Mark Carson grew up in Scribner, a town of fewer than 1,000 people in northeast Nebraska. He graduated from high school with 21 kids, including his now-wife Karen. An entrepreneur at heart whose parents were small-business owners, Carson sometimes wondered whether his background was the blueprint for business success on a larger scale.
“Fast-forward 26 years later,” said Carson, the president and co-founder of Elkhorn area-based toy retailer and manufacturer Fat Brain Toys, “and I’m at a German toy show accepting a toy of the year award at the largest toy show in the world.”
Carson on Wednesday told about 100 attendees at this year’s MarkeTECH Conference that creativity for solid businesses starts anywhere. Carson was one of several speakers at the conference on marketing and technology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Thompson Alumni Center. The conference was put on by GROW Nebraska, a nonprofit organization that focuses on creating sustainable economic development.
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Carson said he’s built Fat Brain Toys, which has 45 employees year-round and adds 200 more around the holiday season, by “taking the marathon approach” of bootstrapping, persevering through tough times and enjoying the process, even if it’s bumpy at times.
His journey to the toy company began years ago when he dropped out of college to start his first business. That business allowed him to be self-employed for more than three years, but it ended up unsuccessful. After that, he joined the tech world and used his graphic design background and eventually joined GiftCertificates.com and later Hayneedle.
“As exciting as some of those experiences were,” Carson said, “I wanted my own thing. I wanted to build my own brand.”
The opportunity to do so came from his kids. In the fall of 2002, Carson’s son Adam wanted another set of a magnetic building toy called Geomag. When he had problems buying a set online, Adam suggested his dad build a website to sell the things. He told Adam if he could find the Geomag supplier, he’d look into the idea.
Two hours later, to Carson’s dismay, his son came back with the supplier, a phone number, website and pictures. Carson ended up purchasing his first toy inventory, putting $600 worth on a credit card.
It wasn’t too long before the business took off. It allowed Karen to quit her full-time job. About a year and a half later, Carson joined full time, too. About five years ago, the company opened a retail store at Village Pointe South and three years ago, it started sending a direct mail catalog. The company also developed a wholesale division.
“Few people realize we’re actually manufacturing toys here in Nebraska,” said Carson, noting the company creates 50 original products, some manufactured here and some overseas.
He said that not taking shortcuts is key to creating sustainable businesses.
MarkeTECH attendee Jane Gustafson, who is the marketing and advertising manager for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission, said Carson’s message that creativity can happen anywhere was inspiring.
“And to not be intimidated by resources and potential,” she said, adding that “creativity will suffice” in all that you do.
Erin Cross, another attendee who is the marketing coordinator for the Olson Group, an employee benefits consultant, said: “It’s totally true — perseverance, enjoy the journey.”
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