How Inventors Get Their New Toys into Kids’ Hands
This is the fourth and final article in a series that TIA has published over the course of May in celebration of National Inventors Month.
Today’s toy inventors trying to get their novel creations into children’s hands face a very different marketplace than in decades past. From the number of toy companies looking to license concepts to the new ways of promoting and selling products, the landscape has dramatically shifted, creating fresh challenges — and opportunities — for the dreamers and makers of imaginative playthings.
Traditionally, one way for independent toy inventors to bring their hot toy idea to life is to license the product with a larger toy manufacturer, who would then finish the design and packaging and bring it to retail. In the late 1970s, when longtime toy inventor and co-author of The Toy and Game Inventor's Handbook Richard Levy first began licensing products, “it was a target-rich environment for inventors,” he said. “But slowly over the years many companies went bankrupt, and others merged.”
Take Hasbro, for example. Since the 1980s, much of its growth has been through acquisitions. By 2008, the toy giant had acquired Milton Bradley, Playskool, Tonka, Parker Brothers, Kenner Products, Avalon Hill, 3M Games, Galoob, Tiger Electronics and Cranium, among other independent companies that once purchased licenses.
The retail landscape has also experienced tectonic shifts, with stores “going out of business left and right,” Levy said. “In 1970, for example, there were two dozen important retailers, and Walmart, which incorporated in 1969, was not one of them.”
“Some industry observers flippantly predict that one day there will be one mega toy company and one gigantic toy retailer,” he added. “Such hyperbole is merely an attention-getter. But it is a stark reminder of the paradigm changes that the industry is experiencing.”
Of course, the retail world has undergone changes in other ways as well, especially with the advent and ever-increasing popularity of e-commerce.
“Toys and games were sold mostly through brick-and-mortar stores,” Levy said. “Toy companies are now selling their own products through the Internet and no longer completely relying on traditional channels.”
Alice Brooks is a toy inventor who has capitalized on emerging technologies and trends that have upended traditional paths to market.
Along with her business partner Bettina Chen, Brooks designed Roominate, an electric dollhouse building kit that lets kids — and in particular, girls — construct spaces, and then wire them to create functioning lamps, windmills, carousels and more.
But instead of trying to license the idea to another toy company, Brooks and Chen decided to bring the product to market themselves.
“We knew from the beginning that we wanted to start a company and make the product ourselves,” Brooks said. “We’re passionate about our mission and why we’re doing this, which is to empower girls.”
Read TIA’s article about how today’s toy inventors are tapping into the power of crowdfunding.
In 2012, they raised $85,964 through the popular crowdfunding website Kickstarter. The campaign not only supplied them with the capital they needed to launch their California-based business, but it also allowed them to leapfrog over much of the travails of convincing retailers to carry their product. Thanks to a lot of positive press generated by the campaign, they didn’t have to woo buyers—instead, “we had a lot of buyers coming to us,” Brooks said.
In addition to selling the kits through the Roominate website, in 2013 the duo set up a vendor account on Amazon.com. Not long after, “Amazon saw that we were doing really well, so they wanted to sell our product for us,” Brooks said.
What really spurred distribution, though, was teaming up with a sales rep group who then set up what proved to be highly fruitful meetings with specialty buyers at the American International Toy Fair.
“That’s how we started getting into brick-and-mortar retail,” Brooks said.
Doreen Dotto is another toy inventor who brought her product to market herself. In 2011, she launched uKloo Early Reader Treasure Hunt, an educational treasure hunt game that promotes vocabulary building and reading skills.
She used her personal savings to establish her Toronto-based business, and set about perfecting the game play and packaging by relying on focus groups and feedback from parents and kids.
“Once I was sure uKloo was ready for production, I did a very small print run of only 500 units to see if stores would buy and, more importantly, re-order,” Dotto said. “I found that I had to change hats from creator to salesperson. It took a lot of work and determination to get stores to place my product on their shelves. I made personal calls to individual retailers across the country, talking to store owners and buyers and asking them to look at my website and materials.”
Her hard work paid off: uKloo games are now sold exclusively at specialty throughout North America, Australia and New Zealand, and are licensed in 19 countries throughout South East Asia.
Selling at specialty poses some challenges for toy inventors who have licensed their product, since “unless lightning strikes, there is not enough volume to generate a lot of royalty income,” Levy said.
But specialty toy chains like Toys “R” Us also allow toy inventors-turned-toymakers to introduce unique products and test the market before rolling out a larger distribution.
Plus, “By selling to the specialty toy market, independents like myself get the benefit of the store’s expertise and commitment to helping their customers by selling only the products that they believe in,” Dotto said. “In my opinion, big box stores are great for products that have huge marketing behind them.”
The dawning of the digital age has brought with it a myriad of new marketing tools for toy inventors. Not only are social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube great for getting the word out about a toy, but they also offer inventors a venue to interact with consumers and get feedback … sometimes in the form of pictures and videos showing kids playing with your toy.
“That’s a really unique opportunity – to be able to share community-generated content,” Brooks said. When pitching your product to retailers, “The first thing is to show them how much kids really love your product, and show that you’ve created this engaging, unique experience for them. If you can show that, everyone will get behind you. Everyone wants to see toys that kids are really excited about.”
Resources tailored for toy inventors and designers can be found on the TIA website.