Duke alumna Melissa Bernstein is especially known for the famous toy company she co-founded with her husband Doug. She also recently created a new company, Lifelines.
But in a conversation with Dean Bill Boulding, as part of Duke University Fuqua School of Business’ Distinguished Speakers Series, she shares another side of herself: her decades-long existential journey that led to self-discovery and acceptance.
Seek Your Own Truth
For Bernstein, the early steps into a career as a financial analyst proved misguided. Success, in the eyes of her parents and society, was a hot job at a Wall Street bank.
But numbers didn’t speak to her, she said, and she “started to feel like a flower without water and sunlight.”
Still, the experience forced her to look deeper inside herself and, with the help of her partner Doug, to really listen to what excited them. And “one fateful weekend,” she said, after she and Doug went away to a remote bed and breakfast, they decided they would create products for children.
“We honed in on the idea that if we created products that were a catalyst to unleash imagination in children, that would give us a reason to get out of bed each morning,” she said.
It was 1988, and they founded Melissa & Doug out of Doug’s parents’ garage.
“Sometimes you need to go through those investment banking-type experiences and check off the list what is not right for you, in order to find what it is,” Bernstein said.
Find the Right Business Model
But the entrepreneurial path wasn’t easy. It took many years for Melissa & Doug to start seeing “the formation of a repeatable model.” Initially, several products were well received but didn’t generate the kind of traction she and Doug wanted. The breakthrough came with their fuzzy puzzles. “Then we knew we were onto something,” Bernstein said, “a product that people were clamoring to purchase.” Then came the second success, reinventing the category of wooden toys, their bestsellers for many years.
Key was understanding the underlying principle fueling their creations. “To take tired, boring, lackluster categories (…) and inject pizzazz into them. Reinvent a timeless category and infuse it with new life.” So, they resuscitated a third successful category: stuffed animals. “The fact that this wasn’t even a wooden segment showed us that we now truly had a repeatable model.”
But it took a long time. “Sometimes you are shuffling in the dark for many, many years,” she said. And what was brewing under the façade of a successful entrepreneur wasn’t what you would expect in the co-founder of a now $700 million company.
Seek Authenticity and Self-Acceptance
At that stage of their growth, Bernstein could no longer feel that “entrepreneurial flutter” of the early years. “It becomes much more formulaic,” she said, “much more about pleasing the customer.” She felt that for her, part of being both an entrepreneur and a good human being was to understand her sweet spot. “For me, it is purely in the creating. I want to bring products to fruition. That’s where my joy is. All the aspects of being a CEO, I really didn’t enjoy as much,” she said.
During her years at Melissa & Doug, Bernstein realized that she had been unaware that a sort of darkness was festering, she said. Existential Depression “is not a pathological condition,” she said. “It’s actually a spiritual, philosophical condition.”
She felt she needed professional help to explore what was inside her. “I was basically going through life like a robot and hiding all my emotions,” she said.
She eventually wrote a book about her personal journey, called Lifelines. Making products for children, she realized, had enabled her to channel “all that darkness” that had been raging through her since childhood, into radiant light. She wanted to show others that they could do the same and weren’t alone in feeling different.
The book changed everything. Thousands and thousands of people reached out to share that they were feeling similarly. “Until we actually stop the futile race, and go inward and say: ‘Who am I?’, ‘What do I value?’ we won’t really find fulfillment and meaning,” she says.
She wanted to inspire individuals to live a more authentic, joyful life. And in 2020, she and Doug created a new company, Lifelines, whose mission is to change the conversation around mental well-being.
“I needed to prove to myself that I can create products in a whole new category,” she said, “and reimagine the well-being space just like we reimagined open-ended toys.”
With Lifelines, Bernstein just wants “to be the voice of the mission,” she said. “I don’t want to be CEO anymore. I want to be chief creative and bring products and content to life.” Melissa said she was thankful that Doug is willing to serve as “the perfect CEO.”
Bernstein says she now defines success as “connecting something deep inside of me to other people.” The most important thing for an entrepreneur, she concluded, is “to be guided by an internal mission that you’re impelled to bring to fruition.”