Posts Tagged ‘Annie Wolfinbarger’

A Brief Questionnaire All Toy Makers Ought To Take

by  Annie Wolfinbarger

I saw a lot of great stuff at New York Toy Fair. There are really amazing toys coming on the market designed by people who have great insight into how kids play. And, of course, as toy people seeing this great stuff, we regularly get asked what the next big toy will be for Christmas.

My answer? I have no idea. If I could predict what would be a big seller, I certainly wouldn’t have chosen some of the toys that have been the huge hit in the past. Your local anchorperson has ways of figuring that out and letting everyone know on the 6 o’clock news sometime in November what the toy is and that you can’t find it in any store for the next three months.

(I have to be honest with you. As I schlep down miles of toy aisles at Toy Fair, I rather quickly begin to reach a beeping, buzzing, whirring and fuzzy overload. Because it’s a color and noise tornado in that place, I ebb into slowly focusing on how hungry I am or how much my feet are aching. Don’t tell Ryan though. As I drag behind him, he thinks I’m looking, but often I’m just thinking about the big Rice Krispie treat I saw at the deli earlier that day. )

*steps on soapbox*

The one thing that concerns me at Toy Fair and in store toy aisles is the ridiculous number of completely useless toys on the market—the toys that don’t DO anything and sometimes command a hefty price tag for it! Some of the stuff I saw this year left me shaking my head. It worries me that some toy designers aren’t thinking at all about HOW kids play with their toys. There seems to be a lot of slapping a licensed character on something dumb and calling it a toy.

A couple of Christmases ago, my son asked for the hot toy of the season. It was literally the only thing on his Christmas list and all he could talk about for two months. The commercial for this toy showed a couple of joyful kids having the best time of their life playing with this amazing toy! But, Ryan refused to get it. I thought he was just being grinchy when he said, “It won’t do anything. He’ll play with it for 5 minutes and then put it away.”

The way I saw it, I just wanted to get my kid to get the only thing he asked for and the commercial looked cute, so I crossed party lines and bought it anyway. I was so excited for him to open it on Christmas morning so HE could look like those blissful children on the commercial! I knew I was about to make his entire year with this toy.

Guess how that worked out. *shaking my head in embarrassment for being a sucker* He played with it for 5 minutes and then walked away never to pick it up again. It really didn’t do anything it said it could or would. I felt terrible about spending so much money on a stupid toy that now resides on the back of my son’s shelf collecting an impressively thick layer of dust.

If I were in charge of the toy industry, (which I’m clearly not, I can barely make decisions about what to make for dinner) I believe there should be a small list of questions (with a very big title) that every toymaker would have to answer before making a toy.


1. Does it stimulate the child in imaginative or physical play?

2. Does the child play with it for more than 10 minutes in one sitting?

3. Does the child pick it up and play with it more than 3 times?

Bonus Question: Did they ask to take it to school?

If you answered yes to these questions, you may proceed to make the toy. (If you answered yes to the Bonus Question, you may have the next big toy on your hands. Go make some profit!)

If you answered no to any of these questions, please reconsider making useless junk.

*steps down off of soapbox*

At Gigglicious, anyone who has ever considered one of our concepts can be assured that anything we design has to pass the “kid test”. And believe me, our kids don’t lie about it. If they don’t like something we come up with, they TELL us and they aren’t shy about it.

For all of our concepts, we get the opinions of the neighborhood kids, our girl’s boyfriends (poor guys), kids who come over for sleepovers with our kids, nieces, nephews, young adults, and anyone else in the demographic who might play with or has ever played with toys before! We watch kids and adults play with our prototypes. We ask them what would make it better.

Our goal is to make sure that everything we design is going to be fun, it’s going to engage kids, and make people happy. The most important tenet in our business is that we create things that will bring families and friends together to play and that fun is just the beginning.

To be successful, you have to have your heart in your business, and your business in your heart. ~Thomas Watson, Sr.

