Published June 17, 2003
Volume 11, Number 6

David Small Finds Success in a Passion for Invention

By George Walsh
Network Editor

Finding an occupation that takes advantage of our potential, creativity, and talents is a goal for many people. David Small, co-founder of Shoot The Moon at 3825 Hopyard Road, seems to have achieved this objective and, in his case, arrived there through an openness to change and a willingness to make career decisions that others might not consider viable.

SmallShoot the Moon is an inventing company that primarily creates toys, although it also works in many other product categories. The company was founded in 1991 by Small’s partner Paul Rago, with Small joining in 1992. In the toy industry, inventors do a lot of the new product development, but Shoot the Moon avoids the type of high-profile marketing that toy industry relies on. Despite the fact that the company has developed and licensed over a hundred items in the past decade, the company prefers a low profile, purposely avoiding even the most common types of marketing, such as a web site. This is because Shoot the Moon is involved in the creative process of invention and has all the clients and new ideas that it needs to succeed.

David Small attended primary and secondary school in Southern California where he was born and raised, but his road to becoming an inventor started in Phoenix Arizona, where he earned a Bachelors degree in electrical engineering at DeVry Institute of Technology. “It was good for me to go to DeVry,” Small says. “I wanted to be an engineer and DeVry was a great place to get a education. The kids that come out of there are very well educated and typically get jobs soon after graduation. They push you very hard and if you stay on track you can earn your degree very quickly. I wanted to get out of school and get to work, so I stayed focused and completed my degree in three years and three months.”

After finishing his degree, Small took his first engineering job at Measurex Corporation as a Manufacturing Engineer. “Measurex manufactured continuous process control equipment,” he says. “For example, a large paper plant would be controlled by a very sophisticated sensing system under computer control. The system would monitor all the parameters for making paper such as the pulp, water, and ash content.  The computer would then dynamically adjust the variables of the process so that the paper would be manufactured within specification and be made out of components that are more readily available, cost less, and ultimately produce better quality paper.”

Small’s next job was a far cry from controlling a paper mill. In this engineering segment, quality control had much higher stakes. “I was a development engineer for Cordis Dow, which was a start-up joint venture between Cordis Medical and Dow Chemical,” Small says. “We designed and manufactured kidney dialysis life support systems. This was a very interesting technical field. During the development of the system, the engineering department would work with doctors to design the type of profiles they wanted to see. A profile would be the biological parameters of the patient and the functions of the artificial kidney that the doctors needed to monitor during dialysis. The machine would measure things like arterial pressure, venous pressure, blood flow, blood temperature, and a host of other parameters to provide feedback to the clinician or the doctor. In many cases, we would make suggestions to the doctors about what we thought could be measured and monitored. As engineers we looked at the body from a very clinical point of view and tried to measure as many parameters as possible. The doctors would then use this information to control the process of dialysis so that it could be performed safer, faster, and with less discomfort to the patient.”

Though the job at Cordis Dow was a fascinating combination of electrical engineering, computer engineering, and biology, Small took the advice of a mentor and moved on to his next assignment as test engineer at Atari Systems. “There was an elder engineer at my first job who told me that, as a young engineer, you should work in as many engineering disciplines as possible,” Small says. “He said that after a decade of moving around to work in different engineering departments, you will be a valuable commodity to any company. At every new job, I very purposefully moved around from one engineering department to another. I started off in manufacturing, then worked through design and development. Then, I went to test engineering and factory automation at Atari. After working at Atari, a consumer electronics company, I took a job as Director of Operations Engineering at Molecular Computer.”

The next step in Small’s career was a pivotal one, as he took his engineering skills and experience into unknown territory—the consumer toy industry. “In the early 1980s, when I was working at Molecular Computer, a number of my friends got together to start a toy company called Worlds of Wonder. For months, they badgered me into working with them. I kept telling them that, as the Director of Engineering at a multi-user computer company, I had no intention of ruining my career by going to work at a toy company to design Teddy Bears. I finally relented because the team at Worlds of Wonder was phenomenal.” In the mid 1980s, Worlds of Wonder came to market with Teddy Ruxpin and Lazer Tag—two of the most popular toys ever developed.

After eventually leaving Worlds of Wonder, Small continued in the toy industry at Galoob Toys, where he served as Senior Vice President of Research and Development. For many years, Small and Worlds of Wonder’s vice president of marketing Paul Rago talked about leaving their positions to develop toys and move away from managing large departments. “We never could leave our management posts to invent and design products because the companies we worked for needed our engineering and marketing management skills,” Small says. “So, in the early 1990s, we decided to just leave the companies we were working for to start our own product development company. Our business model was to have a small privately held company that would develop proprietary toys and other products for license to third parties such as toy companies.” Thus, Shoot the Moon was born.

Shoot the Moon is a relatively small—but very successful—operation, with seven employees who are a mix of designers, engineers, product managers, and marketing professionals. It’s a very high tech operation, but on a smaller scale than the companies Small has worked for in the past. Among the company’s successes are products such as Kitty Kitty Kittens, TV Teddy (the first TV interactive toy ever marketed), Tyco Video Cam (first CMOS imager consumer product ever marketed), and a preschool book reading system that will be sold by Fisher-Price called Power touch Books.

Having worked for companies ranging from large Silicon Valley computer enterprises to successful toy companies like Worlds of Wonder, Small has strong beliefs about how to run a successful company. “The most important element in managing a small creative business is to hire the most talented people you can find and have them be the type to individuals that you like to be around,” Small says. “We have a very low turnover at Shoot the Moon because we treat our employees very well and try to maintain a fun and creative environment. We expect our team to be able to think on their own and be an active participant in the inventing process. To keep the team happy, we try to give them the tools they need to get the job done.” Running a lean organization has had a lot to do with Shoot the Moon’s success. “We are very conservative with cash,” Small says. “We’re conservative with pretty much everything we do and I believe that’s how we have managed to stay in business as long as we have. Shoot the Moon is still a very healthy and viable company.”

Despite the success of Shoot the Moon, expanding it into a larger operation is not in Small’s plans. He’s happy with his company just as it is and sees his position there as a culmination of his training and work experience. “I don’t think that I would want to go back to managing large companies with a lot of people. Being a corporate executive does not allow me to use my creative skills in the way that I like. What I like to do is to figure out how to make new ideas work, build a first model of the idea, and then license the idea or product to others to go through the manufacturing, marketing, and packaging process.”In choosing to focus on what he enjoys, David Small has not only achieved financial success, but a personal happiness and satisfaction that many would envy.


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