Article published by NOVA EXEC Magazine - Summer 2011
Andrea Barthello and Bill Ritchie, the founders of Alexandria-based ThinkFun toy company, met in 1984 while working at a now-defunct real estate firm in Northern Virginia.
Not much fun in that.
Barthello and Ritchie started dating and married within a year and soon after launched a start-up company from their basement called Binary Arts. Their first product line consisted of four mechanical puzzle games invented by a family friend, William Keister.
Products like The Hexadecimal Puzzle proved to be a hit with moms who craved more clever, learning-intensive toys. Fueled by strong sales and growth, cash from family members and a Vienna-based angel investment firm, they expanded their product line.
Today, ThinkFun has 65 products in the retail channel. Life is good for the husband and wife team, recession or not.
During the 1990s, the retail landscape underwent sweeping transformation as the number of shopping malls exploded and retail-lifestyle stores discovered the popularity of ThinkFun games. ThinkFun grew exponentially, landing on Inc. magazine's list of the 500 fastest growing companies.
"The most important thing we did was establish a category of products in toy stores which consisted of logic puzzles and thinking games. We did this because there was no market leader," Ritchie said.
But when the global economy began melting in the fall of 2008, ThinkFun sales flattened as well. The couple went into survival mode: trimming expenses, installing a hiring freeze and halting salary increases for their 35 employees.
"We scrubbed our budgets and tightened up," Barthello said. ThinkFun also stopped producing a few poorly-performing products, assumed zero new liabilities or debts and continued to innovate, relying on a network of the world's premier inventors to develop new games and toys for their product line.
The company also went wireless with its most popular products, releasing versions of its Rush Hour game as mobile applications for smartphones, opening up a new revenue source that didn't exist four years ago.
The end result for ThinkFun has been a more secure, productive workplace without widespread fear of layoffs. The renewed focus is now on product development.
"In 2011 we have the strongest set of new products in the company's history," Barthello said. "There is a galvanizing effect when you have a mission."