New York Toy Fair 2018

As I rub my aching feet, dwelling on the miles I must have trudged up and down the maze of carpeted hallways at Javitz, I realize how happy and grateful I am (and my feet are) to be sitting in my office chair doing the busy follow-up work that came from handshakes, exchanging business cards and presenting the Gigglicious concepts we’ve been toiling on for months.

In three days, Ryan and I shuffled our way through seven football fields of product, catching up with old friends, meeting new business partners, and making all sorts of presentations to top industry innovators. It’s easy to say it was the best trip yet.

(What’s even better? It’s one full year till we have to do it all again.)

Trendmasters crew in 2018-Ryan, Lorenzo Lizana, Brian Weinstock, and Chad Stuemke

What a kick it always is to see familiar faces–ones we’ve known for 20 years! These Trendmasters guys haven’t changed a bit. That company may have been gone for a long time, but the friendships and the love for the toy industry have remained. There is an unbelievable amount of talent in that one picture. It’s satisfying knowing they are all out in the world, and many more of them, still working to make great products and toys that make kids happy and bring families together.


Lastly, a huge thanks to all the family and friends, our little village, who make it possible for Ryan and I to get the work done and spend a few days in New York building our business. We appreciate and love all of you!

Praise the bridge that carried you over. ~George Colman

Parts 6 and 7: Yippee! Somebody licensed my invention! So, am I rich yet?

I am wrapping up this series by combining Part 6 and 7, partly because they are so closely tied to one another and partly because I am overdue in finishing this series.

So, when we last left off, we had our item in for review and the PD team was making a decision on our item.  This time, we received great news and the company is planning to move forward with us.  Time to take a moment and really relish this success…let it sink in and enjoy the validation that comes when someone likes what you are creating.  In an industry that is more about NO than YES, it’s important to take a sweet, brief moment to savor the mountain that you just conquered.

Conquering the Mountain at Winter Park, CO

We conquered the mountain at Winter Park, CO

Ok, moving on, there’s so much more to do.

At this point in the process, it becomes a personal decision for the inventor on how to handle it from here in terms of advances and royalties and the relationship with the licensor.  Do you want as much as possible?  What are you willing to give up?  How flexible will you be in the negotiations?  How involved do you want to stay?  Where do you want the future of this new relationship with this company to go?

Right now, I want stop and put in a book recommendation for anyone interested in inventing.  It’s by my new acquaintance and fellow Illinois State University graduate, Ron Weingartner, and his colleague, Richard Levy.  The book is “The Toy and Game Inventor’s Handbook: Everything you need to know to Pitch, License, and Cash in on your Ideas”.   It’s is an in-depth look at everything this series has covered and more, more, more.  It will become an absolutely invaluable resource.  It’s should be on every inventor’s bookshelf!  Go buy it today.  Seriously.

Well, from here, the path can take many directions and I can only share what we have experienced, which may be very different from other inventors.  Please note, it is completely recommended to have a lawyer consult and review any contracts for you, especially if you are new to inventing.

We feel strongly about trying to get Advances on the deal.  As Ryan concisely puts it, an Advance “makes sure they have some skin in the game” and are invested in the item.  Many smaller companies have a harder time with offering an Advance or others simply refuse to do it.  This, then, becomes a decision on whether or not you want to see your item move forward with their company.   Other questions to consider are: how well can they execute it? What are their distribution outlets?  How many units can they move?  Are they asking for Worldwide rights or just North America?  Can you sublicense it out to another licensor?  What about 3rd party licenses?  (Seriously, get the Inventor Handbook, there is so much to cover)

Our general formula for Advances requires a bit of prior knowledge about manufacturing and the retail marketplace, but is simple and, in our minds, fair to all parties.  In easy, round numbers, here is an example of how we figure an Advance:

Let’s say the CEO told you they anticipate selling 100,000 units in the first year and the item will be $10 on store shelves.  This means they would roughly be selling it to the retailer for around $5.  You asked for a very typical 5% royalty on the deal, so you will earn $.25 per item and around $25,000 the first year in royalties.  If you estimate 20-30% on an advance first year royalties, that puts the advance at $5000-$7500 and this number will be subtracted out of your first year royalties.

