Back in the mid-1970s, when toy and game creator Mary Doherty Ellroy was in graduate business school at Boston College, one of her professors asked her to visualize her career goal. She thought hard and came up with an answer that surprised even her a little. Unlike other MBA candidates who coveted posts with corporate giants such as IBM and General Electric, Ellroy imagined working at an ad agency that specialized in promoting toys and games.
"I guess, deep down, that I knew what I wanted to do, even though I didn't yet realize it," she says.
Ellroy went to work in the conventional corporate world, where she spent more than a decade working in marketing for a telephone company, yet she retained her desire to combine her business skills with something more imaginative. Eventually, she did.
Today, Ellroy, who is in her late 50s and based in Norwalk, Conn., has not one but two creative careers. She has become a prolific inventor of toys and games, with more than 36 products on the market -- including the perennially strong-selling Great States, a geography game for elementary school children; a board game called Two Out of Three; and the Magic Rainbow Maker toy. She works as a contract inventor for various companies, creating products based on licensed characters such as Hannah Montana.
Additionally, Ellroy's company, Gamebird, has developed a new niche in recent years as an agent, creative advisor and consultant for other toy and game creators, helping others to turn their inspirations into marketable products.
For Ellroy, her consulting work is a particularly satisfying role because it enables her to leverage what she's learned from her own experience about how to turn dreams into reality.
"I like to mentor creative people," she says.
Artist-turned-business-coach Jane Pollak says Ellroy is a prime example of what it takes to carve out a successful second career in a creative field.
"She's very smart and inventive, but what is really amazing is her tenacity and resiliency," says Pollak, author of Soul Proprietor: 101 Lessons from a Lifestyle Entrepreneur. "In the toy business, there are a lot of disappointments, but Mary just bounces back and keeps going."
Pollak says Ellroy also has learned to leverage technology and cultural trends to succeed. "She's very plugged in," says Pollak. "She knows what is trendy, what the newest devices are, whether it's computer software or smartphones, and she's really on top of social media and pop culture. And she doesn't just talk about them -- she comes up with ways to use them all to help her business."
The Power of Persistence
Ellroy's tipping point came when she was working in the late 1980s for a telecom firm in the chaotic wake of the Bell System breakup and struggling to find a way to market call-waiting and forwarding services without an advertising budget. Ellroy did, however, have a computer budget. Working with a computer expert, she developed a touchscreen kiosk for phone company retail outlets, where customers' responses to questions played "cool, fun little ads."
"It was basically a decision tree, which is a kind of gaming," she explains. "I found out that I loved gaming. So I quit my job and decided to become a game inventor."
Upon embarking upon her new career in 1990, Ellroy quickly scored a success, selling her first game to Mattel. But then reality set in. "It was six years before I sold my next one," she recalls.
Ellroy didn't give up. "I was delusional enough to think 'This is what I do for a living,'" she says. Fortunately, she was able to depend on her investments and other sources of income to get by. "I did okay, but I recommend to people who want to be toy inventors that they keep their day job at least for a while," she says.
One of the things that kept Ellroy going was support and counsel from other women in a local entrepreneurs' club called a mastermind group, which she joined 18 years ago. She strongly advises others striking out on their own to seek out a similar network. "They're all in different businesses -- we've got a chiropractor, and someone who does marketing for companies, and so on. But we have issues in common. We discuss things like 'How do I get this guy to pay?' and 'Where do I find somebody to set up my booth at a trade show?' It's a wonderful place to get practical advice and support and reassurance."
She's found that interaction so useful that she also joined a second group, composed of artists -- calligraphers, weavers and the like -- who work with a business coach on the nuts and bolts of marketing their creations.
To get the most of such networking, Ellroy says it's essential to learn to be honest with your peers and to trust them. "You have to be willing to be forthcoming about your failures."
Wearing Multiple Hats
As an inventor, Ellroy is paid an advance when manufacturers pick up one of her games or toys, and also receives royalties from sales of the products. She says her income varies from year to year, but consistently exceeds what she earned in her corporate job. (One economic downside: She has to pay for her own health insurance.)
Ellroy says her latest career reinvention -- as an inventors' agent -- fills a key role in the invention field by enabling fledgling tinkerers to get in the front door. "Big companies want to deal with agents rather than off-the-street inventors," she says. "They need someone to screen products and bring the most promising ones to them." She's the equivalent of a literary agent who works with writers to help them become published authors.
For a $195 fee, Ellroy will take a look an inventor's idea for a product. If she decides that it might be a good fit with one of the manufacturers with whom she's worked, she'll represent the inventor and pitch the proposed product. If she thinks that the idea doesn't quite work but that it -- or the creator --has promise, she'll work with the client to develop it further. "I don't dump an idea because it's not there," she says. "If it seems as if it might have legs, and the inventor seems to get it, I will send him or her back to the drawing board."
The Business of Toys
To Ellroy, the key to success as an inventor has been figuring out how to harness her imagination to provide her clients -- that is, toy and game companies -- with products that will make money for them. "You're not inventing just for the parent or the kid, you're also inventing for the retailer," she says. "You've got to understand things like packaging and shelf-space limitations. That's the hardest thing to get [toy and game inventors] to understand. I get a lot of fun ideas that won't sell. You've got to understand the business of toys."
All in all, Ellroy is glad that she found a way to reinvent herself and fulfill the yearning that she had back in business school. "I love to make things up," she says. "I'm not a writer, I don't have any artistic skills, but I can come up with ideas. I had to do something where I made things up for a living."
For more, here's a downloadable 2008 podcast interview Ellroy did with Ron Reardon and Bill McHenry, hosts of "The Launch Hour," a show for innovators, product developers and entrepreneurs on Businessradiox.com.