US firm ThinkFun has been championing thinking games way before STEM became a buzzword in the toy space, and the company's products have been a hit in the UK through Coiledspring and Paul Lamond. Billy Langsworthy talks to ThinkFun co-founders Bill Ritchie and Andrea Barthello about why the kids of today are set to save the world.
How did ThinkFun come about?
Bill Ritchie: My father was a Bell Labs engineer. Bell Labs invented the transistor and other iconic creations, and my dad was involved in early electronic switching circuits. William Kiester, who was my dad’s best friend, would make mechanical puzzles as a hobby and give them to people to illustrate what he did at work.
As a kid, my mum would make sure I got the best brainteaser puzzles and science toys around. I was good at puzzles and I had some of Kiester’s creations. I kept them as desk ornaments. When Andrea and I got married, we were in the real estate industry and Andrea said to me ‘we’ve got to get out of this’. I agreed and one day she said ‘let’s make a business out of making those puzzles’. That’s where it started.
Because of my background, I’ve always been really good at speaking to brainiacs, the IQ geniuses, although I don’t consider myself one of them. Really smart people are able to come up with simple metaphors for big concepts and so we wanted to take big ideas and translate them into toys for kids.
Andrea Barthello: It’s like being a translator.
BR: Our first puzzle ever was called the Hexadecimal Puzzle. The tagline was ‘an advanced mathematical puzzle with 16 variations’. In 1985, it didn’t sell.
We kept the mission statement but we figured out what’s fun and now we’re the world’s leader in fun thinking games. Now the world is turning to STEM and coding, so these ideas that we’ve had forever are coming into vogue.
AB: We’re a 31 year old overnight success. In the Eighties, we had Spin-Out which was all about teaching kids binary code.
BR: We’ve had a vision for what we want to accomplish and ten years ago, there were things we wanted to do but the time wasn’t right. With the market opening up, we’re able to start acting on things we wanted to do, like our Balance Beans game. An inventor pitched me that eight years ago as an incredibly complicated balancing game that taught kids how irrational numbers work.
It was dry as a bone, but for eight years I’ve been thinking about how we could do it. We simplified it and it’s launching soon.
The big thing I’m working on now is a math game that was invented by our son 15 years ago. It’s a simple, but profound dice game. We’re combining the physical game with an online component and I think it’ll lead us into a whole bunch of new digital ideas.
Our sales team is also starting to pull things out of our archives, so we’re not just chasing trends. A major firm came to us at the Toy of the Year Awards in New York earlier this year and said ‘it’s about time we started working together,’ but it’s worrying as that could take us off mission. There is peril that comes with being independent, but it’s also a major benefit.
Why has it taken this long for the industry to start getting excited about STEM toys?
BR: If you go back 20 years, the idea of an educational toy meant a toy that was no fun. The Generation Z kids who are becoming teenagers now are the generation that is going to save the world. They’re independent, they’re entrepreneurial they’re outgoing and they like this stuff.
There was a period when screens were coming in and kids were addicted to screens and parents were freaking out. Well, screen-based stuff also brought things like Minecraft, which is great for problem solving. Kids now are much more sophisticated. They can do stuff on screens that allow them to see the world more.
How key is the UK market to you?
BR: England was one of the first international launch pads for us and the UK is full of creative thinkers. We’re in 60 countries now and we want to bring these games to children all around the world.
AB: Coding is on the curriculum in the UK, so you guys are well ahead of us in the US in that respect. We have a coding game, Code Master, and whether you want to be a coder or not, the thought process can be translated into everything. And to have coding games that aren’t screen based is important to us, as we believe in the tactile.