Phil Duffy, International MBA’12

Birmingham, England

“I want to go back to design and look at it from a marketing point of view. Being at school has really helped me build up the marketing side and understand how a product can be a revenue-generating concept before it goes into development.”

Redesigning a design career

After graduating from England’s Teesside University in the mid-1990s, Phil figured he had two options he could pursue with his undergraduate degree in industrial design.

“With industrial design, half the school wants to go and design cars, and the other half wants to design things for the film industry,” he says. “I was the guy who wanted to design ships and rockets for movies, but in the UK the film industry is almost nonexistent.”

Knowing full well that getting a foot inside the entertainment industry’s door can be next to impossible, Duffy decided that as long as he was able to stretch his imagination and come up with new, fresh ideas on a regular basis, he’d be happy.

Instead of heading to work right away, Duffy, a longtime student of martial arts, decided to move to China and soak up as much of the nation’s culture as he could. He originally intended to spend about a year there, but stayed a total of 16 years.

“I worked three years for several no-name consumer goods companies as a design manager but then I landed a position at WowWee.” He stayed ten years at WowWee, a Hong Kong-based toy manufacturer, running product development for the company before deciding to start one of his own.

He named it Blue Monkey Toys. Duffy ran Blue Monkey for three years as a company that did a little consulting but also produced its own products.

“We made toys that would actually become creatures,” he says. “They could walk around the house, visualize where they were going, and avoid walls and stairs. They had personality.”

Despite having virtually no business education in his background, Duffy figured that his prior 13 years working at WowWee would see him through the difficulties that come with starting your own enterprise. But after three years, Blue Monkey Toys was forced to close.

“I made classic, big mistakes that you don’t make if you go and get your MBA first,” he says. “I didn’t have anybody working for me who specialized in finance or marketing. I had to play those roles and I didn’t know how.”

Feeling like he needed to reaffirm connections with the toy industry’s US market, Duffy decided to enroll in Boston University’s one-year International MBA program, where students spend three months in China followed by nine more in Boston. Here he’s learning how to prevent those same mistakes from happening in the future. He’s chosen marketing as his concentration, a decision he hopes will diversify his skill set once he reenters the field.

“Eventually I hope to get back to an entrepreneurial situation, should the opportunity come,” Duffy says. “But to start, I want to go back to design and look at it from a marketing point of view. Being at school has really helped me build up the marketing side and understand how a product can be a revenue-generating concept before it goes into development.”

The decision to return to school at the age of 41 was an easy one for Duffy. He knew he needed a challenge, and the intensity that comes with trying to receive an MBA in a single calendar year has provided more than enough intellectual stimulation.

“The international management side of things was all about an area I love,” he says. “And it directly relates to everything I did with my business.”

Once he receives his degree in May, Duffy plans to reenter the consumer product industry armed with the knowledge he’s absorbed in the past year. One of the most important classes he’s taken so far was Consumer Behavior, a course that deals with the psychology of consumers and their purchasing patterns. As a designer, that information is essential for Duffy.

“A lot of the time marketers will look at products and make decisions based on the numbers and the marketplace, but they’re not really looking forward,” he says. “When you have an 18-month timeline to come out with your product, you need to be forward thinking, and an understanding of design thinking allows you to do that.”