December's spark of genius article
Toying with Success
'Tis the season, and the competition for our business has already begun. Over the next few weeks, many of us will find ourselves in the toy aisles, purchasing games and fun things for the youngsters in our lives. Perhaps, during your shopping travels-or travails-you will notice a familiar fuzzy face: the Furby. Yes, that little creature that became wildly popular more than 10 years ago by spinning and whirling and chattering is making a comeback. Whether you loved it or hated it in its past life, you'll probably meet the reincarnation of the Furby at some point this holiday season.
Inventors Eye recently caught up with Richard C. Levy, a co-inventor listed on one of the design patents (U.S. patent number D423611) for the Furby and long-time independent inventor. According to Richard, manufacturer Hasbro has brilliantly brought the Furby's technology and design into the 21st century, making it more interactive and engaging.
"How you treat Furby will actually shape its personality," said Richard. It will also feature LCD eyes that offer 430 different animations. It speaks 814 distinct phrases. "And, of course, Furby speaks Furbish," Richard added. First introduced in 1998, Furby is now in tune with the smartphone generation, featuring an free app that will, in part, translate Furbish to English.
But how did Furby get so popular in the first place? In 1996, the virtual pet craze was sweeping Japan. Seeing the popularity of egg-sized gizmos with LCD screens that played out the lives of various digital animals, independent inventor David Hampton had an inspiration for the next generation of this toy genre: a three-dimensional robotic friend that would respond, learn, sing, and play games and move while displaying rudimentary artificial intelligence.
As the idea came together, David enlisted the assistance of designer Caleb Chung. After two unsuccessful attempts at licensing the concept, they invited Richard, a fellow toy inventor, to join them. During the summer of 1997, Richard began his marketing initiative, and soon after they struck a deal with Tiger Electronics, which was then acquired by Hasbro. Hasbro provided the small team with a group of designers, engineers, and state-of-the-art-equipment.
On October 2, 1998, at FAO Schwarz in New York City, Furby went on sale to the public. Within one week FAO had backorders of 35,000 Furbys. The rest is history.
In 1999, Richard keynoted a USPTO Independent Inventors Conference. He was and still is a marketing wiz with a flair for invention and innovation, and he has a keen sense of timing for products and pop culture. He is president of Richard C. Levy & Associates, a product development and licensing company that specializes in the collaborative invention of toys, games, pet products, and housewares. During the past 35 years, he has licensed over 125 concepts, including Furby, which has sold more than 40 million units in 52 countries. He is author of 12 books, including The Toy and Game Inventors Handbook, a seminal text in the industry and which is soon to be released in a new, updated edition. His licensees range from Hasbro and Mattel to General Foods and Proctor & Gamble.
Some of Richard's future endeavors include a camera accessory, a cutting tool, a toy for the pool, and a new piece of barware, all of which he expects to have licensed early in 2013.
But toys and games are Richard's first love. Even so, he said the industry is extremely competitive. "It is a fashion industry where you can never get caught with your trends down. It is the greatest show on Earth, a high-wire act without a safety net in which manufacturers walk a financial tightrope that stretches from Christmas to Christmas."
Every year thousands of concepts are presented to manufacturers. Hasbro and Mattel alone each see more than 2,500 licensing opportunities on an annual basis, and while the toy market can be lucrative for inventors, the number of companies marketing playthings is declining. Mergers have consolidated former competitors into larger corporate entities. Bankruptcies have stripped many brand names from retail shelves. And like in any business, companies that do not keep up with technology are often left in the digital dust.
Richard said it is a mistake to think you can do it all yourself. "My success continues to be the result of unselfish, highly talented, and creative partners willing to face the frustrations, rejections, and seemingly open-ended timeframes characteristic of any product development and licensing exercise," he said. "I have also been fortunate to meet and work with inspired, understanding, and courageous executives willing to believe in me and gamble on our concepts. It is teamwork."
Richard added that "one of an inventor's greatest downfalls is inventing in a vacuum and not in the marketplace. Know your market backward and forward."
Richard had a few last succinct points he thinks are important for all inventors to keep in mind:
- Trust yourself and your instincts; they are anchors in a storm.
- Don't be afraid to make mistakes.
- Don't be greedy. Pigs get fat: hogs get slaughtered.
- Hire a great patent attorney.
- Business is about relationships, not transactions.
When asked if the toy industry was attractive to him because it allowed him to remain a kid at heart, Richard said, "One of my sayings is, 'Never give up, never grow up.'" If Richard Levy's success is any indication, that is perhaps something we could all live by.