When my seven-year old great niece Lorelai asked me to “write one of your stories” about , first thing I did was buy some. And she’s right: It is awesome. More than 40 versions of the stuff come in a slew of interesting colors with witty names, like sparkly black Scaredy Cat and metallic green Super Fly. Some even have magical effects: The transparent Liquid Glass putty turns opaque upon , and then melts back into an invisibly clear puddle when returned to the tin, fascinating to the natural child in all of us, no matter our age.
When I met founder and inventor Aaron Muderick in his Norristown, Penn. factory, which is located in a rehabbed 19th century Italianate-style textile mill, I discovered something else amazing: an authentic and innovative leader with faith in American manufacturing, leading a team of true believers. They're delivering an experience that can’t be downloaded, one beautiful gob of goo at a time.
Thinking Putty Is Democratic
If you’re looking for a lot of usage instructions, you won’t find a lot of them on Muderick's product. Beyond the basic legal labeling, comes with minimal text to explain what's inside the package and what you're supposed to do with it. Muderick is not interested in imprinting his ideas onto your sense of play. He’d rather you find your own way to use his putty: stretch it like a rubber band, twist it like taffy, bounce it like a ball. No skill set required. You can be anyone. You can do anything.
“It works in whatever way you need it,” he says. “We’re never going to dash someone’s dream by say ‘you can’t’. ‘Why not’ is more our thing.”
With no superimposed identity, Thinking Putty is free to take on a life of its own. It is simultaneously solitary and communal: good for contemplation and good for conversation. Playing with it lets your mind wander, yet helps you focus. And because of its therapeutic value, social workers get permission for children who must testify in court to bring their Thinking Putty with them. Imagine what it can do for you.
Thinking Putty Promotes Community
When his company's growth required a move, Muderick didn’t pick what he calls a “cheap steel box” in an industrial park way out of town. Instead, he chose a central and historic location—the former Rambo and Regar Knitting Mills, which dates back to 1898. “Because this move needed to last a long time, it had to be really good,” he says. “And as soon as I saw the building, I immediately knew. It had everything: an integrated location—I walk to lunch every day and encourage others to do the same—with plenty of parking and the iconic architecture of a classic American factory.”
There was also an environmental legacy to the building and the surrounding property, as there in many abandoned American factory areas, which became the responsibility of the Muderick as the buyer, (not the seller’s). As the site of several former gas stations, there were buried fuel tanks and contaminated soil from the old textile dye pond to contend with. ““Before I could even lay out my plan to secure a bank loan, I had to take risks and make investments to determine exactly what was beneath the surface.”
It took nine months for the Crazy Aaron's factory to come together. The place spans 100,000 square feet across two buildings, restored with a lot of labor from local Amish craftsman. “We didn’t want to put the creative and design team in one location, and production in another. Working together within one space helps ideas flow faster between sales and the supply chain,” says Muderick.
This communication cycle is reflected on the company’s organizational chart—not the typical inverted pyramid of hierarchy, but rather a circle. “I can’t do my job unless the people in sales do their job, and the shipping department can’t do their job unless the production people do theirs, and on it goes,” he says. And this teamwork approach is also reflected in their internal business practices. All full-time employees receive the same benefits package, no matter the seniority or title. And not just the fundamentals, like medical and profit sharing and 401K. But those endlessly negotiable perks like vacation time that can make or break a “creative” hire. “It saves a lot of negotiating time, especially as we grow, and it sends a message about teamwork” he says. “If an equal benefits package doesn’t work for a candidate, there will be some other place that’s right for them.”
Thinking Putty Practices Good Citizenship
Being a volunteer fireman is just one of the ways Muderick engages with his community and practices good citzenship: “You are encountering people on what might be the worst day of their life. They should see a neighbor’s face.” He’s also built his business with special needs employees—about 850 local residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities —through support service programs, like Handi Crafters.
Divided into skill set pods by job coaches, they are responsible for weighing out the Thinking Putty, putting it in the can, labeling, packing and getting it ready for shipping. “In the beginning, they can produce a few hundred a week,” he says. “But 2 years later, they are turning out 3000 with great pride in their craftsmanship. They can go to the mall and point to the Thinking Putty on the shelf and say, ‘I made that.’"
Muderick’s goal is for people with manageable disabilities to learn the vocational skills they need to level up—to leave the institutional centers and enter the work force: “We start them out in a more supportive setting, then they move to our factory and step-by-step, we build a deeply integrated work force.” But there are people with disabilities too difficult or complicated to ever leave these supervised environments, and Muderick says he will keep the putty coming because they need jobs too. “We need to take care of our most vulnerable citizens. Don't forget about them!”