Today, we kick off our staggered coverage of a roundtable discussion between Seven Towns’ Steve Perrin, Ooba’s Max Ford, Wow! Stuff’s Richard North, Jenga creator and co-founder of Oxford Games Leslie Scott and Bananagrams’ Rena Nathanson. First up, the group share how they took their first steps in the industry.

Inventor Roundtable Part 1: Humble beginnings

Billy Langsworthy, Editor, ToyNews: So how did you each start off in the toy industry?

Steve Perrin, ‎Senior VP Design and Production, Seven Towns: I studied industrial design at St. Martins art school. I applied for my first job out of college as a junior designer and model maker with a small independent toy development inventing company called Origin Products. I was with them for eight years and they had a relationship with the company I work for now, two doors down, called Seven Towns. I’ve been with Seven Towns for 16 years.

Max Ford, Managing Director, Ooba: I’ve been in the industry for 15 years. I’m second generation; my father was in the industry before me and was was responsible for R&D and inventor relations at Hasbro. He licensed Guess Who from the Costers for example. My siblings and I therefore grew up at Richmond, then Stockley Park and all the other offices Hasbro and MB had before it.

I was brought into the industry straight out of university and trained me up by my father for the first five years. Then I went to work for Upper Deck who was well known for trading card games like Yu-Gi-Oh and NFL trading cards. I ran the product development team and then managed the games category and had a good time learning and practicing the trade on somebody else’s budget. Then when my father passed away, my family asked me to manage his inventing firm and I’ve been doing that for six years.

Richard North, CEO, Wow! Stuff: I’m not from the toy industry. My background started off in sales and marketing for a company selling binoculars and telescopes. After seven years of doing that I set up my first company which went reasonably well. I sold it around seven years later. I then set up an internet company in ecommerce. That led into developing a search engine which I sold. There were a couple of false starts along the way, so I had a few early successes and a couple of big failures and lost quite a lot of my own invested money.

I then had another company in 2001 that grew and found myself going into gifts with Wow! Stuff in 2006. We started off with the Science Museum brand as our first licence. We added a few more brands and were selling on an FOB basis direct to major retailers like Sainsbury’s, John Lewis and Waitrose. Five years into that we launched our first toy. We though, ‘how different can the toy business be to the gift business?’ How wrong we were!

Because of the different businesses I’ve been in before, you come into contact with less scrupulous people from time to time and end up in the odd legal spat but nothing compared to what happened when I got into the toy business. Our first toy was Dave the Monkey. We sold 250,000 pieces in six weeks in the UK. We were chuffed to bits and thought it was a great start for a £30 toy. Because we didn’t know the toy industry, we didn’t know what the rules were. So we didn’t do Dream Toys or anything like that and instead we just did our own PR. We said ‘this is the number one toy for Christmas, didn’t you know?’ And the press said ‘yeah course we do,’ and they wrote about it.

Our next toy was Air Swimmers, which got copied to death. We did a lot but there was tonnes more sold by lots of companies. We ended up in legal battles. That was four years ago and we’re still finishing those off now against 110 companies. We decided, stupidly probably, to say ‘we’ll take a stand. No-one will do that to us and get away with it’ It’s cost us £2 million in legal costs, of which we’ll probably get back half. 50 per cent of the companies have gone out of business now. Then we did a robot called Keepon that became the EDF mascot on those TV adverts.

Along that journey we’ve come into contact with lots of inventors and we built our own inventor business called Wow! Labs. They do some very clever techy projects, one involving racing cars that is coming out this year called Real FX. They’re a great bunch of scientists. So we’ve got one side that sells toys and looks for toy inventions and another side that supplies our own techy toy inventions to larger toy companies. We were named Hasbro’s Inventor of the Year for 2014.

Leslie Scott, Jenga creator and co-founder of Oxford Games: I’ve been in the toy business for 35 years. I got into it through Jenga. Before that I was working very briefly, but very enjoyably, with Intel in the UK on the marketing side of things. There were only five people working for Intel at that time. I sort of fell into that job and it was brilliant because Intel was exploding and everyone wanted to know about micro computers and I was having a wonderful time. Then it grew and I had been spoilt working in a proper company so I decided I wanted to start my own business and that’s when I put Jenga on the market. It was a game that had been developed within my family and it took three or four years for it to click that it wasn’t out there.

I was incredibly lucky that Jenga took off. I was going into an industry I knew nothing about. I went in by myself and I learnt very quickly that retailers weren’t in the least bit interested in one unknown product from one unknown designer. I went through with Jenga for a few years on my own and then it was picked up by a friend’s brother, who became an agent for it in Canada. He was demonstrating it and one of the Irwin brothers saw it and wanted it. By that stage I was in a lot of debt and was quite ready for somebody to take it on. They took it on and they had a long term working relationship with Hasbro and then Hasbro saw it in Canada and that’s how it got to Hasbro.

Rena Nathanson, CEO, Bananagrams: Did it go through many incarnations from the original design?

Leslie Scott: It had slightly different packaging. The game itself was identical. The name was the one sticking point with both Irwin and Hasbro. They absolutely hated the name Jenga. I said ‘you have to keep the name’ and finally they did and Irwin made a great advert for it playing around with the name.

I do meet people quite often at Hasbro now who tell me they were the ones who insisted on keeping the name. It’s never quite how I remember it! Jenga is a Swahili word and it’s a language I spoke. I thought, unless you spoke Swahili you wouldn’t know what it meant. It means ‘build’.

Rena Nathanson: It’s perfect. You were absolutely right to stick by the name.

Leslie Scott: I was right but it was more fluke than good judgement. After that, Jenga become quite successful and I realised the chance of coming up with another Jenga, which is what everyone was expecting me to do, would be very slim. I then went into full time game design but on much quieter things like word games.

Rena Nathanson: Well I’m a newbie compared to most people on the table. We’re coming up to our 10th Bananaversary next year. We invented Bananagrams as a family for fun. I didn’t think it would be a commercial experience at all. We played it with family and friends and some friends said ‘you should try to sell this’. So we rolled the dice and tried it.

We had 50 made. I took 25 to London and we put 25 in a store in America. They sold very quickly so we had 500 made, again 250 in London, 250 in America. They sold very quickly. I knew about London Toy Fair at ExCeL. I said to my father, who was my business partner, ‘I’m going to take a little booth and see what happens’. We had 5,000 made with a view that if it didn’t work, we had 5,000 Christmas presents to give away. At Toy Fair I took orders hand over fist. It was very surprising.

Steve Perrin: So you never entertained the idea of licensing Bananagrams to a toy company?

Rena Nathanson: No, and we were approached and are still approached. But it was our family business and became a labour of love. We were very protective. My mother helped to design the pouch, my kids came up with the rules, so it’s a family invention and we love it.

Steve Perrin: How did you come up with the name?

Rena Nathanson: My father said ‘this anagrams game is driving me bananas.’ We all looked at each other and said ‘bananas, anagrams, Bananagrams!’ At that exact same sitting, my mother and I said we should keep it in a banana shaped pouch. My father thought that might not work as it would be too cute but we thought it would be great. We cut up a pillow case and that was it.

Next week, the group discuss taking on copycats, the double edged sword that is becoming a brand and what the role of the patent office should be.

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