My thanks to Tony Ellis (Conceptioneering) a successful toy inventor for taking some time to answer some questions about being a toy inventor. Tony has background in engineering, having worked previously in avionics, security, car and truck alarms, biometrics and early GPS systems. In the late nineties for a hobby he developed a sophisticated pet like robot, a visitor saw it and insisted he show it to a toy company he knew. Although a deal was about to be made, it fell through last minute, but the CEO of that company has since gone on to license several of Tony’s toy inventions.
Tara: Please could you tell me a little bit about where you are based, your background, and when and how you first started inventing toys?
Tony: Who are we? – Conceptioneering is a unique product development and invention house in East Sussex. Our primary goal is to conceive, develop and license innovative concepts and technology. We are dedicated to the continual growth of our successful business, which is now recognised for its creative excellence, and the value of its intellectual property. We specialise in bringing leading edge technology into the toy, game and gift sectors. We have a particular understanding of product development and brand creation, and have already created a number of successful brands.
Tara: Please could you share a few of of your favourite toy inventions which you have created and how the ideas came about?
Tony: My favourite invention is Radica/Mattel ‘Cube World’ which is actually one of our most successful items to date. It was launched in the UK in late 2005 and enjoyed huge success in the US and Japan, as well as many other markets – from Mexico to Australia. Cube World Series 5 (the last series) was launched in 2008, and there is also Cube World ‘Places’ – a bigger cube in two versions, ‘Block Bash’ and ‘Global Getaway’, in which our stickmen can do things like attend concerts or go on holiday – these were introduced in late 2007.
Tara: How do you generally get inspiration for new toy ideas, do toy companies tell you what they are looking for, or are the ideas self driven by yourself and your company?
Tony: We are fortunate to get “wish lists” from most of the major toy companies. Our team also has regular brainstorming sessions where we discuss all new concepts. We use a funnel method to determine what concepts go through and this also helps us prioritise development projects.
Tara: Once you have a new toy idea what is the next step? Do you produce drawings or create prototypes? Where do you go from this point?
Tony: We just build it, then present it to the toy Companies that we feel it fits best.
Tara: Do you do any sort of market research or get children involved to see what they think to your ideas?
Tony: None at all, it’s all “gut feeling” and intuition, an inventor needs to understand the toy industry and the Companies that they are dealing with. As a starting point, it’s always good to take a look at the manufacturers current product lines, as this usually helps to try to find concepts that may have a better chance of that particular manufacturer taking. Another thing I would recommend is to always try to come up with innovative concepts – these days you’ve got to stand out.
Tara: How important is it to get protection for your toy ideas, do you generally file for patents at an early stage?
Tony: Patents are hugely expensive, our patent agent charges £200 per hour! We have done a few, but we generally use NDA’s and only deal with Companies that we know and trust (we have had 4 big rip-offs so far – see Chronicles of a Toy Inventor.) Once we go to deal with a manufacturer, very often they apply for the patent and pay for it.
Tara: How long does it generally take from your initial idea to the toy getting to market?
Tony: Generally around 18 months to 2 years as the concepts usually have to be fully designed and tooled up.
Tara: What is the best way for novice inventors to approach a potential toy company to show them their ideas?
Tony: This is a tough one, an inventor will not get in front of many toy Companies without an agent (especially true in the US) and I have never been very impressed with agents that more often than not want 50%-60% of all money made. This is why we did it on our own, and managed to break into the US market without an agent (which is very rare). My strategy here was to get the first concepts into inventor friendly Companies in the UK, then after a few successful products (and a good portfolio), the other Companies started to take an interest in us. We have now presented to most of the major toy Companies in the World.
Tara: What would a toy company want to see from an inventor, would a sell sheet be sufficient or would a fully working prototype be needed?
Tony: Ten years ago, you may have got a concept placed with some good visuals, but I think those days are long gone! Most manufacturers wants to see a “proof of concept” and have a good idea of what the products prime cost will be.
Tony: Companies just want to see proof of concept, so mostly the look does not matter they just need to see it work. On my team I now have a brilliant model maker, but in the old days I just used anything I could to build the prototype. For instance some of my Simpsons prototypes used existing toy figures etc.
Tara: Did you learn anything licensing your first toy that changed the way you worked on subsequent ideas?
Tony: Yes, our licensing agreement has evolved over the years as we discovered flaws in our early agreements.
Tara: What advice would you give any aspiring toy inventor with an idea?
Tony: Make a working prototype. There are bound to be lots of knocks/rejections along the way, but try to hang in there. I could have given up lots of times in the early days, but every knock just made me more determined to succeed!
Tara: Are there any new toys you have recently licensed that you can share?
Tony: The toy industry is one of the most secretive industries there are! What I can say is that we have just placed 2 science/discovery products to a brand new Client. Also we have recently completely re-designed a (massively successful) early nineteen eighties iconic toy that will be launched in 2012.
Tara: What are your future hopes and aspirations for your toy inventing company www.conceptioneering.co.uk
Tony: We just signed off our 50th license agreement in 9 years, I hope Conceptioneering continues to be successful. I have just formed another Company AMI (Appied Machine Intelligence) where we hope to produce and sell the first useful Personal Robots to the general public www.appliedmachineintelligence.co.uk
Tara: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Tony: Yes, I’d like now to explain how we pitch our ideas as this may be of help to budding inventors.
When we develop new ideas/concepts, we then try to sell them into the toy companies in what amounts to a ‘Dragons Den’ type situation – in fact the similarities with the show is quite accurate. The pitch is everything. Over the years I have done many (many) pitches, and still today get nervous, even with people that I have pitched to before a dozen times or more. Thankfully, my enthusiasm wins over my nerves – in my opinion there is nothing better than an inventors passion for what they believe in.
In the early days we were working blind – wondering if manufacturers would like our new concepts. We would pitch in hotel rooms in New York (during Toy Fairs) in a room with up to 10-15 people at a time, who would sit there blankly as we’d present them with our latest ideas.
These days we are working slightly less in the dark, as we have got to know toy companies better and have an understanding on what type of toys they are looking for and, as metioned previously in some cases, companies will give us a ‘wish list’ to work with. We always build a prototype and now mostly produce ‘proof of concept’ videos which we can send to our overseas clients to obtain an initial interest level – if the companies like what they see, then it’s worth jumping on a plane.
So many times we have seen inventors put everything on the line for their one invention, only for it never to go anywhere. We ourselves have had concepts that we believed to be ‘no brainers’ and perfect fits for some companies, but still couldn’t get them placed. I believe that the biggest lesson for any inventor though is to know when to move on to the next project. What we do is not give up on the earlier concepts, but place them on the ‘back-burner’ and revisit them every so often – we have actually gone on to eventually place ‘older’ concepts with this strategy
You can read more about Tony’s early days as a toy inventor here
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