I only spent a few years attempting to license my ideas for toys, but the takeaway was clear: This is one incredibly competitive industry! Toy companies have always relied on outside inventors to commercialize the most innovative new products. In February, I had the pleasure of attending Toy Fair in New York City for the first time in decades. So when I heard that PlayMonster, a relatively small company, was a finalist for no less than six 2018 awards, I was intrigued.
PlayMonster CEO Bob Wann confirmed what I had been thinking: For a company of its size, that's unheard of. Wann has a vast and varied history in the toy industry. After 10 years at Fisher Price, he joined Hasbro to work on its Playschool line and eventually headed up the company's games division. After founding his own successful toy company, he took over what was then known as Patch Products in 2009. (Last year, the company changed its name to PlayMonster.) He is also the incoming chairman of the Toy Industry Association's board.
Over the past four years, the company has tripled in size, Wann told me -- making it among the top 25 toy companies in the country. One reason for the company's success is its wholehearted embrace of open innovation best practices. PlayMonster received more than a thousand submissions from toy inventors last year, Wann said. The company quickly scans every idea it comes across to see if anything grabs its attention. Is there a nugget they can build on?
The filtering process takes place in a matter of minutes, Wann said.
"The media is so fast-paced today. Consumers are bombarded with information," he pointed out. "The benefit of any product -- you've got to get to it quickly." Meaning, if an inventor cannot transmit the core consumer benefit of his toy in a matter of seconds, there's a good chance the company won't be able to either.
That's one reason why Wann argues simple is best. "Some of the best products we've got are very simple," he emphasized.
Whereas many toy companies are figuring out how to integrate digital technology with in-person play, PlayMonster is going in an opposite direction by focusing on longstanding play patterns. Its extensive line of products includes dolls, automobiles, a new kind of swing, balls, and fairies, for example. The company is focused on toys and games that "don't change from one generation to the next." The challenge is to still keep innovating.
PlayMonster takes the time to get back to every single inventor who shares an invention with the company, which is unusual. For Wann, the big benefit is obvious: Many of the company's products, if not the majority, come from the inventor community. Maintaining good relationships is crucial to their success.
"Our job to get the best ideas brought to us. If you let an inventor know how to make his idea better, hopefully he'll bring it or another one back to us," Wann said. "We want to win the trust and respect of inventors by helping them with some insight and our honest opinion."
Wann pointed out that a company of PlayMonster's size must be more imaginative than its competitors.
"There are companies out there that are substantially bigger. I believe that very often the ideas we are shown have been seen before and by definition, rejected. So our job is to find the best within the ideas we see. Is there something we can build upon that others have missed?" Wann explained. "It's easy to turn things down by finding fault. But what's the one thing that might be right? Maybe we can collaborate with the inventor."
To that end, the final offering is often substantially different than what was initially submitted.
As an example, Wann pointed to the Mirari Shellby the snail, nominee for Infant/Toddler Toy of the Year. When children roll the snail along the floor or tap its tail, balls pop out and then must be reloaded. The original submission featured a dog, Wann said. It was the action and not the character that PlayMonster recognized as having great value.
"There are classic play patterns, including simple hand-eye coordination. The core action behind this product -- the shooting of the ball -- would mesmerize and entertain. So we built on that to create something totally different."
The most valuable action an inventor can take after one of his submissions is rejected is to ask why. Some examples Wann gave: What did they not like? Was it just a timing issue? Should you approach a different category?"
Educate yourself, Wann advises, so you know where to take your ideas. The most successful toy inventors he knows are prolific, he admitted.
"You can't have just one idea. You need eight." That's true of inventing in general.
Three takeaways for toy and game inventors:
1. Don't overlook small and mid-sized companies for licensing consideration. They actually need you! Don't just take it from me: Wann was explicit. Everyone wants to license his idea to the largest company possible. But other companies are more likely to get back to you about your concept, which is crucial to your growth and ultimate success as a product developer.
2. Your marketing materials must make an immediate impact. I cannot stress this enough! Which is why I've written extensively about the power of one-line benefit statements, sell sheets, and product videos. Test your marketing materials out on friends before you rely on them. Do they get it? If you have to explain what they're looking at and why they should care... head back to the drawing board.
3. Keep inventing. The people who are the most successful at licensing their ideas for new products stay in the game long enough to develop meaningful relationships. That's what this is all about.