Spin Master's Ben Dermer on the importance of "well-researched, well-considered and well prototyped ideas"

Billy Langsworthy

By Billy Langsworthy

January 29th 2015 at 12:30PM
UPDATED January 29th 2015 at 2:15PM
Spin Master's Ben Dermer on the importance of

"It’s not the inventor’s job to finish every product. It’s the inventor’s job to keep creating," says Spin Master's director of inventor acquisitions.

 How open is Spin Master to inventors new to the toy industry?

We’re pretty democratic. We keep the doors open to anyone that wants to present to us. I think it’s safe to say that we see more inventors that anyone else in the world. We’re a full line company, so we do everything from pre-school to flying toys, and we’re open so you don’t necessarily need an agent. This makes for a lot of submissions throughout the year.

I’m always very encouraging of people to come see us but I am also encouraging of people to do some work before they come to us. I respect when someone takes a professional approach to it and brings along something of value. But if someone’s got something interesting, we’re more than happy to see it and flattered that they’ve thought of us.

Can you give me an example of a toy you’ve launched that’s gone via this route?

There’s a game that we’ve just licensed that was developed by a teacher in Toronto. It’s a very simple, elegant game. It’s a drawing game and she had developed it for her pre-school class and they played it. A friend of hers knew someone at Spin Master and put us in touch. When a schoolteacher comes along with a very simple game, you’re not sure what you’re going to get, but we ended up licensing it. It was kind of a rags to riches story.

Is it rare that a toy hits the shelves in the same basic form as when it was first pitched to you?

It depends. There’s such a wide gambit. For us, it tends to be close to what the inventor first brought to the table. There’s the case where someone comes to us with a vague undeveloped idea, like a drawing, and that can be the spark that sends us off into a new direction.

Then there are inventors that not only present an idea but also are then in charge of all the development. On Zoomer and Boomer, those two inventors are involved every step of the way up to final production. They do all the code work.

When licensing gets involved, do you pair up inventors with popular IP or do inventors often come to you with an idea for a licensed toy?

If it’s a major licence that we’re working on, we’ll make people aware that we’re looking for product on it. Say we’re doing Monsters Inc and we need a Sulley that’s $50 to $70 with a scaring feature. Sometimes people will come to us with a product designed specifically for Sulley, other times they will have a really cool mechanism that we think would suit the brand.

Our Paw Patrol figures came from Robert Schwartzman and his partner, inventors who really liked Paw Patrol. They brought it in and said we love Paw Patrol, here’s a Paw Patrol item for you. Our Paw Patrol plush has the same story.

Do you meet with inventors from all over the world?

The biggest areas are the US, the UK, Japan and Israel, but we see inventors from all over. In this day and age you can send a product from anywhere. We’ve taken stuff from inventors in Hong Kong, Holland, Germany, South Africa, so we’re very open.

Our life is very simple; we’re just looking for cool stuff. Ideally we want to work with cool people who are fun, laid back and enjoy the process.

What advice would give to someone with an idea for a toy and game?

It’s tough because the last thing I want to do is to tell someone to invest a fortune into a bad idea. If you really believe in it, I suggest research. There are a lot of factors that go into making a toy successful and it’s best to try and familiarise yourself with some of that. Things like, is it appropriately priced? Does it fall into a known category? Is it appropriate for a certain age demographic? Do your best to make sure it really is a good idea.

If you really do believe in it, the key is taking it far enough along that you can convince someone else that it’s a good idea.

It’s hard because someone could bring in a concept that is poorly developed and someone could bring in the exact same concept, just really well developed. It will make a difference.

I give this example. If someone said to me, “I want to make a robotic chicken,” I’d probably say that’s not a very good idea. I wouldn’t recommend someone build it. But if someone came to me with a really cool robotic chicken, I’d probably be really impressed by it.

It doesn’t matter how easy something is to build, how simple it is or how good your 3D rendering of it is, there is an emotional thing to seeing something physical. It’s like Star Wars, you know when you’re watching something physical to something made from special effects. I’m in favour of building. Build the thing and get it out there.

We’re quite a large company so to take on a truly new product, we’re looking to sell $10 to $40 million of that something. That doesn’t come from not working hard. Typically the stuff we put out comes from someone that has invested a lot of time and energy to creating something very special. That’s what warrants the payoff of the royalty.

I’m a believer of well-researched, well-considered, well prototyped stuff.

Do you encourage collaboration between the inventors you work with?

Yes, many times. How to handle that is a personal, ethical and complicated situation. Sometimes you’ll see something from one person and then another person shows you the same thing and you feel there’s a conflict where you don’t want to muddy the waters.

Sometimes when that happens, they might complement each other. One will have X, the other will have Y. In that situation, why compete against each other? It makes perfect market sense to work together.

How do you assess the current state of the toy inventor community?

Toy inventors are the coolest guys in the toy industry and are the most fun to work with. It’s a community of comradery. I count a lot of these guys as my best friends.

Being a toy inventor is never an easy job. There may be a perception that it used to be easier than what it is today, and certainly in the past there were more companies and more retailers. The industry had more options and more competition and that allowed products to get further without as much work.

The world gets harder and now there is a greater burden on inventors to do more development work and see things through further than there was in the past. So it’s definitely gotten harder, and there are fewer inventors than there used to be. All the pressures we feel in the toy industry are eventually felt by the inventor too.

That said, innovation keeps rolling along and every year I’m delighted to be signing great products. To be a toy inventor, there’s a lot of luck involved, there’s a lot of ingenuity and creativity involved too.

Someone can come up with a crazy idea, draw it on a napkin, and make $1 million. It can happen. But most of the hard work is done by people who have a shared skill set of marketing, engineering, product development, model making, mechanism building, electronics programming etc. There are lottery ticket guys out there, but my focus is usually on the guys who are pretty serious about this.

My focus is also on the guys who generate multiple ideas each year and invest in each idea. They may not finish them, but it’s not the inventor’s job to finish every product. It’s the inventor’s job to keep creating.

How can an inventor get in touch with Spin Master?

We have a website that helps guide people through the submissions process (http://www.spinmaster.com/inventors-inquiry.php). We’re always open and we’re at all the toy fairs but it’s good to get in touch with us in advance.