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Copyright 1999, Richard C. Levy
Richard C. Levy
Richard C. Levy & Associates

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Since we licensed our first product, Star Bird, to Milton Bradley, January 1, 1978, the toy industry has changed, pushed by technology and economics, in a restless, volatile atmosphere. A dramatic paradigm shift has taken place, and inventors who don't understand and adapt will be left behind like last Christmas' toys. Just as companies and retailers are re-inventing themselves, we inventors must do likewise or risk perishing.

The skill sets required to succeed today involve much more than technical talents. Manufacturers are no longer dependent upon the same kinds of products. Witness the explosion of licensing, interactive media and new technologies. Business models have changed. The marketing departments, not R&D, drive product. (Actually, it's the trade that's the gating authority.) Wal-Mart sells more toys than Toys R Us. There are uncertain executive hierarchies. Hasbro and Mattel, once toymakers, are global entertainment conglomerates. 

While inventiveness remains a very critical element, I find myself depending more and more on business skills I learned and honed, and contacts I made as an executive and producer in the feature film and television industries, respectively.

We must give more consideration to developing extensions to existing lines or product based upon brands. Except for Furby, which, as Kipling would say, "is another story," our recent products are based upon marquee brands: Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus (Mattel); Chicken Soup for the Soul (Cardinal); Warner Brother's Trivial Pursuit (Hasbro); Uncle Milton's Ant Farm Game (Great American Puzzle Factory) and the Duncan Yo-Yo key chain line (Basic Fun). 

We must work closer with our licensees, doing whatever is required to bring product to market. This can range from being a de facto project manager to writing and editing instruction manuals, etc. In my case, it has meant less ideas generated and prototyped, but a higher percentage of placements and introductions because, I believe, of this value add I give with every product. It comes under the heading of taking care of your customers.

It is the cross-pollination and synergism of corporate intrapreneurs and entrepreneurs that results in commercialized product. If any link in this often complex and serpentine chain breaks, projects can flag.  Positioned inside, an inventor can often be the adhesive that holds things together when problems arise, people lose focus or worse, confidence.

To further complicate matters, we once created concepts for people with a nose for product, risk takers passionate and genuinely excited by innovation. Today we see more and more companies run by financial types and MBAs whose logic and over-analysis deftly immobilizes and sterilizes ideas. They spend less time with the inventor community and more time with the investment community. They can't grow evergreens, because each year they plant a new forest. It's a pump-and-dump, day trader mentality.

In 1998, I addressed a prestigious business school. In the audience were 130 graduate students and professors. I asked the future MBAs: "How many of you have an idea you'd like to see commercialized, something for which you have passion?" Not a single hand was raised. 

A few weeks later, a toy inventor to whom I told this story was talking to his son's fourth grade class. He asked the group of thirty-six, 9-10 year olds the same question. Every hand went up. 

What happens between elementary and business school, I may make the subject of a future essay but, suffice it to say, for better or worse, it has changed the way our industry does business.


Richard C. Levy has created and/or developed and licensed over 150 concepts, which have combined retail sales of over $1 billion. He has authored numerous books, including the critically-acclaimed Inventor's Desktop Companion (, and Inside Santa's Workshop: How Toy Inventors Develop, Sell and Cash-In on Their Ideas, co-authored with Ronald O. Weingartner.

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