When you're an inventor reaching out to companies that accept ideas generated outside their own walls--also known as open innovation--there are so many questions that run through your mind.
Do they truly need my product idea? Will they pay me for my idea? What's really going on behind the scenes?
Sometimes, submitting an invention can feel like entering a black hole.
It doesn't have to be that way.
Today, I'm offering a behind-the-scenes look at how the invention submission process works at one of the largest and most beloved play and entertainment companies in the world: Hasbro. Founded in 1923, Hasbro relies on its network of professional inventors to stay ahead of its competition and continue leading the industry. In addition to receiving thousands of unsolicited ideas a year, the company engages its fans through its new crowdfunding platform, HasLab.
Companies in the toy and game industry have a long and rich history of partnering with independent inventors to find and develop their biggest hits. That's where I got my start licensing my ideas for products, in fact.
Brian Chapman has worked for Hasbro for nearly 27 years, first as a designer and now as president and head of global design and development for toy, game, and consumer products. The information he shared with me in a recent phone call is priceless! Please read closely.
How important are independent inventors to Hasbro?
Brian Chapman: They're extremely important. I look at them as a big part of our lifeblood. At Hasbro, we're really about finding the best ideas. We do that in two ways: We have a lot of processes and techniques for nurturing and growing ideas internally, and we focus just as much on ideas outside of Hasbro. We look all around the world to find inventors who can bring us ideas, and we solicit ideas from our consumers. We run a lot of different idea forums where we bring in divergent thinkers who think differently from our internal teams.
In the past, inventors relied on toy brokers to connect them with companies like Hasbro. That's no longer true, correct? Inventors are able to take their ideas to Hasbro directly now.
If you are someone who hasn't worked with us a lot, you could enter Hasbro through a toy broker, but we prefer you use our portal, Spark.Hasbro.com, because our teams have direct access. If you're brand new to inventing, you can also use Spark. We walk people through the submission process and how to submit an idea.
The more established inventors--the people who have brought us multiple hits--their ideas go directly to our Global Product Acquisition team. We bring in their idea, log it, and pitch it internally.
What is required to qualify as a professional toy inventor? Is it the quality of the work? The relationship?
It's kind of a repeated history of successful ideas that we either option or take to market. If you look at our portfolio at any given time, we bring in about 10 to 15 percent of our revenue through brand-new ideas in a year. Those ideas accumulate over time.
Some of those ideas become big brands for us and bring in a much greater percentage. It's probably close to 50 to 60 percent of our portfolio that started as an idea from the outside.
You're looking for ideas in other places today, too, right? Like crowdfunding sites?
We have our eyes and ears out there, so we're obviously looking at crowdfunding and crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter. But what's really cool is that we've actually launched our own ways of doing that. For example, we have a crowdfunding initiative called HasLab where we post really cool products and then we solicit from our fans whether we should go forward with them. We also do a lot of fan votes for characters that we want to do.
Really, it's about chasing that great idea--and great ideas can come from many, many sources.
Everyone is very curious about what takes place behind the scenes at companies that work with inventors. Will you shed a little light on what happens after you receive a new submission? I mean, how many people are involved? How long does it take? Things like that.
Typically, an idea will come in through our Global Product Acquisition team. That idea, first and foremost, has to be logged and documented, so there's no confusion about the source of the idea. Once it's logged and documented by the Global Product Acquisition team, they determine the best fit for that concept. For example, if it's something related to Nerf or if it's something that's more of a game-based play, they will assemble the appropriate internal decision makers and stakeholders to review that idea. They will either pitch it or they will ask the inventor to come in and pitch it.
Basically, that team is reviewing that outside idea against all the existing ideas that we have today and they are saying, "Is that idea better than what we have?" If it's better, we option it for a period of time (usually about three to four months) so we can really explore things like feasibility, manufacturing, costs, and gameplay mechanics, if it's a game. If it passes all those tests, then we go to a contract and we produce the item.
As far as timeline, it happens as quickly as we take items from scratch to market--which can be anywhere from 55 weeks to being able to turn things around in 10 weeks. If it's the right idea, we need to get it into the hands of consumers.
To make that initial evaluation, does the marketing team do that or manufacturing or ... ?
The Global Product Acquisition team (which does the first evaluation) is within the design and development community. They are deciding whether they want to bring in that idea and put it into the Nerf team or the Games team for review. These are multi-disciplinary teams with key stakeholders. You'll have a marketer in there, you'll have a designer, and you'll have an engineer. All the key decision makers who are needed to drive that idea forward will review the item.
Is there a better time of the year to submit an idea?
I don't think so. Now with e-commerce and big events, if we have the right idea, we'll find a way to launch it whenever it's ready. We're always on the lookout for ideas; most come in around big industry events. We get a lot of submissions at New York Toy Fair. We host an inventors summit in September and we get a lot of submissions there. I don't think any one time is better than another.
Can you tell me how many submissions you receive a year?
It varies. I'll just say that it's multiple thousands of ideas that we review...and we might get to 35 items that we actually take to production out of those.
How important is it that the idea is protectable with intellectual property?
I'm not going to say it's not important, because I think that if you have a protectable idea it just gives you a little bit of an advantage. It means that it will be harder for people to either knock it off or try to do something similar. But at Hasbro, we're looking just for great ideas as well. A lot of ideas are clever combinations of new ways to play or are mashing ideas and presenting them together in a new format. So, while some of those type of play experiences aren't protectable legally through patents, we're still interested in them.
What could inventors be doing better?
Don't bypass the submission process, because that can really stall an idea. If you know someone who works at Hasbro, don't send them your idea--send it in to the Global Product Acquisition team.
It's that balance of being true to your idea but also understanding the business and commercial needs. Typically, with our top inventors, we give them live feedback on their idea and they'll say, "Hey look, I get it. Let me take it back, let me shape it into a little bit more of what you're expecting, and come back and re-present it." Inventors who have the capability of taking an early idea and altering it to meet the needs of our business have a very high likelihood when they come back in and re-pitch that idea, of that item going into the line and being produced.
I would also encourage inventors to listen to people who have a different view, more of the business view of what is needed with an item, and help to solve those problems. Those are the kinds of inventors that we love to work with.
How important is it that inventors attend trade shows and other events?
Extremely important, I think, especially as you become an established inventor. Because the more touch points you have with our teams here, the better you'll understand the business--which will give you a higher likelihood of converting your ideas into feasible products.
We will meet with some of our top inventors four or five, even six times a year, depending on the projects that we're working on. We'll bring them in-house to work side-by-side with our development teams to shape those ideas. A lot of them have their own model-making facilities and they will shape them outside and we will go and visit them in their studios.
That relationship is critically important. Once you establish it, you want to continue to work it. We love our inventors, who are like an extended part of our team. And I think that's when we have the most success.
We love the ideas we receive from the outside because they truly give us a different perspective. They make us think about our business in a different way.