So you’ve got a toy concept and you’re sure it will be a hit — that’s a good start, but it will probably be the easiest part of going to market. From there you’ll have to make prototypes, persuade a toy company to buy or license your idea, or — for those who like to blaze their own trail — find manufacturers and distributors who can produce the toy and get it on shelves. And don’t forget about business plans, marketing, and finance.
It’s a hard road, but hardly impossible. The following five experts have found success with their toy creations, and have supplied their tips and advice to help smooth a successful toy-making pathway for you.
Makie Dolls — Alice Taylor
Our product is Makies, the doll you make your-self. Makies are (currently) fully 3D-printed, and customized by their owners, who choose and create their own facial features, skin color, eye color, hairstyle and color, clothing — even hand and foot poses.
The idea began in 2010. I drew a few dolls, and sent some sketches to a talented 3D modeler that I found on the Shapeways forum. He modeled up the sketches into 3D using Rhino; we then jointed the doll’s limbs, and I sent the final model off to iMaterialise for printing. An 18-inch, bald, eyeless marionette came back, and it cost me 220 euros. That was enough to decide that this could one day be a business.
Since then we’ve been iterating live with customers. We put Makies live in minimum viable product in mid-2012. We experimented with skin color by boiling all-white printed dolls in tea and coffee. We have Cubes and MakerBots in the office, and we prototype daily on them, printing shoes, jewelry, pets, and more.
The team is now 16 people strong. We use 3D Studio Max, Unity, Solidworks, and Adobe Creative Suite software. We print each doll on-demand and send it direct to the customer’s home.
- Always validate your toy idea. Build the smallest, quickest thing you can, and test it with real users: Put it live, point some Facebook ads at it, and get a hundred people you don’t know to give you their opinion. Ideally, do this five times with five slightly (or very) different things.
- Always think about your target customers. Know how much they want to spend, why, and when. Know them and their motivations. Why will they care about your (new and unknown) product? Why would they choose your product over something else they know and trust already? Have answers to these questions.
- Do a business plan. Write down your general plan and have a working spreadsheet of numbers that you update and play with regularly. Plan to pivot; plan to evolve. Plan to be agile. Use the numbers as a toy — play with them to see where little changes now can mean big changes later on.
- Work out where the money to survive or disrupt will come from. There’s a reason most toys come from only a handful of enormous companies with deep pockets and massive market momentum; they can outspend everyone. They can afford to license expensive brands (Star Wars, anyone?). How do you compete with that?
- Think about your values, ethics, and principles, and how much they’ll cost you. It can be very expensive to have principles; it’s three to four times more expensive to injection mold locally, compared to having it done in China, or up to 10 times more to use quality, recycled packaging materials. Plan for that.
GoldieBlox — Debbie Sterling
I created GoldieBlox as a way to bridge the gender gap in STEM fields. The toys introduce engineering concepts through storytelling and building, and kids build alongside Goldie, a girl engineer who solves problems by building simple machines. The first story follows Goldie as she builds a spinning machine to help her dog chase his tail.
I wrote and illustrated it myself, and the prototype was made from wood and materials around my apartment. Once the idea was finalized, we put it on Kickstarter. Within four days, we raised more than $258,000, surpassing our goal and allowing us to start production. We now have several toys available at Toys R Us, Amazon, and more than a thousand retailers nationwide, and we’re excited to release three more this month: GoldieBlox and the Movie Machine, GoldieBlox and the Builder’s Survival Kit, and our very first action figure of Goldie (who comes with a zip line!).
- Make your voice heard. It’s the people who stand up for what they believe in and put themselves out there who make a difference.
- Make as many connections as you can. Always make time for conversation, and constantly work on establishing new relationships. It’s often a second or third connection that ends up being helpful in a major way.
- Look for people who believe in your mission as much as you do. When I first debuted GoldieBlox at the New York Toy Fair, the industry experts told me the idea would never work — they said construction toys for girls don’t sell. Within four days of launching, we had 5,000 supporters. That initial fan base has continued to support us and help us grow.
- Listen to your customers. One piece of feedback we kept receiving from customers was that kids wanted more — they wanted more pieces to build bigger. So we released GoldieBlox and the Builder’s Survival Kit, which has almost 200 pieces.
- Get comfortable with being uncomfortable. Starting a new business is like a roller coaster with its peaks and valleys, but donʼt let the lows bring you down. Learning the ins and outs of running a business takes time, so be open to criticism and change.
Dino Construction Company — Bruce Lund
Dino Construction Company came out of a conversation more than 20 years ago about favorite toys. Dinosaurs and construction vehicles were two of my most memorable.
We wondered what it might look like if they were combined. We did a couple sketches, including one called TWrex, and showed them to a few companies. They elicited no interest.
We stumbled back upon that sketch every few years and always loved the look. Finally, two decades later, we decided to build one and added a motor, sound effects, and what we called “seek and eat technology.” (Top secret, can’t say more.) Many toy companies loved it, but no one needed such a thing. It wouldn’t fit in their existing line, or it was too expensive — for one reason after another, it was always a “pass.”
We realized that to sell it, we would have to make a line of them, so we built four or five other Dino vehicles, including smaller ones so they’d be less expensive. Still no luck. Our database indicates we showed it 57 times since 2007, the first year we used a database to keep records.
