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What Polly Pocket’s downfall and revival can teach us about “staying on the bus"...

Last Updated:

December 12, 2023

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Did You Know? with Gorick is the weekly newsletter by Gorick Ng, Harvard career adviser and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author of The Unspoken Rules, where we deconstruct the untold paths to success — of people (or things) you know!

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Did You Know? You should second-guess your next career move!

(1) A story from the past

Did you know? Polly Pocket, one of the best-selling toys of the 90s, renewed its popularity by returning to its original design.

The year is 1983. Chris Wiggs, a British inventor, wanted to create a pocket-sized doll and house for his daughter Kate. So, he took an empty makeup compact and turned the inside into a miniature dollhouse. He sold the idea to Bluebird Toys, a British toy company, and called it “Polly Pocket.”

In 1989, Polly Pockets hit the shelves. Over the next five years, the toy’s popularity exploded. There were Polly Pocket mini pet shops, mini castles, and more. Despite the toy’s many colors and themes, one thing never changed: the toy’s size. “Tiny toys big hit of the season,” one newspaper reported in 1993. “The Polly Pocket seems to be the item on a number of [Christmas] lists,” another agreed.

By 1994, an estimated “75% of girls in Great Britain owned a Polly Pocket” and in 1995 alone, Bluebird Toys sold $139 million USD worth of Polly Pockets. But, in the face of new toys like the Tamagotchi virtual pet, sales began to decline.

After six months of scrambling, Bluebird Toys sold itself to Mattel. Believing that “the [toy] market [was] turning away from anything micro,” Mattel increased the size of the Polly Pocket from under 1 inch tall to nearly 4 inches tall that year.

Consumers weren’t pleased: “I knew something wasn’t right when my grandma bought me one of the new sets that Christmas.” Before the year’s end, Polly Pocket’s wardrobe changed, too. The outfits went from being part of the doll to separate, removable clothes. “They're all a pain to get the clothes on and off of to be quite honest,” parents complained.

Six years later, Mattel introduced “Quik Clik”, a new magnet-based clothing line to help make dressing the Polly Pocket dolls easier for children. Unfortunately, the magnets were faulty—and became choking hazards—leading to a recall of 4.4 million toy sets.

12 years later, Mattel tried to relaunch the doll once more in a larger size. Consumers were still displeased and “mourn[ed] the loss of the original Polly.” Finally, in 2012, Mattel discontinued Polly Pocket entirely in the United States.

Fast forward 11 years later and Mattel relaunched Polly Pocket again—but, this time, almost exact to the original size. Why? Because, according to Mattel, "Many of today's parents were the generation that made Polly Pocket a phenomenon and now they can introduce their children to Polly's world."

Fast forward once more and Polly Pockets’ popularity returned—and, to this day, the 90s versions remain collectors’ items. Oh, and that mini pet shop I mentioned earlier? It resold for $1,000 USD! And, with a new movie now underway, it just might be possible that Polly Pocket could reach 21st-century fame comparable to its 90s days. 

So, the next time you’re focused on chasing what seems like the better option than what you already have, remember Polly Pocket. Mattel changed Polly Pocket’s size to keep up with a shifting market. But, in changing the very thing that made the toy unique, Mattel lost momentum—and, with it, its loyal fan base.

Image belongs to @pollypocketworld on Instagram, via Southern Living.

(2) A strategy for your future

Did you know? Be careful when switching careers.

You may not be a toy company, but there is a lesson to be learned: When things aren’t going well—like your current job or your major in school—it’s tempting to change direction. But knowing what you want to run away from is only the first step. Knowing what you want to run towards is just as important.

Staying on a path and seeing it through has a name: It’s called the Helsinki Bus Station Theory. The idea is that, sometimes, in our search to be “original” or “better”, we risk sabotaging the path that is slowly taking us to success already.

So, how can you figure out if you should “stay on the bus” when it comes to your career?

(1) Ask yourself, “What is my number one goal with my career?” 

  • E.g., “I want to become CEO of a healthcare company one day.”

(2) Ask yourself, “Who do I need to impress… and what will they be impressed by?”

  • E.g., “I need to impress senior management—and maybe even the Board of Directors. Given who is currently in senior management at the companies I’d love to lead one day, it looks like the ‘gatekeepers’ are impressed by operational experience at a recognized brand, international experience, and a healthcare background. They don't seem to care if I have an MBA.”

(3) Write out the career moves you are considering, put yourself in the shoes of your “career gatekeepers,” and rank your career moves from “most impressive” to “least impressive.”

  • E.g., (i) Taking this general manager role at this health-tech startup, (ii) becoming chief of staff at this mental health company, (iii) staying in my business development role at this insurance company, (iv) getting a Master’s in Data Science, (v) working in marketing at this credit card company.

It’s not unusual to have ants in your pants, especially if you’re in the early stages of your career. Changing your industry or job function might be the right choice if you’re truly unhappy, but what many people overlook is that each time you switch industries or job functions, you’re “resetting” your clock—and starting all over again. You need to build a completely new set of skills, networks, and knowledge. Staying on the bus, though, can pay off. Ed Sheeran, for example, stayed in one domain for 10 years—so don’t get off the bus too soon! 

I know it because I’ve experienced it: In college, I was under the impression that working in investment banking would “open doors.” As an aimless and clueless undergrad, the idea of keeping doors open seemed compelling. But what I never asked was, “What kind of doors?” It wasn’t until I realized that I was opening doors to more jobs in investment banking, private equity, and hedge funds—jobs that I wasn’t all that excited about—that I realized that maybe I wasn’t on the right bus. But that’s just me! If you’re like the many friends of mine who do want to work in finance, stay on the bus. Don’t go to law school to “keep doors open” and definitely don’t go get that PhD. Leave law school to the lawyers and the Ph.D. to the academics.

Get on the bus—and, if it’s the right bus, stay on!

Gorick

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