Rancho Santa Fe Review – March 1, 2001
By Suzi Harrison
Entrepreneur blazes trail in world of children’s toys
Ranch resident, entrepreneur and toy inventor Mark Rappaport has led a professional life most only dream of. Fueled by his constant desire to create and an active imagination, this gizmo guru has been inventing popular toys for top toy companies for the past 20 years. Giving wings to his most recent enterprise four years ago, the "California Chariot", a modern take on the classic scooter, Rappaport has enjoyed continued success as president and founder of the Carlsbad-based California Chariot Company and its inventing arm, What If Toys. The road to this point in the inventor’s life has been a long, but thanks to his can-do attitude, not so tough one, full of curious twists and turns.
Born and raised in Long Beach, Calif., Rappaport has always been surrounded by toys. His father, who worked in the marketing department of Mattel Toys in its early days, constantly showered Rappaport and his brother with new and before-market toys from the company’s design department. These first-run toys included the still popular "Hot Wheels" cars and "Thing Maker," some of Rappaport’s favorite toys as a youth. Always curious and never lacking an ample toy supply, he can remember dissecting and disassembling whatever he could get his hands on.
"When I was a kid I used to take everything apart," Rappaport said. "I would never be able to get it back together, but the joy was in destroying it. Trying to figure out how to fix it wasn’t an issue."
That curious and creative nature is something Rappaport has been unable to shake all these years. Entering UCLA right out of high school on a wrestling scholarship, he explains that it did not take long to realize that a career as a wrestling coach was not the direction he wanted to take his life.
"I met a guy who worked in the design department at Mattel and it was really interesting to me that he could make and build anything he wanted to," explained Rappaport. "I thought ‘this is something I want to do.’ So then I had to figure out how to get from UCLA wrestling to Mattel Toys."
Following others’ advice, he began taking art and design courses at UCLA in order to build a portfolio that would ensure his acceptance at Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. There he majored in industrial design and was recruited into Mattel’s toy design department immediately upon graduation. He was now a professional toy inventor.
Starting his career at Mattel in the early ‘80s He-Man, action figure era, he was employed in what is called a "Blue Sky" design group working in the "Make and Play" category of Mattel. The group was given special liberties to make and experiment with whatever they could think up in this construction category, including blocks, connectors and other toys marketed for "building." And while the job met every one of his high expectations for a career as a toy-inventor, it wasn’t long before Rappaport’s innovation sent him into a new territory.
"For the first two years there it was the best job in the whole world," he explained. "But almost by accident after three and a half years there I went into the candy-making business."
The California Critters Candy Company specialized in novelty chocolates molded into different characters, boasting clever phrases and elaborate packages. This enterprise commandeered by Rappaport and a friend came about after he had asked his friend to make, from a kit, some chocolates to pass out as gifts to his co-workers at Mattel. The chocolates, like four frogs in a box reading "Frog-et Me Not" or Santa Clauses touting "Just Clause I Love You" were an instant hit, which Rappaport now admits he put his foot in his mouth when he claimed responsibility for their production.
"When they asked were I got them, I took the credit and said that I made them," Rappaport remembers. "Next thing I knew my co-workers were asking to buy some and how much they would cost."
Collaborating with his friend, the two quickly developed their own character molds and tools with which to produce these clever little chocolates of their own. The eventually titled California Critters, began to sell like hot cakes at first among his Mattel co-workers. But it wasn’t long until word spread and Rappaport was making enough money selling chocolates to cover his salary with Mattel. He quit his job in their design department and went full time into candy making.
As the business continued to grow the company moved into a small factory in Torrance where, as Rappaport describes, "we dolloped out chocolates by the tons."
In the four years Rappaport spent in the candy business, the Sweet Rapper Candy Company’s (originally titled Sweet Dreams Candy Company until a lawsuit filed altered them to the prior existence of such a company) California Critters’ line began to sell nationwide in mega stores like Wal-Mart and on Main Street at Disneyland.
"California Critters just went beserk and I have no idea how it happened," Rappaport said. "We did a couple trade shows and we were unique enough to get some attention."
