Thoughtfull Toys’ David Silverglate: Playing for Keeps
Modarri, a toy invented by Santa Cruz’s David Silverglate, combines two of the best toy ideas of all time—Hotwheels and Legos. Launched with a Kickstarter campaign in February of 2014, the toy has become a huge critical and financial success.
Here’s how it works: The Deluxe 3-Pack starter kit comes with 17 car parts: chassis, hoods, fenders, frames, axles and wheels, that can be assembled into three cars. And then taken apart and reassembled, via tiny screwdrivers and built-in screws, in a “countless” variety of ways.
The cars have spring suspensions, and rack-and-pinion-style steering, so the front wheels can both turn and camber. One drives the car with “finger steering.” Simple, completely engaging, and fun. It truly is, as Silverglate brags, “the ultimate toy car.
It is Silverglate’s fifth or sixth toy invention, and although it is a hit, it’s not his biggest hit. That would be the Oball—an even simpler toy. You have almost certainly seen the Oball. Smaller than a soccer ball but bigger than a softball, it’s made of flexible, multi-colored plastic, and perforated symmetrically with one-inch holes, which makes it collapsible, indestructible, safe for indoor play, and super-easy to catch.
Since it’s release in 2001, it has become millions of kids’ first ball. And it’s so cool, it has been sold in New York’s Museum of Modern Art gift shop for more than 15 years.
David has more plans for his company, Thoughtful Toys, headquartered on Portrero Street. I spoke with him in advance of his appearance at Santa Cruz Works next New Tech Meetup (see bottom for details).,
How did Modarri happen?
After I sold the Oball company, we worked there for two years, and I decided I was going to start a toy company. I wanted it to be around some known play behavior—that pretty much means balls, dolls, and cars, so we looked hard at all three of those categories. I decided I had already designed one of the coolest balls there is, and the thing is, my partners [Brian Gulassa and Trevor Hite] and I, we call ourselves the Three Dads, and we're dudes. We just couldn't see doing dolls. We all love cars and so we decided it would be cars.
I brought Brian out to the New York Toy Fair in February of 2013 and we walked around—very, very jaded. I'm thinking “most of these toys are pretty crappy,” because they are. So we looked at what was on the market and we decided we wanted to make the ultimate toy car.
And the ultimate toy car is a car that you'd be able to work on—take it apart and put it together in different ways. And then you can drive around with your finger—and your entire being is projected into your finger.
All of your inventions, from the fabric-covered Woosh Ring Frisbee-type thing to the Skyblaster to the Oball to Modarri share certain characteristics, although I can’t say exactly what they are. Do you have a kind of toy-making philosophy that guides your work at Thoughtful Toys?
Well, I do. I discovered with the Woosh Ring that if you left it out in the sun for too long, it just dies. With the Oball it’s pretty much impossible to destroy it. So I came up with this philosophy that I called BFD. It doesn’t mean the usual thing— for me it stands for beautiful, functional, and durable.
I emphasize the first part of functional because the main function of a toy is for it to be fun. The beautiful part makes it more attractive both to the parent and even the kid – kids appreciate beauty. And I like to think of my toys as little works of art.
As for the durable part— I have a degree in physics, and I’m very calculus-oriented. So I have this concept of “play value.“ and it has two variables: play and time. So: from the moment the child first gets the toy until the time he last plays with it. Play value only occurs when you have a toy that is really played with a lot over a long period of time.
What’s your next move?
At the end of this month, we are releasing an online configurator where you can do the same sort of play [as with Modarri cars]. You can mix-and-match, pick a different hood and fenders, and design a car. Then you can buy it and we’ll send you the car that you designed yourself. Or rather, you can send an email or a text message to your mom or your grandma and say “look at this cool car I designed... will you buy it for me?”
Also, all of our cars have a unique license plate. So you can register your car, and have a virtual experience on your phone that’s fun and educational. We’ve decided to accept the fact that kids are going to be on phones—kids today do not see a big differentiation between the digital and the physical world. So we’re going to start having car shows where people can put the car they designed up and have people vote on it. There will be leaderboard’s, awards, and prizes.
And eventually we’re going to get to the point where kids can design their own hoods, fenders and frames themselves and share them. And if they’re liked enough, will do a production run of them. Or, if you like the car enough, you can either buy the file, or we’ll 3-D print it and paint it for you.
I gave a New Tech Meetup talk a few years ago where I said “the future of toys is that kids will be designing their own toys.“
What brought you to UC Santa Cruz?
I was into backpacking, and I went on a trip with my family—I grew up in Riverside, and I hated the smog. And when I was 16, I saw UCSC, which was only a half-dozen years old at the time. And my parents said, “you know, you could go here.“ And I thought, why the hell would I go anywhere else?
And what made you decide to stay in Santa Cruz?
Well, I love this town. I like roller-skating around; I like the mountains, the beach. I like the lifestyles, the crazy people here.
Also, I did the innovation center up at UCSC back in the ’70s. I was a physics major because I was a math nerd, and back in the day UCSC had no engineering school nor a business school, and the economics department was literally run by communists like Mike Rotkin. So they started CIED, the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurial Development, in the physics department, back when no other university had an innovation center.
It was founded by Bruce Rosenblum, a physics professor, and Narinder Kapany, the inventor of fiber optics. And CIED has recently been reformulated, a couple of years ago, partly with my help. I enlisted Narinder Kapany—he gave some money and I introduced him to Sue Carter who runs CIED now.
So, I’m kind of invested in this town. I mean, I started the Kresge Garden back in the ’70s and it’s four times as big now. I’m really into the whole entrepreneurial Santa Cruz thing. I think we should be Silicon Beach, and we’re not there yet. But I’m trying to help make it happen.
David Silverglate will be speaking at the Santa Cruz Works New Tech Meetup: “The Impossible… Possible,” on Wednesday, October 2, 2019, 6 PM to 9 PM. He will be joined by Marc Randolph, cofounder of Netflix and Looker, and others. For car enthusiasts: Drako’s Shiv Sikand will be showing off his 1,200-hp, $1.25 million quad-motor electric supercar. Get tickets now at: The Impossible…Possible