Los Angeles-based Skyrocket Toys has won several NAPPA Awards and is the creative force behind Sky Viper Drones, Faction, My Fuzzy Friends, Blume and Pomsies. We had the pleasure of chatting with co-founder and CEO Nelo Lucich on launching his own company, the joys of being a dad and life in SoCal.
Please tell us a little about starting Skyrocket. What was your inspiration?
Since I was young, I wanted to have my own company. In middle school I started my first business selling candy and gum on campus, which was not technically allowed but was very profitable. In college, I started a t-shirt company and later, a website company with friends. We were a little early to the dot.com boom of the early 2000s and struggled. From that experience, I learned how much I didn’t know and some valuable lessons about failure. After college, I got a job at Mattel as a website producer. I wasn’t happy there because of the light workload and the slow pace both in the job and career growth. A colleague in the marketing department left to go to a toy company called JAKKS Pacific, and he recruited me to the company. It was very early in the company’s founding, and I was one of the first 15 employees. The company was growing fast and there was so much opportunity to learn and advance. I was hired to manage websites and a video game joint venture, but eventually took over IT and became very involved with operations. A couple years later, I took over development of a product line that was a huge success. I essentially learned all aspects of the business and got a careers’ worth of experience in many different areas of the business. I got to a point where there was nothing additional to learn, and nowhere else to advance. I realized I was now ready to start my own company, and apply everything I learned in trying to build an organization from the ground up. 13 years later we are still at it, and it is always a challenge.
What do you think sets Skyrocket apart? Makes it unique?
What really sets Skyrocket apart is our ability to innovate and to leverage technology to create new and exciting products that have not existed previously. We are focused on the user experience and fun, and making sure that no child ever opens a toy that is disappointing and doesn’t deliver what it promises. We have been very successful at this and have been recognized with more than 20 Toy of the Year (TOTY) nominations in multiple different categories over the years. From launching the first toy drone with our Sky Viper line more than 10 years ago, to creating a video game in the real world with our Faction Battle line of gel bead blasters, we try to put a unique spin on our products. We don’t always make the lowest priced products, but all our products deliver outstanding value for the price. We are now focused on AI and using it to bring toys to life in ways that was not possible before.
You have been in the toy industry your whole career. What drew you in this world? What do you enjoy most about this industry?
It is purely by chance that I ended up in the toy industry. I graduated college in San Diego and was planning to move back to Los Angles with my fiancé (at the time). I date myself, but I was searching the want ads in the LA Times and saw the job at Mattel and applied, and I have been in the industry ever since. It was a perfect fit for my non-conventional skill set, I am both strong creatively and strong with technology. The toy industry affords you the opportunity to create anything you can think of with much less restriction than in other industries. As long as it is fun, and you can make it for a price point that works, there are no rules on what a toy can be. The other aspect that has always been appealing is the pace. Every season it is something new, and it affords the opportunity to constantly learn new things and explore new ideas. The fact that you can take an idea to a tangible product sitting on a retail shelf in one year is immensely satisfying. We may not be solving global warming, or other critical problems facing the world, but toys bring joy to children, and happiness is something there can never be too much of in the world. We would probably be more financially successful if money was the primary driver for our products, but success for us is delivering a product or experience that is new and surprising. We strive to make the product as good as it can be, so that it makes people happy. At the end of the day, the fact that we get to make a new crop of children happy with our products is what makes all the hard work and long hours worth it.
Did you grow up in LA? If so, what are your favorite memories of the city as a child?
I am from a small town called Chico in Northern California. I had bigger dreams than what I could ever realize in the town I grew up in. But I loved California and tried to go as far away as I could for college and still stay in the state, and I ended up in San Diego. I moved to Los Angeles in 1997 and fond memories from that time include concerts at the Greek Theatre (in-laws had season tickets), and the Lakers signing Shaq. I support the Giants and the 49ers but wasn’t a Kings or Warriors fan, so when I moved to LA I adopted the Lakers as my team and have been a die-hard fan ever since.
How does being a dad influence your decision-making at Skyrocket?
When my kids were younger, having children the right age for the toys we were making was very helpful. I felt like I had a good idea of what boys and girls around their ages liked and responded to. As I have gotten older and my kids are grown, I feel a little less in touch with the kids of today, which makes it more of a challenge to know what is appealing. Maybe that is part of the reason we make more toys for older boys that also appeal to adults. I am still a 10-year-old at heart and know exactly what a 10-year-old boy in the early 80’s liked. The world and kids are so different now, and their brains have developed in a way that is almost linked full time to a mobile device of some sort. Because of this, a lot of our toys like Faction Gel Bead Blaster and Sky Viper Drones, give a visceral experience that you can’t experience on a screen.
What toys did you enjoy playing with as a child?
I was a little kid when Star Wars came out and it blew my mind. I am not a collector by nature but was obsessed with Star Wars action figures and had a huge number of figures, vehicles and playsets. I liked to recreate scenes from the movies and may have melted a Hans Solo figure or two “defrosting” him from carbonite. I also liked remote control vehicles and other electronic toys, unfortunately I also liked to take them apart, but didn’t have the skillset to put them back together. When I left for college, there was a big drawer in my room filled with all the pieces of the toys and things I had taken apart. I have always been interested in how things work, and that curiosity and desire to learn and understand was a good early foundation for the career I chose to pursue.