But working every day with no vacation for four years, and handling all of the accounting for the company began to wear on Rappaport. Adding to his desire to have more free time was his recent marriage. So when he was approached with an offer to sell the company, as surprised as he was, he took the considerable sum and retired from candy making – something he had never done with toy inventing.
The inventing arm of Rappaport’s enterprise, What If Toys, has been around since about 1985. With a mind that constantly supplies him with innovating ideas, Rappaport has been inventing toys on his own for the bulk of his life.
" I think I invented my first product when I was 9. It was a marble maze made out of toothpicks," he remembers. "My father presented it to Mattel who turned it down, but it was still neat."
Employed for a total of five years of his adult life, with short stays at both Mattel and Parker Brothers, Rappaport has had a much higher success rate inventing marketable toys since his first try at age 9. In fact, most of his products are still found on the shelves of major toy stores today and his line of the Nerf Bow and Arrow and Turbo Screamer Football alone are responsible for more than $80 million in sales.
The majority of the toys invented by Rappaport are in the category of "performance" toys, meaning that they do something as opposed to action figures or board games. He, however, has adopted his own way of categorizing the products he creates.
" I basically make throwy-things, catchy-things, hitty-things and shooty-things," explained Rappaport whose products are geared towards boys, ages 6 to 10.
Among his favorite inventions, along with his Nerf line, are the recent "Mark McGuire Power Bat," a remote controlled pitching machine and a remote control car with detachable pieces. He continues to invent new toys and , operating through What If Toys, licenses them to major toy companies.
Through all the years he has been inventing toys, Rappaport’s philosophy to "Go Where they are not," has aided his continued success.
" I will create a trend rather than follow one," he said. "I don’t have the power to work a category where other people are, there are just too many other inventors and big toy companies who are good at working crowded categories. I have to find categories where people are not developing new product and use my innovation and skill."
Such was the case when Rappaport began work on his now very successful California Chariot scooter in the early ‘90s, which falls in the "ride-on" category of toys.
" I knew the ride-on category had not been worked on in many years and the last good ride-ons were Power Wheels and Big Wheels," he said. " So I borrowed my neighbors tricycle and began taking it apart."
He eventually returned the tricycle and began building prototype after prototype of his new and improved scooter. In its crudest form, the now well-built and mass-produced California Chariot was rigged from two skateboards, a BMX bike and a shopping cart. Once perfected, Rappaport saw great potential in his product and decided not to shop it around with the toy companies, but to try and take it on the market himself.
Building the now international California Chariot Company on the theory of "sell a few, make a few," Rappaport found unlikely success. And surprisingly, the recent boom in popularity of the Sharper Images "Razor Scooter" and its less expensive impostors, has helped to carry the already popular Chariot. That is until his patented product was knocked off by one of the largest bike manufacturers in the world and sold at a much lower price.
" We are suing them in federal court, and now all of the sudden it isn’t fun anymore," Rappaport said. "They are selling, in our opinion, kind of a junky product, but at half our price."
Even with this setback, the California Chariot has maintained its popularity and Rappaport feels confident that their level of quality of product, as well as customer service, will overcome this dip in the road.
The California Chariot currently sells in 46 U.S states and throughout Europe in specialty toy stores, sporting goods stores and bike shops. It comes in three sizes, with eight colors in each size. Right now this is the only product on the shelves from the company although they are constantly experimenting with prototypes. These prototypes include a version of the in-line scooter, but the heavy inventory in the area has prompted the company to steer clear of this already too-chartered territory. But the company already has plans to soon enter the ride-on market "in a much more innovative way," than its current competitors.
Sitting in his Carlsbad headquarters, surrounded by toys representing decades of the toy industry, his creative wheels constantly turning, and a seemingly golden touch as an inventor, Rappaport says he is never satisfied with where he is. He is always looking to move on to the next thing, which he vows to do as long as his creative juices keep flowing.
"The absolute most fun part of this business is that moment when you get that great idea," he said. "Out of 100 ideas that most people come up with only makes sense. What has made me successful is that I will come up with 10 good ideas and three of them are good, so I enjoy a much higher hit rate. I strike out a lot, but the key thing I have learned is to live to fight another day."