From Engineer to Toy Maker: In Conversation with Alumnus Marcus Stahl

Marcus Stahl completed his Kellogg-WHU EMBA back in 2000, leading him to take on greater responsibilities with telecommunications giant Nokia. Now he acts as co-founder of the unique audio device and world of characters, the Tonies and the Toniebox. Their innovative approach to children’s audio players saw the company awarded the Red Dot Design Award in 2016, the iF Design Award and German Design Award in 2017, and this year the German Founder Award. We spoke to Marcus to find out how he developed such an original idea, his career path to date, and how the EMBA helped him along the way.

With a background in telecommunications engineering, the first fourteen years of Marcus’ career was spent with Nokia, with four years specializing in the automotive sector. This particular division revolved around bringing mobile technology into cars. “It really was the beginning of mobile connectivity in vehicles,” he explains. Leading a large team at Nokia developing and shipping electronic communications technology, Marcus eventually branched out with his own company in a similar industry working on car antennas and wireless charging. It was during his time with Nokia however, that he jumped at the opportunity to complete the Kellogg-WHU EMBA. “This actually qualified and equipped me with the tools I needed, directly leading to Nokia handing me greater responsibility and running the automotive department myself,” he says.

Some years later, a conversation with a friend at his children’s kindergarten let to a discussion about their dissatisfaction with CDs, cassettes, and other audio systems used by their children. “My friend Patric is a creative guy and together we came up with this idea for a digitalized product that children can operate by themselves, without fuss or scratching, or content capacity issues”. The following decision to start their business Boxine GmbH, ultimately leading to the name the Tonies, and finally the creation of the final product the Toniebox in 2013, was therefore an easy one. Both were feeling frustrated with their respective currents jobs and ready for change. “It took us three years of development until we were ready to go to market in 2016. We really had to think carefully about how the product would function, how to create the figurine on the top, how the technology would interact, and of course acquire licenses for both the characters and audio itself.”

The innovation in the design for the Toniebox lies in the perfect synergy between simplicity and technology. The box itself is soft yet tough and to activate the audio, children simply place the magnetic figurine on the top of the box, which then automatically downloads the associated audio for that figurine. It was Marcus’ combined career experience, knowledge, and additional tools he gained from the Kellogg-WHU EMBA that helped him take the next big step with the Tonies. “Up until the EMBA I always had breaks in my career to question what I was doing and whether I could do more. The EMBA really fulfilled that need and helped me to expand my career horizons exponentially. It was beneficial in not only providing skills perhaps with finances where as an engineer I was not so strong, but also exposed me to an incredible network. I am still benefitting from this network today – an alumni of WHU is even creating our accessories! If someone has the chance to do the Kellogg-WHU EMBA, then they should 100% do it. ”

However, it was the focus of the program at the time that really caught Marcus’ attention. “The main focus then was on marketing, finance, and e-commerce, which was a great addition to my existing experience and education. But I was also drawn to the international approach of the program. Looking back, it really did give me that entrepreneurial push and motivated me to believe that setting up my own business was achievable.”

With offices opening internationally and the company itself expanding year on year, the Tonies as a company is looking at a very bright future. “We started with two people and now we are 100,” says Marcus. “Creating something completely new for children and to see the company develop internationally really is so rewarding. I honestly hope to be doing this until I retire – it’s a labor of love and I really enjoy the process and seeing it grow.”