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How One Toy Company Gets Open Innovation Right

How One Toy Company Gets Open Innovation Right
Image credit: Fat Brain Toys
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Every year around this time, I get a little nostalgic for Toy Fair. My first real job at age 27 was at the toy startup, Worlds of Wonder. On my first trip to New York City for the trade show, I stumbled upon one of my early designs in the toy store FAO Schwarz. With one notable exception, licensing my ideas to toy companies proved challenging when I struck out on my own. I’ll always be grateful to the industry for celebrating inventors, though. It gave me my start.

These days, having to go through a toy broker is more common, but I was pleased to discover there are companies welcoming independent inventors with open arms. I was lucky enough to interview Erik Quam, longtime director of product development at Fat Brain Toys -- one such company -- a few weeks ago.

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Fat Brain Toys began in 2002 as a single online store focused on magnetic toys. According to its website, the company now boasts more than 7,500 toys, games and gifts in stock as well as two retail stores and a mail-order catalogue. Its own line of educational toys, which it began developing in 2006, can be found at SFMOMA, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Smithsonian and other shops. 

How does the company develop new innovations that meet it’s “very specific niche of design-inspired pure play”? Mostly, Quam said, by working with inventors. If you have an idea for him, he wants to hear it.

Quam began the company’s annual hunt for new product ideas last month at a trade show in London, though he welcomes hearing from inventors throughout the year. In fact, he said he never says no to a conversation. He doesn’t want to make the mistake of inadvertently passing something up.

“If it’s the next great idea, I want to be the first one to jump out and sign it,” he said. “So there really isn’t a bad time to submit.” That includes Toy Fair, which begins this weekend.

Does Fat Brain require submissions to be prototyped or patented like some companies insist? No.

“It could be anything, really. We are not the type of company that is going to turn our nose up at a sketch on the back of a napkin... We love to see the root of an idea -- to cultivate it, water it, give it some fertilizer, watch it -- and see it grow,” Quam explained.

I love that.

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Since Scott Baumann, CEO of Procreate Brands and a student of mine, began submitting his ideas to Fat Brain in 2012, the company has licensed eight toys and one game from him. Baumann’s invention Squigz, playfully shaped, pleasantly pliable suction cup designs that encourage experimentation, continues to be a Fat Brain bestseller as well as an industry award winner. This year, Fat Brain is showcasing three concepts the company has licensed from him at Toy Fair: Pop’emz, Tobbly Wobbly and the game Stick Six.

Baumann is ecstatic to have found a partner in Fat Brain. His relationship with the company, he said, is unlike any other he’s experienced in or out of the toy industry.

“Working with Erik Quam and his amazingly talented team is like being part of big, happy, fun, creative family -- because that’s exactly what and who Fat Brain is,” he said. Why is that so important? Because success in licensing is directly correlated to the quality of the relationship you’re able to develop with partners and potential partners, he continued.

I agree. I think of licensing as a partnership. Baumann appreciates really getting to work with the team at Fat Brain to bring his ideas to market.

I think most inventors would prefer to be involved during the design process, but it doesn’t always happen. Some companies prefer to go their own way. So do some inventors. But I think Fat Brain’s attitude is so smart. They’re sincere about working with inventors in part because doing so can lead to a better product.

“I want to be able to pick up phone, and say, ‘What if we change this angle? What if we change overall color from this to that?’ We allow our inventors to have a final look at the product before production -- not for a final blessing and consent per se, but because it’s an opportunity for them to ask, ‘But have you thought about…’” Quam explained. “We get caught up in details. It can make for a better toy.”

Quam stressed that inventors should not be afraid of maintaining a constant, open line of communication with him and the company. He always asks the inventors he’s considering working with to tell him their expectations upfront. I think that’s solid advice -- and true for any partnership, really. If you aren’t on the same page, it isn’t going work. That’s absolutely true of licensing agreements, which get derailed all the time.

If you want to license your ideas, focus on finding those companies that are going to truly embrace you -- companies like Fat Brain. Focus on building strong working relationships throughout the industry you want to invent for. The sooner you begin submitting your ideas for consideration, the sooner important conversations will begin taking place.

Don’t let your fear of rejection stop you. Remember, licensing is a numbers game -- because so is inventing. Commit to being persistent. 

Related: Partners Await Inventors Who Need Help Building Prototypes