Marianne Szymanski believes that, if you love what you do and live your passion, eventually everything will fall into place. And, her life is living proof of it.
From the time Marianne was small, she wanted to help others, especially children. At age 12, Marianne would hold benefit carnivals for the Muscular Dystrophy Association in her backyard. She would make up games sometimes using her own toys. Regardless of how much money these “events” raised, she was proud of the work she did for the children in need.
She learned entrepreneur skills early as a girl scout and was a top cookie seller in her troop. At sixteen, she had her own Avon route in her neighborhood (her mom signed for her to sell) and learned how to effectively work on her own. In college, she worked in the psychology research departments at both Marquette University and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee as an assistant conducting studies and helping with research reports. During her college summers, she worked on a cruise ship and learned effective customer service and interpersonal skills.
Marianne taught first grade Sunday school and continued this for eight years, just long enough to see her first class graduate from grade school. Each year, she adopted a family on behalf of her class to make Christmas special for a family who otherwise had little resources.
Marianne graduated from Marquette University in Milwaukee with a degree in psychology and marketing. But, when she graduated, she wasn’t sure which to pick. A career in psychology? A career in marketing? The two seemed entirely disconnected. In the end, for her path, they fit hand in hand. Upon graduation, Marianne was hired as a mental health technician at a pediatric psychiatric hospital. But, as it turned out she knew that emotionally this was not her calling. These children were wonderful and came from the most horrible backgrounds from some of the most horrible parents. At this point, Marianne felt the need to help children by helping their parents, too. But, she didn't know how just yet.
Marianne then decided to switch gears and was offered a sales job with LEGO. Marianne would visit toy stores, selling the LEGO line to store managers. One day while working at Toys “R” Us, Marianne had an epiphany after a grandmother asked her for a recommendation on a toy. Marianne didn't think it was appropriate professionally to not suggest LEGO. She realized at that point that this was information parents needed some help with—what toys do choose. Whether or not LEGO was the right one for the situation or not, she knew her boss was an aisle away. The dilemma got her thinking about toys and the information out there for parents. “Do parents really have access to unbiased information and do they know what kinds of toys are best for their children?” Marianne thought. “Do they know about child development and how different toys affect that development?”
Although she was working for LEGO full-time, Marianne reached out to the psychology professors she had studied under at Marquette University. She wanted to do a study on toys and how different toys enhance development. But, she was only twenty-three years old! She needed resources and legitimate PhD-holders to help her with it.
As she became more intrigued by her thoughts on toys and child development, Marianne began asking people about the toys they loved as a child. Basic toys, like crayons and colored rings and building blocks, were the things that people remembered. Marianne’s interest was piqued. What set these toys apart from others? Did they enhance development? How do we know when a toy is actually helpful or when a company has just marketed it well? Marianne decided to take a risk. Leaving the safety of her job behind, she started her own business, Toy Tips, Inc. (http://www.toytips.com/). The idea behind the company was to offer parents unbiased information they could trust on how to select products that enhance the emotional, psychological and physical development of the child. “The whole business was based on one thing only: providing independent research for families. I'm a consumer advocate and do not work for the toy companies. We take these little brains and give them so many unnecessary toys and do they really need it? No, but the pressure of marketers make it necessary.”
“[Toy Tips has] tested close to over 40,000 toys. Less than 50% pass the stringent review process. A lot of times if one company has a hit, others follow with a different gimmick but with a similar concept. My job is to be there as an educator for parents who want to know how to buy the best toys.”
Her field studies began in Marianne’s family home in Franklin, WI, a historic town outside Milwaukee. Lots of young families were moving in and with all those kids around, Marianne had more willing toy testers than she needed. Using the academic and scientific tools developed with her professor, Marianne tested and evaluated toys for her own toy advice hotline. 1-900-TOY TIPS. She laughs because she called the Attorney General of Wisconsin to report this was not one of 'those" 900 numbers in case they got calls! Quickly, she made headlines in USA TODAY and parents were calling to get her advice. Even better, toy companies wanted her to evaluate their products and there was never a shortage of ideas about new toys. “In the beginning I would buy toys. Then toy companies started sending me them by truckloads. It was like Christmas every day!” But, Marianne NEVER kept these toys. Off they went to testing and then she formed partnerships with charity programs to reach out to children very much like the ones she worked with at that psychiatric hospital who might get smiles from playing with them. To date, Marianne donates all tested toys to over 37 charities.
