A year ago, toy developer Scott Baumann had his “baby,” an illustrated poster of his latest creation, delivered to the doorsteps of Fat Brain Toys' headquarters in the Elkhorn area.
“This actually showed up at our front door,” said product developer Erik Quam, pointing to a well-thumbed display board depicting a building toy with pieces that snap together with suction cups to form everything from people to space ships.
Now Fat Brain is hurrying to have the new toy, which it calls Squigz, “fun little suckers,” ready for a February debut at the International Toy Fair in New York City. Squigz should be available to consumers in the spring, said Quam, the retailer's product development director.
Baumann, the Seattle-area designer who invented Squigz, couldn't be more excited.
“Nothing on that poster board existed — everything was theoretical,” Baumann said in a phone interview. “To see it come to life is super exciting.”
Fat Brain Toys not only sells toys, but also creates them. About 45 of the 7,000 toys and games the online toy seller offers are its own creations or those of independent toy inventors it has partnered with; since 2008, the company has developed about 10 toys a year.
To boost its toy design division, Fat Brain has hired toy developers and graphic artists and created a bright blue and yellow playroom inside its headquarters. There, adults and often “kid testers” can be found hard at work playing with a variety of toys destined to wear the Fat Brain Toy Co. label.
Husband and wife Mark and Karen Carson founded Fat Brain Toys in 2002 after they couldn't find appropriate toys for their three children.
“I was feeling icky about what I was buying for my kids, a bunch of cheap plastic stuff that was going to end up in the trash, said Mark Carson, the company's chief executive.
The couple finally stumbled on a magnetic building toy called Geomag that they and their 10-year-old son Adam enjoyed. When Adam found it difficult to find additional Geomag sets, he suggested his father sell them online. Carson, an IT developer, “threw together a quick little website and started taking orders.”
The couple packed orders in the evenings, giving the UPS driver their garage door code so he could make his pickups and deliveries. “My wife and I were working full time,” Carson said.
Focusing on building and educational toys proved successful. Karen and then Mark quit their 'day' jobs.
In 2006, the company launched a toy development division, Fat Brain Toy Co., after Mark Carson tried his hand at toy design. His sketches would become Dado Cubes, an award-winning construction toy.
Fat Brain Toy hired Quam and others in 2009 to take promising toys from prototype to production. Quam, who learned his trade at another toy company, credits his four daughters, ages 8 weeks to 8 years, with providing him with his continuing education.
“It helps being a dad. I sit and watch my girls play — I listen to their conversations, the crazy names they give themselves or the toys as they play. We forget as adults how to play,” he said.
Not every toy that wears the Fat Brain Toy label starts out as a display board left at the company's front door; some such as Dado Cubes and Dado Planks are the brainchild of Mark Carson; others have been discovered at the International Toy Fair. Still others are the inventions of toy designers, including Holocaust survivor Ivan Moscovich, creator of Craniatics, a magnetic brain teaser, and Fold, a set of origami-based puzzles.
Fat Brain has also begun reaching out to customers on its website in its continuing quest to offer fun, stimulating toys: “Do you have a great idea? Send it to us.”
Each year, the company adds about 2,500 products to its inventory of 7,000 items and gets rid of 2,000, Karen Carson said.
Putting a new toy on the shelf can take anywhere from a few months to two years or more. And despite the firm's best efforts, not every toy is a winner, Mark Carson said. “We've had some bombs,” Carson said with a laugh. “Some we thought would be huge hits and they clearly missed. One was my own design.”
Transforming Squigz from a two-dimensional drawing into a real life toy was a multistep process, Quam said. One of the first steps? Finding a silicone rubber company that could manufacture the pieces, which resemble chessmen, to the company's specifications and for a reasonable price.
“We wanted high quality. You're putting a plaything into the hands of a child. It can't be too sticky or too easy to pull apart,” said Quam, running his index finger over the suction cup's surface. “The smoother it is, the better it sticks.”
Aesthetics, a toy's look and feel, are also a concern. “We want to make toys that are beautiful to a parent and a child. Our toys shouldn't have to be put away when company comes over,” said Quam, who keeps Tobbles, one of Fat Brain's original award-winning creations, on his fireplace mantel because, he said, the colorful, nested spheres are “a beautiful toy.”
Packaging is also critical, said graphic designer Kevin Mathis, who is responsible for creating the logo and packaging for Squigz. Seeking inspiration, Mathis said he has wandered the aisles of grocery stores, hardware stores and other retailers in search of shapes, typography or illustrations.
Eventually, a laundry detergent bottle caught his eye, becoming the inspiration for the package.
Mathis then produced a score of computer drawings and then a plastic and paper mockup. “I'm very old school. I do a lot of cutting and taping.”
Now the challenge, Quam said, is rolling the toy out at the right price.
“We're striving for a top quality product — consumers want quality,” Mark Carson said. “But it's got to be at a price that people would buy as a gift. We have to strike a balance, the best quality at a reasonable price.”
Baumann is looking forward to seeing his creation come to life. Although he has conferred almost weekly with the team at Fat Brain, he has not yet seen the final product. He is confident, however, that he sold his idea to the right company. Licensing Squigz to Fat Brain was a no-brainer, he said.
“We could have taken it to somebody bigger, but we went with them because we knew they would give it the attention it deserved,” Baumann said. “We felt this toy had some longevity, and Fat Brain sells quality toys.”
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