by Rachele Harmuth | 16 Mar 2023
Biographies and Interviews
Hi Rachele! Thank you for taking time for this interview, I know you have a lot on your plate with heading up both ThinkFun and M.E.S.H. To date, what has been your biggest achievement?
Hmmm, I don’t think I’ve done it yet. If you asked the folks around me, I hope the answer would be my biggest achievement has been building up the people around me, but I always feel that there are greater things ahead for us to accomplish.
What was your biggest failure?
I have to pick just one? Ha! I’ve got a nice trail of failures, but I think my first real failure would be the one that felt like the biggest. It was a product line that I had spearheaded for the relaunch of Lincoln Logs when K’NEX first picked up the license. I was a new brand manager at that point and it was my first major innovation in a product line. It was a “whole new way” of building with Lincoln Logs that used them vertically to build castles. It was a super great building experience for kids and made these great designs. Unfortunately, I focused entirely on the experience of the building and really cool looking models it could create…. but not at all on the essence of what the Lincoln Logs brand is. I moved into a sales role as we launched it so my first role in sales was to sell-in my Lincoln Log Castles. I got my first lesson in the power of brand. Needless to say, consumers didn’t want a “whole new way” of building with a classic toy and they voted (with their dollars) that building Log Cabins with a brand about Log Cabins made much more sense than building castles!
Do you have a mantra that you live by?
I started my first toy design company when I was 20. Really it was just to go to toy fair because you had to be a company, so incorporate one and, of course, I had big visions for what I thought it could be. When my Dad sent me my first corporate binder, he included a note that said “Here we go!!!” That pretty much sums up my life mantra. I love the thrill of starting new things – of diving into new areas where I’m not really sure what I’m doing or how to do it, but screw it, “Here we go!!”
Why and how did you get into the Toy and Game industry?
Great question. In high school I knew exactly what my life was going to be – and it was ALL about theater. I was an avid theater geek, did every show, took theater classes on the weekends, and snuck into every broadway show I could my senior year. I went to college for theater at Carnegie Mellon first with a focus on directing and then moved into Theatrical design (costumes and scenery.) It was there in the end of my sophomore year that the head of the theater design department sat me down and said “You should be a toy designer.” I’ll never forget that moment as I looked at him and said “That’s a thing? Like people do that for a living?” I thought it sounded amazing and spent the summer going to every toy store I could. I came back to school and switched into Industrial design. Every project we did I did for kids. Gardening tools? Yup – I did mine for 3 year olds. Sneakers? Yup, I make ones that transformed into dragons and the eyes lit up as you walked. My teachers weren’t thrilled, but I had the time of my life! Landed my first industry job as a R&D designer at K’NEX and the rest is history.
What has kept you motivated to stay in the toy industry?
Wait, we can leave the toy industry? Why would you do that? I tell everyone that once you start, you’re in for life. We spend our time debating whether it’s cooler to have kangaroos or llamas in our games… and then more time debating how fluffy the llamas should be. Why on earth would you want to leave that? But seriously, all you have to do is hang out with some kids and play - then you know you’ll never find that kind of joy anywhere else.
What trends do you see in toys or games that excite or worry you?
It’s not what I see in toys and games, it’s what I see happening to in the world. In society as a whole, there is a conversation finally happening around mental health. It has allowed us to really start talking about kids’ mental health as well. There are a lot of kids and families struggling right now. We need to understand what is happening and how we as an industry can have a positive impact. We launched an initiative at ThinkFun to understand better understand what skills kids need to be resilient and how we as a company and an industry can make a difference. We call it MESH (Mental, Emotional, Social Health). Check it out at MESHhelps.org
What advice do you have for people starting in the industry?
Don’t stay in your lane. Ask questions. If something looks cool or is interesting that someone else is working on – go talk to them about it. Volunteer to help in areas that excite you. I started as a designer, and then moved into marketing, then sales, and now management. It’s all connected so if something excites you, purse it!
What do you read every day, and why?
So, don’t judge, but I don’t read. I listen. I am a HUGE fan of audio books and am always knee-deep in one. However, in the last year, I have fallen in love with Masterclass. It’s an app that has people in a wide range of industries from business to government to cooking to entertainers teaching these master classes in their expertise. Even if it’s something that you personally wouldn’t pursue, listening to the top people in the world at anything talk about it is fascinating. I’m totally hooked.
Are you named after anyone?
Well, this will explain the weird spelling of my name: My maiden name was Rachel Carlson. My dad was a plant bio-geneticist. My name was a nod to Rachel Carson (the environmentalist who wrote Silent Spring.) But I didn’t think it had enough flair so I added a silent “e” to the end of my name when I was 9 years old and made it Rachele. Yeah, I was THAT kid – take pity on my parents!
What is your favorite way to waste time on your phone?
Ohhhhh, good one. As I said I’m a super believer in Masterclass so I watch/listen to that a ton (although I don’t think that’s a waste of time.) I would say in the deep dark world of time wasters, I believe TikTok is king. I feel like I just hoped on for 5 minutes and an hour has gone by. My FYP is filled with theater and humor and I secretly love it.
What’s your favorite cereal?
Cinnamon Toast Crunch. Yeah, my tastebuds stopped growing at age 7 I think.
Do you prefer scary movies or happy endings?
Happy endings….always happy endings.
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