From left to right: Antoinette, Rudy Sr., Rudy Jr., and Michael
How did your family first enter the toy industry? – It all started back in the early 90s. As a child, we spent our summers in Japan going to school and visiting relatives. One year, our uncle gave us a toy set called Pythagoras, which provided hours and hours of entertainment through open-ended play for my siblings and me. They were opaque magnetic building tiles invented by a math teacher in Japan. They consisted of 5 shapes and would always click together. My parents would watch us play with these for hours – cooperatively with no fighting – and a light bulb clicked in my parents’ head with the realization that they needed to bring Magna-Tiles to kids in the US to enjoy. My parents, Rudy and Noriko Valenta, decided to change careers and become entrepreneurs in the toy industry at that moment. It was about two years of persistent calls and letters from my parents to the manufacturing company in Japan before they decided to give my parents a chance to import Pythagoras to the US. In 1997, it finally happened, and Rudy and Noriko founded Valtech to launch a new product and create a new toy category called magnetic construction. In Japan, Pythagoras has two meanings that didn’t translate well for the US. The 1st is loosely tied to the Pythagorean theorem, which they found that many consumers didn’t connect to the toy. 2nd, Japanese is a phonetic language, and the sound “pyta” is used to represent the clicking sound when two Magna-Tiles click together. Since we use the word “click” to represent the sound of Magna-Tiles connecting, Pythagoras as a brand in the US didn’t make as much sense as it did in Japan. After a few months of ideation and testing, Rudy and Noriko rebranded their product as Magna-Tiles in the US, and the rest is history.
Who has been involved and who is involved now? – Almost everyone in the Valenta family has been involved. Rudy and Noriko have four children: Allison, Rudy Jr, Antoinette, and Michael. From 1997 to 2009, Rudy and Noriko were at the helm. In 2009, Rudy Jr. joined the company, taking it from 5 products to over 20. Antoinette joined a few years later on the marketing side alongside her brother – they worked on the creatives and even put a Magna-Tiles rocket in space. The upper atmosphere, to be exact, but to a child, that was space! As a family, they saw exponential growth to create the brand we know and see today by giving it fresh branding, a new logo, and positioning the product globally in both specialty, mass, and in schools. Rudy Jr. and Antoinette are viewed as the second-generation leaders of the Valentas for Valtech and the Magna-Tiles brand. Rudy Jr. and Antoinette both left to work for other toy brands to learn outside the company and, in return, help provide guidance to Magna-Tiles so that it can continue to grow through partnerships and a well-curated global strategy. In the early 2020s, Rudy and Noriko sold the brand, and their youngest son, Michael, still works for Magna-Tiles with its new owner. He is seen as the 3rd generation Valenta leader of the brand and is continuing to grow and innovate for the brand.
Do you think the next generation will get involved? – Of course! Rudy and Noriko are blessed with having seven grandchildren and counting. With three of their four children in the toy industry, there is a good chance future generations will be involved in toys, whether through Magna-Tiles or other brands.
Noriko Valenta and Rudy Jr.
How has business changed over the years? – The retail landscape is always changing, and how to connect with your community can change overnight with new technology. Some things stay the same, like making sure you create demand with children, parents, and educators to find success for your product. At the start of Valtech and Magna-Tiles, retailers didn’t want to carry Magna-Tiles. They had a laundry list of reasons, but that didn’t deter my parents. They would go to schools to share with educators how to use Magna-Tiles to learn through play, in both a classroom setting and at home. They would come back in two weeks to pick the product up from the teachers if they didn’t like it. They have yet to find a classroom that doesn’t want to keep Magna-Tiles. Those educators told parents about Magna-Tiles at parent-teacher conferences, who requested Magna-Tiles at their local toy stores, which eventually led to those retailers calling my dad back to place an order. Today, social media helps you launch new products much more quickly, but you still need to attend industry shows, meet with retailers, and listen to feedback from your community to improve the product to be what families are looking for. You can’t get the same honest feedback through a screen as you do with in-person connections.
What advice do you have for others thinking of joining the family business? – Be consistent, flexible, and open to feedback. Working with family is one of the hardest but most rewarding things you can do. Don’t miss the opportunity, as your family will always be your family, no matter what. You are their biggest supporter, and they are your #1 cheerleader.