In an age where miniature versions of electronic gadgets dominate toy aisles across the country, husband-and-wife team Haran Yaffe and Carissa Wolfovitz Yaffe are pushing for simpler times. The couple are restarting a building-block company originally founded by Haran’s parents in the 1980s.
“We want to bring back natural simplicity, family time,” said Haran. “We don’t want to reinvent anything. On the contrary, we want to bring the old thing back.”
The family-oriented lifestyle is seeping into every aspect of the business. The products will be created in Israel, where Haran is from, while the face of the business will operate in Schenectady, where Carissa was born and raised. The business will mirror how the family spends its time — split between the two countries.
“Family is important to us and we have such a strong background here, I think Schenectady and Albany are going in the right area,” said Carissa.
Carissa said her family has been in the Schenectady area for about 150 years.
“I’ve been here pretty much my whole life. I grew up in Schenectady,” she said. “My great-grandfather worked at GE and my grandmother on my father’s side worked at GE when my grandfather was in Germany and they had the women to fill in.”
The duo is returning to the place of her childhood to recreate the toy building blocks Haran’s parents first created in Israel, naming the company after their eldest daughter, Yael. The toys were popular in the 1980s and are featured in the Nuremberg Toy Museum in Germany.
In the 21st-century reboot, Haran and Carissa named their blocks after their 2-year-old daughter, Olivia.
Haran was inspired to bring back the childhood toy invented by his father, Roni Yaffe, after seeing Olivia being entertained by her toys. Working from home for a startup company in Silicon Valley, he felt something was still missing from his life.
“I was pretty much living my dream — running a startup company in Silicon Valley. I have this beautiful wife and beautiful daughter but something didn’t click,” he said of that period in their lives.
After he reached wit’s end with little Olivia’s electronic, light-up, noise-making toys, he called his father and asked him if he had any Yael blocks left. Yaffe looked in his attic and found some of the 35-year-old building blocks, and brought them to California when he and his wife visited for Olivia’s first birthday a year ago.
“Suddenly I found myself sitting for hours playing with building blocks and Ollie was sitting with me and she was playing, and suddenly everything changed,” said Haran. “I was happy again. We were happy again because this inner child within me came out.”
Both Haran and Carissa felt the office atmosphere wasn’t for them. Starting the blocks company has allowed them to be in charge of their days — and get the work done and move on.
“That’s the joy of working for ourselves,” said Carissa. “It’s nonstop, but when you want to spend a few minutes with Ollie you have that balance, you make that decision.”
A graduate of Notre Dame-Bishop Gibbons, Carissa went on to work in the jewelry industry and brings her experiecne in customer service and quality control to the business. Her husband is the dreamer, she says.
“I don’t have tact. She has to shut me up a lot of times,” said Haran. “I have a tendency to fly high very high and very fast.”
The two are flying high toward their goal of raising $100,000 in a Kickstarter campaign, getollies.com, which started in February. They’re about halfway there and have until April 3 to raise the rest to reach the ultimatum given by Haran’s father.
The Kickstarter is a presale of what will be released if and when they reach their goal. The products are being offered at a 40 percent discount, and manufacturing is ready to begin on April 4 if all the money is raised. The blocks are set to be delivered in September to all backers.
Each block is made of surplus oak hand selected by the pair, and the sets include colorful plastic pegs.
“We could have gone the easy route and just order wood from the wood mill, but we decided we want to make things difficult,” Haran joked.
The blocks are engaging, and it’s this draw that helps encourage learning and therapy, the couple said.
“This was my mom’s vision when they started the company,” said Haran of the educational possibilities. “My mom always wanted to go the educational route.”
Carrie White, a first-grade teacher at Yates Magnet School on Salina Street in Schenectady, uses the blocks in her classroom and is featured in a promotional video on the Kickstarter page.
“In the video she talks about how this encourages critical thinking skills and counting skills,” said Carissa. “They have a really hard curriculum now with the Common Core, so it’s challenging for the teachers these days, and just having a different tool that enables them is great.”
For now the pair is focusing on the Kickstarter campaign and getting the business up and running, but they have high hopes for Ollies Blocks.
“One day we’ll make Ollies furniture and we’ll make kits so kids can make their own bedroom furniture,” Carissa said.
The blocks are strong enough for that goal to come to fruition — they’ve made a chest out of Ollies blocks strong enough that Carissa could stand on it.
“It’s like clouds,” said Haran of the blocks. “You see what you want to see. You get to build your own cloud.”