By Doug O’Neill

Open an email from a staffer at Spin Master, the Toronto-based toy creator, and your eyes almost immediately become transfixed on the email signature, a row of icons illustrating the company’s core values: “Open Mindset.” “Integrity.”  “Collaboration.” “Entrepreneurial Spirit.” “Driving Results.” “Partnership.” “innovation.”

“I’d say over 70 per cent of our core values came from the get-go – but they probably weren’t written down until we were seven years into our company’s history,” says Anton Rabie, who co-founded the successful global toy and entertainment company with university pals Ronnen Harary and Ben Varadi in 1994. “We didn’t necessarily articulate those values when we first launched Spin Master – but they reflect how we were acting in the business world. They defined our style and approach – and people, including potential business partners, were drawn to us because of the very values we lived. The values became our DNA.”

Spin Master’s successful innovations and partnerships have included popular brand names such as Earth Buddies, Air Hogs, Sky Shark. Flick Trix Finger Bikes, Bakugan Battle Brawlers, Zoomer the Robotic Dog and Paw Patrol Adventure Game. Spin Master eventually purchased the time-honoured Etch A Sketch and Doodle Sketch brands, among others. They even acquired the 120-year-old stuffed toy brand Gund. As of last year Spin Master boasted $1.5 billion in sales and employed 2,000 people in 26 countries.

Walking the Values Talk

“Not every core value happens overnight for a company, and some are harder than others to embrace,” says Rabie.  One value that the Spin Master team embraced early in their evolution was integrity. “Integrity defines the way we’ve always done business,” says Rabie. “If somebody called us up and pitched an idea, we were always candid, honest. It wasn’t uncommon for us to say, ‘No thank you, your idea is a knock-off. We won’t do it.’ When we took our company public, the integrity factor came out strong. It became obvious that people appreciated us for our integrity. Our company benefited from so much good will because of our practice of that particular core value.”

Innovation has been equally important to the success of Spin Master. “When ideas are pitched to us, whether from an innovator, a potential business partner or a toy inventor, they aren’t always perfect – but that doesn’t mean we dismiss them right away. For instance, if I felt we couldn’t commercialize on an idea, I’d ask the innovator to go back and get more information. If I were concerned about design elements, I’d let them know. I’d be direct, ‘Call me if the functionality of your product changes.’ It’s always been important for us to go in with the idea of, ‘Let’s be open to working on this together.’ At Spin Master there always needs to be an iterative process.” Rabie cites the case of the Rocket Fishing Rod that Spin Master released about ten years ago: “We went back and forth for three years, improving on it, ensuring it was safe, perfecting the bobber. It illustrates for me the value of innovation – and maintaining an open mindset.”  

But having an open mindset isn’t always easy, says Rabie: “I’ve met a lot of entrepreneurs who say they have an open mindset, but really they don’t.  It’s one of the hardest values to articulate because people aren’t always aware of their biases. People will claim to be open-minded but deep down they really want to be secure and in control – which is human nature. When humans aren’t safe they have a biological response they’re not even aware of: they shut down. The open mindset shuts down.”

 “We get 4,500 to 5,000 ideas pitched to us each year,” says Rabie. “But we still try to go into each discussion with an open mindset– and not cut off the discussion too early. Having an open mindset means showing curiosity, to go into the first meeting without any preconceived notions, to ask the innovator: ‘What’s unique? What’s different about this concept? Tell me more.’ It’s that constant peppering of questions that results in amazing products – and that’s what we try to encourage at every level of our business.”

Collaboration and partnerships rank high in Spin Master’s set of values, as do entrepreneurship and driving results: “Collaborating as a team makes for a better product. When interviewing for senior managers we always test them on their collaborative skills, as well as their sense of partnerships. We work with so many partners – we don’t treat them as suppliers. We treat them with respect. They’re part of our team. It’s never a case of them and us.”

Rabie’s advice to entrepreneurs who are starting out? “I’ve always felt it important to embrace a set of values that applies to your clients and external partners ­– but that also reflect how you function in the workplace. It’s what ultimately drives success.”   

Photo credit Zlatko Cetinic, Images Made Real