Larry Schwarz started his inventing career years ago-when he was a kid, actually, and he had a habit of taking his toys apart and then gluing the parts back together in different configurations. Even when he was in law school, Schwarz couldn't resist doodling his toy ideas on notebook paper. And so, in 1997, he gave up his law career and formed Rumpus Corp., now a multimillion-dollar New York City toy company with 36 employees.
Schwarz comes up with ideas all the time-in fact, he filled 26 notebooks while in law school. So how is he constantly able to come up with fresh ideas when most people struggle to find just one? It all comes down to his inventing philosophy: "I think toys should be fun. I look for toys with an open approach that kids can find their own way to play with. I want kids to be surprised, and I want the toys to be unpredictable."
And Schwarz's inventions are anything but predictable. Two of Rumpus Corp.'s biggest sellers have been Gus Gutz and Harry Hairball, which kids can reach into to pull out all sorts of surprises: spleens, livers, hearts and nine other organs from Gus Gutz, and goldfish, a mouse, a parakeet, hairballs and other unexpected pleasures from Harry Hairball. Even the packaging is fun-the boxes are configured so that kids can cut them up and turn them into their own toys.
Schwarz, 31, uses this "fun" philosophy to guide him throughout the entire idea-to-invention process. Here's how it works: He creates the ideas and then gives them to a graphic artist, who ships the drawings off to a factory to make samples. When the samples arrive, he and his staff look at the product to see how it could be changed. What about focus groups, product testing and outside input? Schwarz doesn't use those tactics. Kids don't see the toys until they're ready for the company's interactive Web site (www.rumpus.com), where Rumpus toys are exclusively sold.
How To Think Of Ideas
"Ideas come to me all the time, just from where I am [in my life] or what's happened to me in the past," shares Schwarz. For instance, the Monster In My Closet toy, a "friendly" monster, was a result of Schwarz's childhood fear of monsters. And the idea for the Gallery Gang, a group of soft characters based on different artists, came about when Schwarz was walking through a museum one day.
The point is to look for ideas wherever and whenever you can. Schwarz, who periodically conducts inventing talks at elementary schools, likes to tell kids "to look at objects they see every day and [see] how they could be improved." And that's essentially your task as an inventor. Schwarz offers these additional tips:
1. Believe in your ideas. Wait until you get an idea you really believe in before starting out-then you can enjoy everything you're doing with it.
2. Write down every idea you get. Sometimes a so-so idea you get today will spark a better one later on.
3. Don't get too much advice. Nobody liked Schwarz's idea for Gus Gutz, but he went ahead and introduced it anyway, and the toy was a big success. Getting too much input from others results in a product that nobody wants.
4. Know your customers. Kids have always found Schwarz's toys to be fun and fresh, just like he thought they would. You're in trouble if you and your customers aren't on the same wavelength.
5. Have an absolute vision of what your product should be, and don't lose it. Stick to your guns.
6. Don't count on people to see your vision. They won't understand it until they see people using the product. If you're going to show a product, show it actually being used by a real person in your target market.
One other rule Schwarz certainly lives by is putting his customers first. The Rumpus Web site has games, movies, cartoons and lots of activities for kids. Fun is Schwarz's top priority, even before making money. That could be why he's also attracted a cult following of college kids who love the feel of his furry animals.
Schwarz's inventing process is similar to that of many other inventors. They all start with a basic philosophy about their inventions-like make it fun, make it mechanically simple or make sure it meets a need-and they follow through with that philosophy by constantly searching for ideas. Inventing doesn't have to be about creating something new; in fact, I've found that the most prolific inventors get ideas by looking at something they already know in a different way.
Test It Out
Haystack Toys' second annual The Great American Toy Hunt is here! Dan Lauer, founder of Haystack Toys, hopes to find up to 10 new toys in this year's contest (compared to five in 1999), set to launch in September. Lauer reports that 1,200 inventors entered The Hunt last year, and he expects thousands more to enter this year. Each winning inventor will receive a 5 percent royalty, a $5,000 advance and a $50,000 commitment from Haystack to help develop the idea. The Hunt will be in nine U.S. cities, including Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, San Francisco, Seattle and St. Louis. Detailed information can be found at www.haystacktoys.com.
Lauer started The Hunt, he says, "because the toy industry has become dominated by toy store buyers, and the emphasis is on licensed products and low-priced toys. What's gotten lost in the shuffle are the great, innovative toys that kids like." Lauer isn't looking for electronic toys or board games, but rather large, tactile toys that encourage imaginative play. "[I want toys] that will become the child's favorite toy-the ones that have the 'double wow' factor, meaning the kids 'wow' at least twice when they first play with the toy."
Don Debelak is a new-business marketing consultant who has been introducing new products for more than 20 years. He is the author of Bringing Your Product to Market (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95, 800-225-5945).