A year later, Toy Tips found a home at Marquette University in their new childcare center. An internship program developed from that, and Marianne led her team into launching independent testing centers all over the country. In less than 3 years, she had 500 testing centers, employees and starting publishing her results in custom newsletters and magazines.
At the time, there were other toy reviewers out there, but there seemed to be a lot of bias. Some kept toys for their own children and many just gave a positive review. "Who wouldn't say anything but good, if they got to keep free things? Just wrong," said Marianne. Then, there were the toy reviewers who wanted payment in exchange for a good review. Finally, the magazines that had “best toy” lists mostly based their toys on who advertised with them. BIAS, BIAS, and more BIAS. This was not something Marianne thought was credible, ethical, or anything she wanted a part of. Independence and real academic research was her mission!
To date, toy companies submit their products to the Toy Tips testing process. A thorough review leads to a Toy Tips Report Card. Over 5000 of these report cards are posted on toytips.com. In 1996, Marianne launched a magazine, Toy Tips Magazine (since renamed Toy Tips & Parenting Hints). She launched a series of custom magazines distributed at Toys “R” Us, Target, Hilton Hotels, JCpenney, Jiffy Lube, and at children's hospitals across the county. Two online retailers: Amazon.com and eBay also publish Toy Tips results.
Marianne never advertised—in fact, all of this came by word of mouth! The phone would ring and it just happened. According to Marianne, when people care about what you’re doing, the business will come. If you are honest, the business will come. If you are passionate about what you’re doing, the people will come. Marianne feels very strongly about this. It is something she has lived by, day to day, year after year.
After testing toys for nearly 20 years, Marianne still feels passionate about helping children. And, she feels blessed to have an unbiased profession in an industry loaded with marketing dollars, paid spokespersons and biased paid toy awards. It has never been her policy to allow the toy companies to drive editorial. Instead, all editorial is based on the research results of her toy testing process. "I care about what children learn by playing with toys and I care about assisting parents to direct their dollars to the best toys for their own children." The success Marianne has had by following her passion is off the charts. After the birth of her first child, Marianne worked from home. She later had another child and eventually moved into an office in downtown Milwaukee. She has since published a book (A Parent’s Essential Guide to Smart Toy Choices) and designed her own line of children’s playwear, “I'm a Toy Tester” (which is a hot seller at boutiques and on amazon.com). She was the resident toy expert on “Good Morning America" for 8 years with Charles Gibson, Joan Lunden and Spencer Christian. “If you live what you believe in, things can happen! My first client was Toys “R” Us. Knocking on my door at 26 years old! The first time I ever did media was on “Good Morning America." And, amazon.com hired me as a consultant when they launched their toy category!
Toy Tips is now a respected, international consulting firm and Marianne is still at the helm. “We’ve tested close to over 40,000 toys over time. Less than 50% pass the stringent Toy Tips review process. A lot of times if one company has a hit, others follow with a different gimmick but with a similar concept. My job is to be there as an educator for parents who want to know how to buy the best toys and as a consumer advocate, my job is to educate them.”
While for some, this responsibility may be enough, Marianne’s passion and entrepreneurial spirit drives her on. “After testing so many toys and being in thousands of focus groups, she noticed there was not a natural way to clean them. So, the entrepreneurial thinker was at it again and after 3 years, she worked with green chemists, toxicologists and microbiologists to create an all-natural solution to clean toys without bleach, baking soda, fruit oils, phosphates or chemicals. (The Toy Tips Toy Cleaner is available on amazon.com and will be in full distribution in stores in 2010.) “It’s the first all-natural toy cleaner. It has no orange oil, which can break down plastic. No baking soda, which can oxidize the metal in collectibles. It's a true cleaner with no residue for little fingers!”
Looking back on her accomplishments, Marianne firmly believes that following your heart leads to great things. If you examine her track record, it’s pretty hard to deny the truth in that statement. “If you believe in yourself and know your passion, then do it! Don’t look for excuses not to. If you’re offering society the best person you can be, you’ll be rewarded with success—and the money will come. There will be ups and downs, but it will happen!” While it may be easy to get distracted by negative energy, worry, and family obligations, she believes people of all ages can live their dream at anytime. “Nothing is better than giving all your talents and assets of yourself to help another and make someone's child have a better life!”
Married to Garo Hartounian, Marianne is mom to two beautiful and wonderful children. It is her dream that Maximillian and Mia will grow up to live their passions, just like she does hers!
Marianne’s web site is toytips.com Follow her on twitter.com/toytips for daily toy tips!
Thank you Marianne, for sharing your Story with us.
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© 2009 by Tamar Burris Story of My Life®