We try to stay open to all options during the negotiation process.  Some might see it as a game, some might see it as something to lose sleep over.  Ultimately, the company wants something from you and you want to give it to them.  So, do what you can to make that work and be sure to read the fine print.

Congratulations!  You negotiated the deal you wanted and the ink on the contract is drying.  (Ryan and I usually do a little happy dance at this point and go out to dinner.)  You should start looking at Lamborghini’s because now you are going to be rich, right?  Hmm, well, this is the assumption most people make about inventors.  If you have licensed an item and it is in stores, then you MUST have made a lot of money?!  (Can you hear me sniggering at this?)  Let me be clear:  a license DOES NOT guarantee piles of money and you shouldn’t plan on it.  Why not, you ask?  Here’s a few reasons: many items never make it to production, buyers for the store didn’t like it and didn’t buy it, items don’t sell like they predicted, they design the item with the wrong spring and it doesn’t work right, and a million other reasons why.  Please don’t begin inventing for the money, you’ll be sorely disappointed.  Begin inventing because you look forward to watching a kid pick up your item in a store and ask their mom if they can have it, because it’s fun, and, most importantly,  because you have a knack for it.

Sure, there are huge hits that have made an inventor a crap ton of money (that’s an official measure).  You read about those toys in magazines and see them hyped at Christmas as the “Hottest Toy” of the year.  Yay for those inventors!  Seriously, I hope we’re that lucky someday.  However, for most of the inventing community, it’s an amazingly rewarding job that we work tirelessly at in order to make a decent living and bring some fun to some kids along the way.  It’s a job that doesn’t offer a 401K, health insurance, or a pension.  So, before you quit your job, make sure you have a creative mind, nerves of steel and a strong sense of adventure because you’ll need it for the wonderful story you can write for yourself if you want to grow up to be a toy & game inventor.

The future is called “perhaps,” which is the only possible thing to call the future.  And the only important thing is not to allow that to scare you.  ~Tennessee Williams, Orpheus Descending, 1957

Part 5: Some Marketing and Movie Magic

Once we have a working prototype, the next step is to shoot a presentation video to show it’s function and how its used.  We edit the footage, add music, and put in text to make a short video that presents the item and all its glorious features.

Because Inventor Relations and Product Development people are busy, the video has to be concise and quickly convey the essence and awesomeness of the item.  We generally get one shot at presenting, and if the video is not convincing, then the item gets passed over.

The nominees for the Best Supporting Actors in a Gigglicious Presentation Video are…..well, I don’t think our video efforts will ever win us any cinematic awards,  but we do have fun with the process.  I’ve experimented with green screens, extra effects, and ridiculous fonts no one else should ever use.  Searching out the perfect music can sometimes take me half a day.   I’m currently trying to figure out how I can work in an explosion effect into a video just because it’s awesome!

Most toy and game companies are located on either the East or West coasts.  So for us, being located in the middle of the United States does not make it easy to present face to face in most circumstances.  This makes industry events like Dallas Toy Show, ChiTag or New York Toy Fair important for us to attend.  Meeting CEO’s and getting to present in person is always preferable.  When we can’t do that, we have to send videos and presentation sheets, hold our breath, and hope everything we’ve designed presents well.

Once they’ve reviewed our item, it’s either a yes, no, or sometimes companies “option” an item they are interested in keeping in-house for further review.  This means they pay us a little money for the right to keep the prototype for an extended amount of time.  This gives them more time to decide if the item is right for them before they license it from us.

Otherwise, we continue show our items around, sometimes for years, to all kinds of Inventor Relations people, CEO’s, and Product Development Managers and hope that one of our items will fit with a vision they have for their company.  A word to those interested in launching a career as an inventor, a deal rarely happens quickly or even at all and typically, we get way, way more passes on items than we do licenses.  More on that next time….

