What Independent Schools Can Learn from Play-Doh

by Peter Baron

Thanksgiving week is always one of my favorite times of the year.

I get more time with my family, meetings slow down, my laptop stays shut for long stretches, and my internal battery recharges.

I’m also most reflective right around now.

I’m thinking about what I’ve learned over the past three months building MoonshotOS and getting excited about the next three (which includes opening registration for my new cohort course, The Art of the Productive Meeting: Building Better School Leaders— sign up for the waitlist to be the first to hear.).

But that reflection also includes reading how companies outside the independent school world changed their trajectory to achieve great things. I’m a big fan of the backstory and extrapolating and sharing learnings for our community.

Which brings me to Play-Doh…

Discovering Hidden Potential: Lessons from Play-Doh’s Success Story

Yup, let’s turn to the children’s favorite, Play-Doh – after all, sometimes the best ideas are right under our noses… and occasionally stuck to the carpet.

But the Play-Doh that encourages exploration and creativity in children worldwide, the Play-Doh you likely grew up with and love today, began its journey in a markedly different form.

Surprisingly, this iconic toy originated as a practical solution for removing coal residue from wallpaper—a non-toxic wallpaper cleaner, to be exact.

The article The Accidental Invention of Play-Doh by David Kindy in Smithsonian Magazine offers a fascinating retracing of the story. Here are the highlights and a few observations for independent schools.

Kutol Products, a soap manufacturer led by Noah McVicker, saw the demand for this non-toxic wallpaper cleaner decline as natural gas, electricity, and oil heating became more popular, diminishing the need for coal-based home heating.

So, let’s do the math.

  • Less demand for coal heating – Less soot accumulation on walls = Shrinking demand for a wallpaper cleaner

It is fair to say this formula meant real trouble for McVicker and his cleaning product.

But here’s the thing: the abrupt shift in their market was the best thing that ever happened to them because it compelled Kutol to innovate and diversify.

This pressure to adapt was crucial in prompting the company to explore new avenues for their existing product.

The idea sprung from McVicker’s sister-in-law, Kay Zufall, a nursery school teacher, after reading that the wall remover could be used as a modeling clay replacement. So she tried it in her classroom, and hence… Play-Doh was born.

Here’s an important thing to note: Kutol utilized its existing manufacturing capabilities and resources to produce Play-Doh. They could “use what they had” to pursue a new market opportunity rather than investing from the ground up.

I won’t go into the details of how Play-Doh became a leader (the article lays it out beautifully— it’s a lesson in bringing products to market), but I want to point out two things that struck me that might be helpful to you:

  1. I love stories like this for the transformational pivot and the reminder that challenges forcing us to reconsider our current path can be a blessing. Take Applewild School; they doubled their revenue in four years by leaning into their mission and finding new ways to bring it to life.

  2. Play-Doh showcases how unexpectedly leveraging existing resources can transform an organization’s trajectory. Indian Creek School optimizing for surpluses is a terrific example of how partnering with community organizations can help the bottom line.


The Play-Doh case study also hit me at the right time.

After talking with more than 70 current and former heads of school, it’s clear that the challenges with the independent school business model present opportunity.

It is an opportunity for us to adopt new ways of thinking about how to create sustainable schools for the future, and that’s why I founded MoonshotOS— to equip independent school leaders at every level with the business and entrepreneurial know-how, systems, and peer community to help schools ensure financially sustainable futures.

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