Calling all product developers, designers, engineers, inventors, artists, makers, tinkerers, and DIY enthusiasts! I have great news for you. The toy company Mattel is now accepting your ideas for new products online. Until recently, submitting an idea to Mattel was a challenge for most of us. You had to have a toy broker represent you or have successfully established yourself as a professional inventor. No more! In a marked shift, the company behind iconic brands like Barbie and Fisher-Price is now reviewing ideas from the outside.
“It is time to reinvent this company because of where the world is headed,” Mattel CEO Margo Georgiadis told Fortune in an interview published in advance of the toy maker’s investor day presentation. Over the past three years, sales have slipped and Mattel has lost market share. To get back on track, the company announced that it intends to “focus and strengthen its innovation pipeline” and reshape operations to become “leaner, faster, smarter” on Wednesday.
Specifically, Mattel intends to significantly speed up its development process. On average, it takes the company about 18 months to transform a concept into a product on a shelf. In today’s fast-paced global marketplace, that’s simply too long. Its new target? Just six to nine months.
As a business model, licensing capitalizes on speed to market. The toy industry has relied on freelancers to supply it with innovative ideas for many, many years now. But in an effort to head off frivolous lawsuits at the pass, industry leaders have largely practiced a limited form of open innovation by relying on intermediaries and maintaining a guarded attitude toward outsiders.
However, that’s changing. In 2015, Mattel partnered with the popular invention crowdsourcing platform Quirky only to have the venture-backed startup go under a few months later. (With a new president at its helm, Quirky is back.) This year, the company teamed up with ABC to launch The Toy Box, a reality television show in which toy inventors compete to have their idea licensed by Mattel. After the season finale aired last month, the winning invention Artsplash™ sold out online and in Toys “R” Us almost immediately. Meaning, it’s a bona fide hit!
That’s no small feat. Hats off to Ryan Stewart, the inventor of Artsplash. Stewart is a lifelong entrepreneur, but he’d never brought a product to market before, let alone a hit toy. To win the show, he beat out professionals. When he showed me how his wonderfully innovative 3D liquid art set worked, I was blown away. (Full disclosure: Stewart is currently an inventRight student.) I’d never seen anything like it. It is genuinely magical — awe inducing even. Its ‘wow’ factor is off the charts.
As a former toy inventor who helped bring the hit toys Teddy Ruxpin and Laser Tag to market, I know firsthand how difficult it is to invent a toy that has as much wow. For one, the industry is incredibly competitive. Have you been inside a Toys “R” Us lately? Products like Artsplash are rare — very rare.
“I’m fortunate,” Stewart admitted. In his teens, he wrote down hundreds of ideas for new products but never pursued them. When his son discovered his old inventing journals several years ago and asked him why he had given up on his dream, he was inspired to begin again.
After filming wrapped up last summer, Mattel had less than a year to figure out how to manufacture Artsplash so that its launch would coincide with the season finale. When he won, Stewart did not know how mass production would work nor how feasible it was. Mattel put the proverbial pedal to the metal to figure out how to make the product safe and at a reasonable cost. The required chemical isn’t cheap and neither was the process to procure it, Stewart told me.
“All considering, Mattel acted fast — really fast.”
The show’s success may have propelled the toy maker to embrace open innovation more fully. Because not only did Mattel uncover one great idea — it happened upon three! The company chose to bring two additional products featured on the show to market: the candy molder Sweet Shaper and the game Noisy Persons.
It’s worth noting that before he won, Stewart had tried to get in touch with Mattel to tell the company about Artsplash, but was ultimately unsuccessful. He couldn’t get through the gatekeepers then, but he didn’t give up.
His advice for amateur inventors today is to keep at it.
“Not every idea you have is going to be successful. To get to your end goal, you need be creative and exhaust your options. If you keep going, you will see the light of day,” he said emphatically. “That’s a mindset as much as anything.”
Late yesterday, ABC announced The Toy Box had been renewed for a second season.