I have found no greater satisfaction than achieving success through honest dealing and strict adherence to the view that, for you to gain, those you deal with should gain as well. ~Alan Greenspan

Part 4: Prototyping or “Making use of the Industrial Design degree”

Coincidentally, we are at this actual stage of the process because of an upcoming client appointment looming next month.  Yesterday we had an afternoon long meeting to go over our rough list of maybe ideas; most made the cut and a handful did not.   We have a lot of prototypes to make….

parts and pieces

The next step in the process is truely Ryan’s forte.  As “Chief Tinkerer” at Gigglicious, he takes our ideas and bring them into real life with a prototype.  Typically, he spends a couple of days designing and drawing out HOW the product can work.  Sometimes it involves multiple iterations.  Ryan draws by hand; he’s old-school.  He has worked on CAD,  like SolidWorks and ProE, but has always preferred to hand draw his designs. ((WARNING: seriously shameful bragging is about to occur)) He has drawings that are, in my opinion, works of art.  I can’t even imagine how his brain can work out gears, motors, wall thickness, and tolerances while also designing for manufacturability.  It is a beautiful thing to see his drawings.  He is the true talent in Gigglicious prototyping.  Thank you Southern Illinois University Industrial Design Program for helping groom this incredible artist/designer!  ((Ok, it’s over now.))  If you have a product you’d like prototyped, there are many freelancers that can do this for you.  This tends to be a bit pricy because of the labor and skill involved in literally making something from nothing…

For us, one highly important step for prototype building is the trip to Goodwill.  Oh yeah, the local thrift store, a trove of treasures and mother lode of goodies and gadgets!  Do you know how many parts and pieces, motors and housings, mechanisms and sound chips can be found on old toys?  A $2 bag of junk toys frequently gives us the key to frankensteining (yeah, that’s a real word in the Gigglicious lexicon) a great prototype.  Who knew, right?

Then it’s hand building prototypes.  I handle prototypes that need sewn, Ryan does the rest.  It’s multiple trips from desk to workshop.  It involves no short supply of plastic, tubes, motors, electronics, screws, springs, diodes, and of course, bottles and bottles of super glues, epoxy and band-aids.

Because it comes up in conversation so frequently, let’s talk about 3-D printing.  Seems everyone knows about these and we often get asked if we have one.  No, we do not, but would definitely like one for prototyping.  Of course, with owning a 3-D printer, you have to have the computer programming ability to design what it prints.  We may get to that, but not right now.  Most larger invention firms have had them for years and it’s a convenient way to tailor presentations and prototypes to their customers.

Let’s be clear about prototypes, we don’t often get it right, especially on the first, second or third try.  Maybe never.  Prototypes take a while to get working.  Sometimes the mechanics are off, sometimes physics works against us, and sometimes it’s just a stupid product once we see it working.  Do you remember the scene in Toy Story where Sid has all the cobbled toys under his bed?

We have boxes and boxes in our storage that look like that. (DISCLAIMER: we only blow them up if it’s in the function of the prototype or if Ryan is feeling like using up old bottle rockets.)

Next up: we TEST.  Does it do what we set out for it to do?  Is it interesting?  Is it cool enough to present?  Sometimes, the answer is no.  But if we like it, it’s time to shape it up into presentation form.

Prototyping is one of the more rewarding moments in the process.  Watching a brand new thing emerge from just an idea, seeing it on paper, then holding it in your hands and realizing how cool it is…well, that is just awesome.

The creative person is both more primitive and more cultivated, more destructive, a lot madder and a lot saner, than the average person. ~Frank Barron, Think, November-December 1962

Part 3: Design of the Times or “Hmm, is this worth doing?”

Ok, so far we’ve been creative.  We’ve done some thinking.  We’ve noodled around a bit and now we have come up with an inspired idea. What now?  The next step for us is to determine whether it is valid enough to continue with or not.  The ideas I come up with at 3am may seem incredibly brilliant at the time, but not even fun, interesting, or even manufacturable or realistic once we really begin to flush out the concept.

So, what do we take into consideration when deciding to move forward with an idea?

  1. Who would license this?
  2. What part of a store could this sell into?
  3. Would we buy it?
  4. How much would it cost for a manufacturer and at the store?
  5. What need does it fill?

