Rising fifth-year Aaron Brown was only a second grader when he first founded Tin Toy Arcade (TTA), an online business that sells vintage-style toys. He steadily built the company, developing his own database and acquiring a warehouse as the operations grew too big for his childhood home. After attending a high school summer camp at the H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering (ISyE), he realized industrial engineering was the perfect path to help him continue to build TTA.
In high school, Brown was still figuring out how to improve the efficiency of TTA’s operations, which led to impromptu challenges, such as needing to pack toy orders while studying for finals. But by the time Brown arrived at Georgia Tech, most of the work was already automated. As a result, he could focus on high-level management while continuing to refine TTA’s supply chain system.
Tapping into the marketing side of the business, Brown created a new website for TTA, a modern upgrade to the original, more archaic design that no longer fit with current trends. He noticed that many of the company’s sales either came from repeat customers or from one-off shoppers, maintaining an already established customer base. This helped him to realize the increasing importance of advertising campaigns that use the right media and keywords to fully benefit from search engine optimization.
Brown also decided to shift a large portion of TTA’s sales to Amazon. The Amazon search algorithm favors consistency and quality on single items, and he discovered that products intentionally targeting the system saw a definite spike in sales. Since Amazon takes a large cut of the profit, he initially experimented with the platform to determine if the move was worth the investment and how to best approach advertising.
Now that TTA has a much bigger online presence, Brown is amazed by the company’s evolution. “I started this business when I was my own salesman; the website was its own storefront,” he said. “Now it’s like I'm in a street market with a bunch of other people, some of whom have purchased things from me and are selling them at a cheaper price.”
Though resellers are numerous in the toy industry, sourcing remains as exclusive as before – Brown is one of only a few distributors acquiring toys from Germany and is the only one sourcing from India. Knowing that he is the sole seller of most of his products makes it easy to spot them in commercials, TV shows, and more. While watching The Good Witch, he was thrilled to recognize a large rack of toys assembled just like the front page of the TTA website. Furthermore, he has even noticed his toys used as window displays in the retro shops in Disneyland.
With the continued stability of the business, however, came unexpected strains to TTA’s supply chain. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, TTA saw a surge in overall sales as consumers increasingly moved to shopping online. Furthermore, some items exploded in popularity, which he speculates could be linked to those items trending on social media. Luckily, the pandemic meant that Brown had more free time to devote to the company and tackle the parts of its system that were no longer running smoothly.
Challenging new order patterns meant that Brown needed to rethink his inventory management strategy to ensure he had enough warehouse space for popular items, as well as redesign the picking system to continue to support the fast shipping that TTA offers. The changes he implemented were critical; due to Covid-19 safety restrictions, one employee sometimes needed to do the work of five.
Brown credits his continuous improvements to TTA to the skills he has learned in his academic studies. Though his self-taught, trial-by-error engineering is what carried him through the early stages of the business, it was not enough to bring TTA to its current level. ISyE classes have not been easier for him because of his background, but he appreciates his perspective of having real-life experience with applications of systems theories.
“It's really cool to see when it starts to click in my mind,” said Brown. “I took some supply chain concentration classes – warehousing design, flow layouts, value-stream mapping – things I wouldn't have known how to do on my own. Maybe it's the right sequence of events for me to have experienced the hard way of doing everything manually because I now understand the system better.”
The most notable improvement Brown made was shifting from an exclusively pick-by-order system to one that includes a pick-by-item process. Previously, workers would bin products based on order. Now, to address sudden popularity spikes, they pick by item when those products’ sales volumes exceed a certain threshold for the given day. The new process has resulted in tremendous time savings overall.
According to Brown, the most useful class for his business was optimization, which helped him figure out the cutoff for switching between the two picking systems. Another class he enjoyed was cornerstone design, which included performing time studies while sitting in Caribou Coffee and watching the servers walk back and forth. He used the experience to conduct time studies for TTA, feeding the data collected into his optimization algorithms. Through iterative improvement, he eventually saw positive results.
Surprisingly, Brown’s chosen ISyE concentration is operations research, not supply chain. Because he has been heavily involved in the business for so long, he wanted to focus more on the applied math and coding aspects of ISyE, skills he was originally less confident in. Though Brown aims for a full-time job in global logistics or product management after graduating, he is interested in further education and may pursue an MBA or a master’s in analytics in the future. And as he moves forward in his career, he wants to continue his business and keep the legacy of tin toys alive.
“Thanks to everything I've done, between internships and Georgia Tech classes, I can actually adapt the business and feel confident in doing so,” said Brown. “I see a positive future for Tin Toy Arcade.”
You can read more about Brown’s inspiration for founding Tin Toy Arcade and how he originally developed the company here.
H. Milton Stewart School of Industrial and Systems Engineering