by Wendy Smolen, founder, wendysmolen.com

My husband compares me to Tom Hanks. Not the wise, empathetic, Fred Rogers version of Hanks, but Josh, the exuberant man-child from the movie Big. He views my office full of toys as a giant playground. “You get paid to play,” he says (sometimes a little too incredulously). “Yes,” I answer (sometimes a little too snarkily). And so it goes. But if you’re reading this, your office probably also has its shelf — or three — full of toys. Whether you’re an inventor, a manufacturer, a buyer, a seller, or an analyst, you’re in the business of play. And just like kids, you can learn a lot from playing.

Think of any game you love. It’s fun, but you also want to win. It takes strategy, smarts, and a little bit of luck. Here, from my playbook to yours, are proven ways to up your game.


A successful business plan is neither a sprint nor a marathon; it’s a relay. It takes a team to play well. There’s a front-runner with a great reaction time and a speedy anchor to bring it home. Everyone in between also has a significant role. When you’re building your team, you can’t just stack up the fast guys. Consider tag-teaming opposites. In a three-legged race, kids of different sizes with different skills figure out how to move. Obvious solutions are not always the best solutions — and visa-versa.

pictionary air


Look at what works, and think about how you can make it better. Pictionary Air, one of this year’s most-inventive products, wouldn’t have existed without the success of the original Pictionary. In Ms. Monopoly, one of the newest spinoffs of multilicensed Monopoly, women entrepreneurs (hurray) earn more money than men (finally). WeCool’s Lil’ Shuckies combine slime, a clamshell case, collectible beads, and jewelry-making into one product. Take a success story, marry it with a hot trend, and see what mashup you get.


We know what happens to people who are all work and no play. Multiple studies have shown how the power of creativity can help relieve stress, alleviate depression, and create a sense of well-being. Jeff Sparr, the co-founder of peacelove.org, a nationwide organization that uses expressive arts to help create peace of mind, paints to help combat his obsessive-compulsive disorder. Carving out time in your day to do something creative can change your entire perspective. On a small scale, pulsing a silly stress ball or having a doodling pad and pen on the table as you sit across from someone can take a lot of pressure off yourself and put a creative spin on the business at hand.


Talk. Share. Interact. It’s easy to rely on social media. But not all platforms are equal. Moms gravitate to certain sites and teens to others. LEGO has a magazine for fans to view and share amazing projects. In Scratch, an interactive program that teaches coding, users are encouraged to exchange ideas online. Each site communicates differently. It’s not only important to play where your audience plays, but also to understand how they play.

Concentrate and Procrastinate

Balance focus with fog. Do a crossword puzzle. Play Solitaire. Solve a Rubik’s Cube. When you take micro-vacations to think of nothing at all, your “on” time becomes much more productive.


Anyone who has ever played Minecraft knows what it’s like navigating through survival mode. Likewise, when young kids create stories with a Fisher-Price Little People playset, they’re trying to recreate the world they know. In both cases, there’s a sense of adventure, risk, and control. The stimulation doesn’t come from doing the same thing over and over, but from venturing out and pushing the boundaries. Sitting in your office staring at the same walls every day, remaining in your own Toy Fair New York booth while you’re surrounded by hundreds of new ideas, or talking to the same people are not going to help you figure out what’s next. Get out in the field. Walk the aisles. Navigate the world. Play like you mean it.

This article originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of the Toy Book. Click here to read more!

About the author

Wendy Smolen

Wendy Smolen

Wendy Smolen has spent 25 years playing in the toy industry as an editor, writer, and ideator. She co-founded Sandbox Summit, an idea forum focused on the intersection of play, learning, and technology. Currently, she works with publications, companies, and organizations to create playful perspectives that engage kids and families in innovative and impactful ways.