These are the type of questions that most people don’t think through.  They have an idea, they love it, they want it made.  Period.  I get it!  It’s hard to let go of an idea.  An idea always seems perfect to the person who invented it because the vision for the item is in THEIR head.  There is an emotional attachment to an idea that is hard to break.  I will be the first to admit that I am less than pleased when Ryan shoots down my ideas. It makes me a little um…mad, even if it was terrible.  Well, perhaps I didn’t explain my vision thoroughly enough.  Maybe he just disagrees.  He may know more about that category and what sells than I do.  It may never have been manufacturable. Maybe it’s just a plain stinky idea.  More than once I’ve come up with an idea that would use technology that doesn’t even exist.  If only magic were real…

Yes, I double checked the wall at Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station in London.  I didn't go through.

Just to be sure,  I double checked the wall at Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station in London. I didn’t go through it.  Hrumph.


The answers to the checklist above are much easier to answer with some industry experience.  But making trips to the store, seeking out similar items, noting their prices, and turning over the package to see who makes it is a great start.  These days it doesn’t seem weird to have your phone out taking pictures of store shelves.  In the “olden” days before smartphones, we used to get stopped by a store employee to find out what we were doing (the closest I ever came to being a Bond girl) but these days, you could just be Snapchatting or Instagraming and no one would be the wiser and you go home with valuable reference and a gallon of milk.

Once we have talked about the idea, if we feel that we have a sizable list of companies that the item could work for, if there is an area of the store we think it could fit, if we determine that it would sell for an appropriate cost at the store, if a factory would realistically be able to manufacture it, and if it’s something we feel consumers would like, the next step is to make a prototype.

Which, appropriately enough, is the subject of the next installment of my little series which I have appropriately titled:

Part 4: Prototyping or “Making the Industrial Design degree pay off!”

Happy Summer Solstice and thanks for reading!

Nothing encourages creativity like the chance to fall flat on one’s face. ~James D. Finley


Part 2: Research, “Dang, it’s been done before”, and Patents

It feels as though we have never come up with anything truly, truly original.  What an awful confession coming from an inventor, right?  Sure, we have lots of ideas, but I don’t believe that any of them weren’t influenced by something else we saw or heard somewhere else.  With billions and billions of people in the world today, I’m not sure anyone could say they had an absolutely original idea.  What I am saying is, that your really great idea or my next big money maker has most likely been thought of, possibly patented, or, sorry to say, been made before.

So, the next step in the process is RESEARCH.  It’s time consuming and it’s very important.  We Google everything, check the US Patent Office (USPTO) website, search, check, and then search some more.  The internet is our friend and has made it incredibly easy to search the world for evidence of similar ideas.

The Original Etch-A-Sketch Prototype

The Original Etch-A-Sketch Prototype – a TRUE original!!

So, why do we try if it seems that it’s all been done before?  Well, because it hasn’t, that’s why it’s different.  Even if something is similar, it’s NOT the same and we work on making the iteration different and unique, and therefore, original!  Plus, I need the market research so I can be knowledgable to my client.  I need them to know I have done the research, I know what’s out there, what sold and when, and that I know how and why my idea is totally different than what they have seen.  Inventor Relations people are always more than happy to tell you they’ve seen it before!  I have had to defend our designs often.

Discovering it’s been done before happens to us all the time.  Sometimes we see ideas we have come up with, but not made or sold, being advertised on television.  (That’s a REAL stinger!)  Our kids have asked us more times than I care to remember,  “Hey, Mom, didn’t we come up with that idea too?”   Yep, it’s just part of the job.

It’s very difficult to show ideas to Mattel, Hasbro, Spinmaster and other bigger toy and game companies.  Why?  They get the cream of the crop and even the bottom of the barrel of inventors.  In other words, everyone wants to sell to them and they have seen EVERYTHING.  It took awhile, but my skin has finally thickened a bit and I don’t wince now when they say, “Sorry, we have already seen that before…several times.”  The worst was when we were told in a meeting, “I literally saw this same thing from the inventor that came in right before you.”  AAAAARRRRRHHHH!  My piece of advice?  Don’t be an inventor if rejection is a problem for you.  We keep on keepin’ on at Gigglicious because it may not be right for them, but it may be THE perfect item for another company.  (But, honestly, I don’t think it ever becomes easy to hear no…)

