented in-house.
What advice do you have for others thinking of joining the family business?
I think joining a family business is great if you have a real passion for what you are doing. It must happen organically though – it can’t be forced with expectation, or it will never really work. It makes me happy that Al chose to join the industry. I hope that he feels the way I do about it, which is with a sense of wonder and belonging, knowing there are no limitations to the freedom and creativity to bring out products that make kids and adults come together and laugh.
Don and Ann Ullman