Then one day we had a meeting with a small educational toy company. Someone on our team thought to present them this product, and they loved the look. Go figure. I probably never would have thought to show them that product. They took out all the mechanics and electronics, and made it “kid powered.” And kids love them.
- Always give a product a second chance if it is one that you still like whenever you encounter it. We took a sketch and turned it into an item because it was just so cool. We took an item and turned it into a line because the concept had so much potential.
- Always record your ideas in sketch format and file them where you may encounter them again in the future. Had we not made those original sketch illustrations, we would have forgotten the concept long ago.
- Always keep pitching; never give up. Even if you love it, the time may not be right, or maybe you haven’t found the right company. It may take five or 10 years, or more. Some of our products it took us more than 15 years to license, before they ultimately became successes, like our game “Doggie Doo” and Dino Construction.
- Always show what we call “wild card” concepts — things that are out of left field, not quite what you think your audience wants to see, because you just never know. I would never have thought that Educational Insights would love our concept and make a vehicle line. And I would have been wrong. But we did, they did, and kids love them.
- Always think bigger, how to make an item into a line of products. Blow up the concept and make it as big as you can. We turned a sketch into a model, and a single model into a line of related concepts.
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Robot Turtles — Dan Shapiro
Robot Turtles is a board game that teaches programming to preschoolers. It didn’t start out that way, though. It was born on a lazy weekend last year when I was trying to think of something fun and different to do with my 4-year-old twins. Version 1.0 was inkjet printouts. My kids loved it, so I told friends who thought the game was a great idea. I upgraded to photo paper and a laminator and shared copies with coworkers at Google. Then I decided to get a little more serious, hiring an artist on oDesk, ordering prototypes on The Game Crafter, and rebranding to “Robot Turtles” in honor of the programming language, Logo.
Finally I decided to see if there was enough interest on Kickstarter to warrant a real production run. There was: Robot Turtles became the bestselling board game in Kickstarter history and is now available in stores.
- Sell before you buy. Remember the landfill full of Atari E.T. cartridges that nobody wanted? That’s the fate that awaits makers who order inventory before they know the demand. Crowdfunding lets you collect the money first and place your manufacturing order second. Don’t let your garage become that landfill.
- Find the hook. I couldn’t convince myself that Robot Turtles was a good idea until I came up with the phrase “A board game that teaches programming to preschoolers.” That generated interest. It was something new. If I said, “I made an educational board game,” nobody would have cared.
- Do the work up front. Don’t launch until you know your exact costs for manufacturing, shipping, legal compliance (Robot Turtles had to be tested by a lab for dangerous chemicals), taxes (the IRS watches Kickstarter), and anything else. People bankrupt themselves with successful — but poorly planned — crowdfunding campaigns.
- Budget your time. Whether your launch is a runaway success or a squeaker across the finish line, you’ll fill every spare minute answering messages, soliciting bloggers, keeping lines of communication open with your factory, and more. You can launch a product as a hobby — but only if you don’t have any other hobbies.
- Be thankful. Whether your sales numbers are 100 or 100,000, every person who supports you is sharing your dream. If people are rude, it’s because they care — if they didn’t, they’d ignore you. Appreciate the people who are passionate about what you do. We live in an amazing time, where the world can bring our ideas to life. We are lucky makers!
Hog Holler — Bob Knetzger
As an independent toy inventor for the last 30 years, I’ve worked hard to come up with ideas that could be licensed to toy companies. Here’s a case study of a toy idea from blank paper all the way to TV commercial:
Once while listening to a droning lecture my mind wandered. Is there any use for these boring sounds? Maybe I could get the vibration of a sound to make something move. Model train layouts have featured cows that move by vibration and Tudor Games sells vibrating electric football platforms. Could I use the vibration from just the sound of your voice to power a game? I wrote the idea down and made a few sketches while I was thinking about it.
Later, I did some quick plans to work out the design, then went right to a prototype. I built wooden forms, heated plastic in my kitchen oven, and used a Shop-Vac to vacuum-form some plastic parts.
I assembled the parts into a quick prototype, and it worked. By yelling into a tube, your voice would sympathetically vibrate a thin plastic track and propel your “pig” token, skittering along like a vibrobot — but voice powered.
My business partner and I showed the idea to several toy companies — and got rejected. At last, Ohio Art (the Etch A Sketch company) licensed the design and produced it. Hog Holler was on the shelves in toy stores and on TV with a cute commercial. Johnny Carson and Ed McMann even played it on The Tonight Show.
- Look for the random connection anywhere. One idea can lead you to another. Even a boring lecture hall can be an inspiration.
- Keep a notebook. Write down and sketch your ideas. (For more on ideation and design sketching, see my article, “Industrial Design for Makers” in Make: Volume 32.)
- Make a quick prototype of your idea. Fail early and often. You, too, can quickly vacuum-form plastic parts. (See Make: Volume 11 for my step-by-step DIY article.)
- Keep your beginner’s mind. Any really new idea seems silly at first. Don’t talk yourself out of it — “Oh, that’ll never work. We tried that before. That’s not how we do it” — that one crazy idea might just work.
- Don’t give up. Be persistent!