Last week, I had the pleasure of interviewing a remarkable toy inventor named Mary Couzin. In 2003, Couzin founded Chicago Toy and Game Week -- affectionately known as ChiTAG -- to bring toy inventors, toy companies, and toy lovers together. Now in its 16th year, the annual celebration of play and innovation has become the event for toy inventors of all ages and degrees of experience. Currently taking place right now, this event is unlike any other I'm aware of for inventors in the best way possible.
It's beloved by the industry, for starters. Event sponsors include industry titans like Mattel, Hasbro, Spin Master, LEGO, and Goliath Games. And get this: Product acquisitionists from more than 90 companies, representing 26 countries, will be there. Wow. That's a lot of decision-makers in one place. Every year, new inventors, professionals, and even young inventors license their toy and game ideas as a result. That makes ChiTAG a uniquely successful event for inventors.
Unlike typical trade shows -- such as Toy Fair in New York City -- the focus at ChiTAG is squarely on invention, not retail. There are several distinct components. This weekend, more 30,000 attendees (half of whom are children) will peruse and interact with toys and games exhibited at the fair. Retailers including Target also make a point of attending the fair, because they can observe how customers interact with the toys and games on display.
Before the fair gets underway, there's a two-day conference for new inventors focused on education, including how to pitch. Professional toy inventors -- who set their own meetings with companies looking for ideas -- are provided with meeting space. Young inventors are encouraged to compete in a challenge by submitting videos of their invention ideas, and receive feedback and mentorship in return. And finally, there's an awards gala. (This year, my former bosses David Small and Paul Rago from the startup Worlds of Wonder are being recognized for their decades of innovative toys with a Lifetime Achievement award.)
In the 1990s while she was in real estate, Couzin pursued her love of inventing as a side-hustle. After achieving some success, she began advising and representing other toy inventors.
"Coming together can only help the industry," she explained in a phone interview. "We really make a point of this feeling like a community. People who don't carry that out are not invited to return." Industry leaders make themselves available because they view this as their time to give back, she added. Opportunities to network are a core part of the experience. "You could sit down to breakfast with the head of Hasbro," she said.
I personally know of inventors who have licensed their ideas because of ChiTAG. When novice inventor Eduardo Matos had an idea for a new toy that he thought was a hit, he considered his options. Sharing his royalties with a toy broker didn't appeal to him. What he heard about ChiTAG on LinkedIn sounded too good to be true. But after an executive convinced him it was the real deal, he took the risk and paid to participate in the conference for new inventors, included the opportunity to pitch.
It paid off. He received a lot of interest, and eventually secured a licensing deal with a leading toy company. His invention is scheduled to debut next fall.
"ChiTAG a must," he said. "The information shared was hugely valuable. For example, I learned that when a company asks to option your product, the typical fee paid is $5,000 a month. When my invention was optioned later that same day, I knew to ask for that."
His recommendations? Take as many notes as you can, attend the entire conference, make your prototypes look as professional as possible, and have a hit on your hands.
When you have an idea for a new product that you want to commercialize, determining how to spend your resources is incredibly important, because they're always limited. This is true for startups that raise millions of dollars as well as independent inventors. What's worth it? What's not? When? These questions are especially relevant when considering industry events like trade shows, as costs quickly add up.
At the end of the day, being able to access the people in your industry who are decision-makers is remarkable. I wish more trade events provided access like this. (If you're looking to license your product idea, I don't recommend buying a booth and waiting for someone to walk up. Read more of what I believe inventors need to know about trade shows.)
Missed out this year? There's a wealth of information on the ChiTAG website, including a regularly updated blog and white papers.
Mary Couzin's Tips For Inventors
1. Do your research first. Does your product idea already exist? Use Google to find out. You could also visit a local retailer or toyshop. Ask, has this been done? Will it sell?
"It's so easy to check. It's not like the old days when you had to visit every show and store. Otherwise, you're just spinning your wheels."
2. Don't give up too soon. "Persistence is the number one quality you must have to become successful at toy inventing," Couzin said. "Believing in what you have will carry you for the most part."
Remember, no one has all the answers all the time. So take the opinion of others with a grain of salt. Couzin says she abstains from passing judgment on any toy or game for this reason.
3. Tell your story in the media. She emphasized the importance of storytelling, and referenced the success of the startup GoldieBlox. "Their marketing was brilliant. Before the product was as good as it is today, it had sold the public." (Interestingly, GoldieBlox describes itself as a disruptive media company on its website.)
Toys are part of the entertainment industry, she pointed out, which means they compete for attention with movies, music, books, and television. "We're the only ones not telling our story!"
If you want to succeed in the toy industry, you absolutely must attend this show.