Inventors Workshop: Finding the next big toys and games

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70 budding toy and game entrepreneurs. A room full of heavy-hitters from the toy manufacturing and retail trades. A Radio 1 DJ. And one parenting blogger. Welcome to the Inventors Workshop.

Have you ever had an idea for a new game or toy but not followed through on it because you didn’t know where to start or thought it would be too difficult?

I went along to the third annual Inventors Workshop at Whittlebury Hall in Northamptonshire yesterday, having recently interviewed three parents-turned-toy-entrepreneurs for the Meet the Parents podcast. (Click on the links to listen to my conversations with Skinny Sketcher’s Gillian Logan, A Girl For All Time’s Frances Cain and Bananagrams’ Rena Nathanson.) During those interviews, I had learned how the big toy companies are increasingly looking to small start-ups for new ideas – and how parents often have a uniquely insightful perspective into identifying gaps in the market for kids’ toys.

(l tor): BBC Radio 1's Matt Edmondson (Obama Llama), Karen Kilpatrick (JazWings), Xu Xiaojun (Studio Gobo), Frances Cain (A Girl For All Time)

It’s more than just rhetoric. It’s a reality. The independent sector is thriving and it’s now possible to raise financial backing in more ways than ever before.

Gone are the days of games being created only by committees of childless executives in billion dollar corporations. (I’m not sure those days actually ever existed but my knowledge of the toy trade is pretty much limited to watching the Tom Hanks movie Big, so bear with me.) Nowadays there are a growing number of small, agile companies who can carve out a niche and co-exist successfully with Hasbro and Mattel. And funding can be crowd-sourced through mechanisms such as Kickstarter which simply did not exist even ten years ago.

And that’s why there are events such as the Inventors Workshop. It is a place where budding toy entrepreneurs can network and pitch to manufacturers and retailers to get genuine feedback on whether their ideas are ready for market or need additional development. They can also sharpen up their knowledge through conference sessions and how-to clinics covering everything from manufacturing and licensing to pitching and PR.

Hasbro’s Director of Global Toy Acquisitions Rich Mazel talked about how the toy giant’s annual investment in ideas and inventors from outside the company has increased from $100m to $350m in just a few years. This included bringing on board Ciaran Larkin, a Belfast designer who specialised in making his own movie-inspired products – such as Iron Man’s arc reactor, which he made using soup tins. Larkin pitched successfully at last year’s event and is now working directly with Hasbro on a number of projects – a glowing success story.

Gillian Logan is another example. Her Skinny Sketcher step-by-step drawing kits were developed off the back of her pitch at the 2014 workshop. So past history would suggest that (at least) one of the 70 or so inventors who pitched their ideas this year will end up delivering a commercial, potentially life-changing product to market.

The morning’s conference sessions covered a variety of practical and inspirational topics, from intellectual property protection and the benefits of crowdfunding to harnessing creativity through structured daydreaming and the development of technology that will allow future toys to provide personalised emotional responses to children. (Or, failing that, lead to the creation of Skynet …)

We concluded with a roundtable of panellists – including Radio 1 DJ Matt Edmondson, who launched his rhyming word game Obama Llama last year and already has a second game in development – sharing their stories of how they took their first tentative steps in the toy trade and showing that it can be done, even if you don’t have your own national radio show!

The one key message that shone through from all the sessions and the chats I had with both successful inventors and toy company representatives during the day is that no one ever starts out with all the answers but that with persistence and determination those obstacles are not insurmountable. Keep pushing, keep knocking on doors and make the most of every connection and conversation you have. You may know nothing about manufacturing processes or trademark protection but there are people there who will help you if you can convince them you have a good idea. As Rich Mazel said, “Make your own luck. The best thing you can do is to just show up.”

So if you have an idea for a game but don’t have all the answers yet, know at least that it’s not an impossible task. Toy companies are always looking for the next big idea and they are willing to look beyond their own four walls to find it. But, as with so many things in life, if you don’t show up, you’ll never know what might be possible – and the Inventors Workshop might be just the kick-start you need. So if you think you have what it takes to create the next Bananagrams, get yourself to next year’s event (date TBC).

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You can find out more about the Inventors Workshop on their website www.inventorsworkshopevent.com.

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