Much like the film industry relies on writers, the toy industry needs inventors to come up with new concepts. I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Ben Dermer, senior vice president of creative development at Spin Master, a leading global children's toy and entertainment company, about how they work with independent inventors.
The company is known for the degree to which it invests in its relationships with inventors. For example, to help nurture emerging creatives, Spin Master partnered with two universities in Canada to develop the first year-long program in toy inventing, which kicks off this fall.
Understanding the invention submission process from the company's perspective is key to becoming a better, more professional inventor. As inventors, we must put ourselves in the shoes of companies that are reviewing our product submissions.
Tell me about your invention submission process. Where do the best new ideas come from?
Ben Dermer: "Ninety five percent of the ideas for new products that we deal with come through personal relationships. It's actually pretty rare that a cold submission -- meaning one sent through the portal we host on our website -- gets that far. Typically professional inventors contact us and share what they're doing. People who are invested in the space either know us or know how to get to us at the right venues and shows. The portal exists as an opportunity for people that we don't have a relationship with to connect with us.
It's also a way to keep things organized, because we get quite a few submissions. So, it's fair at least standardize the procedure.
Are toy brokers needed anymore?
Brokers offer two benefits traditionally. One is access. What a broker is able to do is jump the line. The other thing that brokers do is handle the business side. Most inventors don't want to be out schlepping stuff around taking 50 meetings a year, negotiating contracts or hiring lawyers. It's a partnership of ingenuity matched with business savvy. They're not unnecessary by any means; in fact, they're really valuable to many people.
What happens after you receive a submission? How do you evaluate it? Who's in the room? How long does it take?
I'd like to preface the following by saying we're probably the top inventor company in the toy industry in terms of sheer number of submissions and number of meetings we take with inventors. And we produce products in almost every category imaginable, so we're searching for new ideas in every category as well. It's very senior people in the company who participate in this process.
After we receive a submission in one form or another (typically in a video or a prototype), we then do an internal review with the Inventor Relations team which is largely organizational. We make sure we understand the idea and that we have all of the pieces and parts.
Then we conduct biweekly meetings with each of our different business groups. Our company is divided up into business units based primarily on category; robotics, activities, preschool, etc. Approximately every two weeks, we have a full review meeting with each of the business and design leads from all of those units where we look at new products and get updates on where in the process other ideas that we have looked at during previous meetings are.
It's a fairly involved process. There is quite a bit of conversation among the designers and business leaders in the company. Every two weeks we're doing at least eight to 10 hours of product review.
When you see something you like and you start to evaluate it, how long does it usually take to get back to the inventor? A month? Two months?
We pride ourselves on being very transparent. We don't ever want someone to have the feeling of, 'My item is just sitting over there and I don't know what's going on with it.' So, we try and keep people appraised of everything that's going on fairly immediately. We have a policy, which is that every email gets a response and every phone call gets a response. There's no sitting and waiting to hear back.
As far as how long it takes to make a decision on a product itself -- there are a few factors. It depends a lot on how good of a fit the product is, how far along the project is, and what time of year it is. It could be as little as literally a day or two. On average, I'd say between two and eight weeks is a good turnaround. But then there are some projects that are prolonged because there's some technical difficulty.
Is there a best time to submit ideas?
We always have an open mindset, so we receive stuff at all times. That said, it's a push-pull. The toy business is obviously very seasonal and you have to be somewhat proactive. It's difficult to get a product in this year if you show it too late.
In terms of an ideal time for toy inventors to show products to us, mid-August to mid-November is really the sweet spot for products that are aimed at the following Christmas. In other words, we're looking for products to launch in the fall of 2021 in the fall of 2019. That's not to say that if we see something at Toy Fair in New York (which occurs in February) or some other time that we wouldn't jump on it, but I do think it's good for professional inventors to embrace the seasonality of this business and try and sync up with company timelines.
About how many submissions do you receive a year?
About three to four thousand.
It depends on the year, but that's average. We might see 15 ideas in one meeting with a professional inventor.
Are you looking at crowdfunding sites and elsewhere for the most new and innovative ideas?
We believe a good idea can come from anywhere and crowdfunding is definitely a part of it especially for games. It's become quite a launching ground for games. There are certainly some examples of big successful toys coming from crowdsourced places and YouTube as well.
Let's say you're just starting out and want to become a toy inventor. How important is it to go to trade shows and personally make connections and relationships with companies looking for ideas?
It's important but not necessary. You can certainly get by without ever going to the toy shows, but it depends a little bit on, first of all, where you live. If you live in a remote area you probably aren't going to have too many toy companies visiting you. If you're an inventor who's working on one major project then you could easily just have a relationship with one company. If you're looking to sell lots of products to lots of companies, shows are a very good opportunity to see and meet everyone. I certainly encourage people who are taking toy inventing seriously to attend at least one toy show a year.
How important is intellectual property? Copyrights, trademarks, patents. Are those important?
I think it can be. I don't think it's the best lens by which to look at things though. Patents are certainly valuable to the extent that they're useful. If you can come up with something that's truly unique and exciting and has a lot of potential and you can patent it, that's certainly worthwhile. But I would estimate that 95 percent of things that we see aren't patented and never will be -- partially just because of the turnaround times in the toy industry and partially because invention in the toy industry has as much to do with style and marketing and other aspects. So, utility protection is not always essential. Then again, if you're a technical inventor who's just developed an amazing mechanism and you believe it's got 50 potential applications, then a patent is certainly worthwhile.
How do you deal with copycats? People knocking off your products.
That's a constant challenge for us. Unfortunately, if you're leading in innovation, you're going to be the target of copying. There's a bunch of factors to combat knockoffs. A fair amount of our product is just technically difficult to copy, so that's part of it. We have extensive legal protection worldwide. We have law firms working on our behalf in China and Europe, so we're able to pursue recourse in the event of copying, but we also have very strong retailer relationships.
Unfortunately, knockoffs are a reality that we have to deal with every day. Really, the way that we deal with it is protecting ourselves as much as possible and keep pushing forward with innovation.
Are there any red flags or things that inventors are doing that puts them in that amateur camp? Do you have any advice for novice inventors?
I have a lot of respect for people who are getting into toy inventing. The number one thing is really trying to understand the business -- meaning where toys are sold, what the categories are, what the price points are. Have some sense of costing. Get to know what's out on the market already; what's new, what's familiar.
Secondly, presenting a product that is just not appropriate to that business is a bit of a red flag. For example, I wouldn't walk into a games-focused company and show them an outdoor toy. That just doesn't make sense.
Getting a bit more sophisticated, I would again say to really try to understand the businesses of the companies you want to invent for. If you're coming to Spin Master, familiarize yourself with our line of products and entertainment properties, for example PAW Patrol. Understand the characters, understand the play patterns. Oftentimes we are shown product ideas that just aren't at all appropriate for what we do.
Beyond that, the quality of the presentation is obviously important. That's not to say that people need to invest in video equipment or a fancy presentation, per se, but you can tell when that person has seriously thought out the product they're presenting. One of the dead giveaways is kicking problems down the line. When there's a lot of, 'Well, you figure this out. You figure out how to build it.' Taking pride in offering proper solutions is a big part of being a good inventor."
For an example, look no further than Spin Master's Air Hogs brand, which the company launched in 1998. The brand came to the company from two British inventors based on an innovative design involving a miniature engine powered by compressed air, resulting in the first products designed to be easily flown by children and requiring limited assembly. Today the brand has expanded to encompass nearly 50 different products!