Pound Puppies creator Mike Bowling tells Billy Langsworthy how, after being turned down 14 times, his creation became a toy icon.
Where did the idea for Pound Puppies come from?
In December 1983, I was in Ohio working in a factory and I bought my daughter a doll for Christmas. She took it everywhere with her and got really emotionally attached to it. I wondered how an inanimate object could have that much of an emotional effect.
I thought if there is two things people love on the Earth passionately, it’s their kids and their pets and some people treat their pets as if they’re their kids. When I was growing up, if you were poor and wanted a pet, where did you go? The pound. So I thought Pound Puppies sounded cute and it would allow kids to go and pick out the one they want and they could rescue it and name it.
When I got the idea, I thought it would be great to sell my idea to a toy company and be successful so I met an IP lawyer first and told him about Pound Puppies and he told me that you couldn’t own an idea, but you could own patents, trademarks and copyrights. That was the turning point for me. Patents, trademarks and copyrights give you something of value so when you show it to a toy company, the only way they can use it is if they license it or buy it. Then I had to go about creating it.
I didn’t know how to sew. I didn’t know how to make boxes. And the reason a lot of things don’t get invented is that people think they don’t know how to do something and so they don’t do it. But you can go out and hire people that know how to do all those different things to create the prototype. That’s how I went about it. I got someone to sew a pattern for me based on the design of a dog I wanted. I got someone to design the box for me. The lawyer was filing my trademarks and copyrights.
The greatest ideas on Earth will never be invented. People have great ideas but don’t know what to do with it so they never invent it. They don’t pursue it and find a way to make it happen. You need to be motivated to go out and pursue the idea. Finding ways to make it happen is the key,
I then hired a consultant specialising in the toy industry because I knew nothing about the toy industry. I got great advice from him and he got me appointments with toy companies so we went in and presented it. I got turned down 14 times.
One guy told me that it was the ugliest thing he’d ever seen in his life. But I got up and went onto the next meeting until I found someone. I licensed it to Tonka because Tonka was looking to expand into other toy categories and it took off like a rocket.
Pound Puppies was the number one toy around the world. Top in Canada in 1984, top in the US in 1985 and then number one in the world in 1986 and 1987.
We were sold in 52 countries around the world and had a cartoon show produced by Hanna-Barbera and a movie by Carolco Pictures. We sold over $1bn at retail worldwide, selling over 200 million Pound Puppies. I was living the American dream. We relaunched it in a new form in 1996 as mini-collectables and play-sets and that was huge too.
Five years ago, I decided I was going to retire and so I sold the brand to Hasbro, a company I love. 30 days after I sold it to Hasbro I thought, what am I going to do now?
One day, 30 years after Pound Puppies where I’m grey and balding now, I was walking on the beach with my granddaughter and I picked up a sea shell and said to her ‘put it up to your ear, you can hear the ocean’. She asked me what lives inside sea shells and I said ‘mermaids do.’ She said they were too big to live in shells and so I said ‘no, that’s a myth. They’re actually tiny.’ I thought that wasn’t a bad idea for a toy range for kids. That’s how the idea for my latest creation, Splashlings, came about.
Why choose TPF Toys for Splashlings?
TPF Toys are phenomenal to work with. TPF Toys is a young entrepreneurial start up company that will take an idea and go with it. In this industry, you can get a hit and within a year you’ll be the number one toy doing $200m in sales if you get the right one.
We also have deal with Shaftesbury Entertainment in Toronto for animation. It launched alongside our toy line and we have six two-minute webisodes boasting a strong backstory for little girls.
I believe you should create product for little girls, but rather than dumbing it down for them, you should take it in the opposite direction. A four year old girl can get into a really cool engaging story. They don’t need baby stuff.
It landed in our exclusive retail partner Toys R Us in January and it’s selling through everywhere. We haven’t even got into advertising yet. Things are going phenomenally. I’m pinching myself again 30 years later.
Was it easier to launch Splashlings having been the creator of Pound Puppies? Did that open more doors?
It’s easier in that I knew going in what I needed to do. At this point, I know all the best designers and all the best sculptors. The most difficult thing in the US market these days is that 80 per cent of the toys are sold through Wal-Mart and Target. If you’re not in with one of them, it’s very hard to get a toy to market.
Back in the Eighties when Pound Puppies came out, US Toy Fair was two weeks long, you’d have 500 buyers come through from chains both big and little and you only had three TV networks: ABC, NBC and CBC. If you ran a commercial, it got to 90 per cent of the kids.
Nowadays that doesn’t work. It’s all about social media, YouTube and all the different channels. So the two biggest changes since Pound Puppies is the retail market and the way to advertise to kids.
What advice would you give someone who has an idea for a toy or game but isn’t sure on how to develop it into a real product?
Find a good IP attorney. You can’t own an idea but you can own trademarks, copyrights and patents. Once you own those, then you have something of value. So go and see an IP attorney and find out what you have. I’ve had several ideas that my attorney has said ‘Mike, it’s already been patented.’ That saved me tonnes of time developing that idea.