Then there is the subject of patents.  We get asked about them a lot.  Do we have them?  Do you patent every idea?  Yes, Ryan has several in his name from previous companies.  Gigglicious does not.  Patenting is expensive and, in our experience, the way toys trend in the marketplace makes it prohibitive.  Trends move too fast and patenting is a long process.  In other words, by the time we would get issued a patent, the toy universe has moved on to something new.  Some inventors patent lots of items, then have the pressure to sell to at least recoup the money they spent getting the patent issued.  That is not to say that we won’t ever choose to patent something we feel would warrant it, but patenting is not in our business model for things we are working on now.

So, if you have an an idea, you’ve done the research to see if it exists already and it doesn’t (don’t stop looking!), then find yourself a patent attorney and get the ball rolling to discuss IP, provisional patents and what is involved with that process.  A patent attorney will be your biggest ally in getting it all done correctly.

“True originality consists not in a new manner, but in a new vision.”  Edith Wharton

“All my best thoughts were stolen by the ancients.”   Ralph Waldo Emerson 

Part 1: The Creative Process and all the Einsteins out there in the Universe

It’s a big world out there with ideas swirling around like crazy.  Just take one trip to a big box store and see the expanding garden hoses and you’ll get what I mean.    Who knew that was a good idea and would sell like hotcakes?!  (That’s not really an endorsement, I’ve never used one, but the commercials are CONVINCING!)  There are lots and lots of Einsteins in the Universe.  The difference is that an inventor stops to make the good idea and tries to figure out how to get it to the public so they can share in the good idea with them! (and tries to make a few bucks in the process…)

When someone finds out we invent for a living, a very popular response is, “Oh, I have an idea for something that everyone will use” or “I come up with ideas for stuff all the time, but I don’t know what to do with it.”  Yep, we all do it.  Something just occurs to you: “I wish that I had a FILL IN THE BLANK to help me FILL IN THE BLANK.”  That’s what makes good ideas.  It just happens that our FILL IN THE BLANK is to help kids and adults BE HAPPY AND HAVE FUN TOGETHER.

Pardon the cliche, but we kinda think ideas are a dime a dozen.  Most aren’t good and few are really, really exceptional.  We have all kinds of ideas all the time and at Gigglicious, but we never hang on just one.  Some inventors do. They come up with one idea and schlep it around to toy companies for years.  That isn’t our business model.  Our logic is that if one didn’t work, we can come up with another one.  We keep the old idea in the arsenal and bring it back out if we see a fit with someone or have something to add on to it.

But, maybe you are curious about HOW we come up with the ideas for toys, games, and novelties?  Inspiration is everywhere and we simply try to stay conscious about keeping an eye out for it.  That’s the secret.  We aren’t geniuses, we just think about toys, games, and mechanisms ALL the time.

Albert-EinsteinInspiration can be found in a trip to the toy section, surfing the internet, our own kids playing a made up game together, a magazine article, a conversation, a vacation, and even a trip to the home improvement store.  Sometimes we sit down and consciously noodle about a particular niche we want to fill for a specific company.  Often, for the measly cost of a Chinese dinner, our kids will sit and draw and think with us.  (Turns out it’s a small cost because they are good at designing!)

I couldn’t sleep the other night, so to fill the time, I figured I’d start ideating.  I generally start by imagining a that I own a toy store.  What toys would I want to see on the shelves?  That gets my brain running.  I came up with four reasonable ideas and another handful of ideas that seemed revolutionary at the time, but not so magical once the sun came up.  (Everything you think of at 3 am always seems to be a stroke of genius, right?)

Inspiration doesn’t always come when you want it to and mostly does when you aren’t paying close attention.  So, we just work to be conscious of the thoughts in the back of our heads.  No magic formula for coming up with ideas, just patience and putting in the time to think and imagine.

So, we came up with an idea!  What’s next?  Stay tuned for Part II!

If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.  ~Albert Einstein

Ideas are like wandering sons.  They show up when you least expect them.  ~Bern Williams