When creating new toys, what do you hope for when they hit the shelves?
That they sell! The biggest challenge in our business is that we make unique and different products often with features people have not seen or had exposure to. No matter how much technology is in the product it must be easy to describe, and it has to connect with consumers. We have had great items in the past that we put tremendous effort into, that consumers just didn’t get. It is important to be able to distill down the products into an easy to communicate message that connects with consumers. You can have the greatest product in the world but if people don’t understand what you are offering and don’t connect with how you are marketing it, it will fail. Getting good initial sales before you have built awareness through marketing or PR is a great indicator that you did a good job with messaging and packaging, and it is a great indicator of success. Our products are always well executed and almost always appreciated by kids when they get to play with them. But if they never make it on the retail shelf, none of these matter.
Did you have a mentor growing up? And what role did that person play in your life and your career?
Earlier in my career, I was fairly thick headed. I was competitive and wanted to prove myself and what I could do, so I wasn’t capable of being mentored or learning from the experience of others. Because of this, I made mistakes and learned some things the hard way. Fortunately, the environment I was in had many opportunities to learn new things. I learned as a teenager restoring my first car from my father, who was a mechanic, that you don’t always have to start out knowing what you are doing. If you are not afraid to throw yourself into something, and you look for solutions and work through each problem you encounter, eventually you will figure it out step by step. Problem solving and the confidence to trust in your ability to take on new things and be successful, are the biggest skills that allowed me to succeed. I hate failing so much that I have always been willing to do whatever it takes to succeed and have the persistence to stick with things after most people would have given up. Being willing to try to help a company in any way you can, even if it is outside of your formal job scope, gives you the opportunity to greatly broaden your knowledge and skillset and eventually take on more responsibility. I was given a lot of opportunities to solve problems and figure things out, in a lot of different functional areas, early in my career. The experience and skillset I gained through this was critical to being able to start a company and be successful with it.
Best life advice you received growing up?
Take pride in everything you do, and try to do the best job you possibly can even if no one cares or is watching. Whether that is something as simple as raking leaves or as important as achieving a critical business objective. That level of accountability and pride in your work in everything you do seemed pointless to me when I was kid and doing menial chores that I hated. But it was so reinforced by my family that it became a permanent part of me. The people I know that are most successful always have this trait, and it is fundamental to success.
Best parenting advice you have received?
Despite how hectic and demanding life and your job can be, try to be present and be there to spend enough time with your kids. Time passes so quickly, and they grow up so fast, and before you know it, they will be out on their own. At the end of your life, you will never regret the extra time you didn’t spend at work, but the time you spend with your kids and family is priceless. I can’t say that the demands of work and my drive to succeed didn’t consume too much of my time and focus. It took me a long time to find proper work life balance and what I regret most are the things I missed with my kids. I was given this advice but couldn’t appreciate how true and insightful it was until later.
How has parenthood changed you?
Having children changes your life in so many ways. You start out totally unprepared and the day you bring your first baby home is very scary. I remember holding my daughter in the first few weeks she was home, and just feeling so much love and the tremendous responsibility of being accountable for shaping and guiding another human’s life. Your whole perspective shifts and the thought of anything bad ever happening to your child is the most terrifying thing in the world. Your heart is permanently connected to them and their pain is your pain. To see them so quickly become their own little person with their own unique personality makes you realize that a big part of human nature you are born with. My life became less about worrying about myself and trying to make myself happy, and instead the focus shifts to giving your kids as much love as possible and the best possible childhood. Parenting is hard and each phase your kids go through is a new challenge. You make mistakes but try to do the very best you can and hope it is enough. At this stage it is incredibly rewarding seeing my kids succeed and become amazing adults starting their own lives. I cherish every moment I get to spend with them, and feel sad that there will soon be no more summer breaks and they will be off with their careers and lives. Family is so precious and my children mean the world to me.
What would you tell your middle school self?
Apply yourself, dummy.
When not working, where will we find you?
I play basketball almost every weekend at a park with a bunch of other past-their-prime guys. Forty years into my park basketball career, I still love it. I like spending time with my family, going out to eat, watching sports in person or on TV, live music, movies, performance cars and reading.
What are some of your favorite spots and activities in and around LA?
I live in the south bay and rarely leave that bubble. I like the beach and like to ride my bike or walk my dog on the strand. I like eating out at a lot of restaurants but end up at Nick’s or Love and Salt in Manhattan Beach, or Ovuo for pasta in Marina Del Rey. I like to go to concerts at the Forum and remember fondly when I used to watch the Lakers there from the nosebleeds. I like going to Crypto Arena (which will always be Staples center to me) to watch the Lakers. I enjoy going to Dodger Stadium when the Giants are in town and hopefully watching the Dodgers lose. You can take a person out of Northern California, but you can’t take the NorCal out of the person. I have lived in Los Angeles for 26 years now and have no plans to live anywhere else. The coastal weather just cannot be beat.