By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
On a county road winding through the farthest reaches of Minnetonka, in a nondescript office building, there is a room full of toys so new, they're not available in any store. No child—outside of a few testing groups—has ever played with them.
Bill Nichols, president of Blip Toys, surveys a wall covered in bright pink packages hanging from hooks like those in the aisles of a big box store.
"That's the Toys 'R' Us plan-o-gram for fall," Nichols says. "We started with a foot and a half."
The reason a top retailer would suddenly clear eight feet of prime real estate sits in a big bowl on the table in front of him like a pile of after-dinner mints: They're called Squinkies, and the tiny rubber toys come in a variety of animal and doll forms. The bowl is filled with cute little bunnies and babies and ponies, painted with surprising detail and squishy to the touch. There are already more than a thousand different Squinkies to collect, along with a bevy of playsets.
To the right of the pink wall is a grid of navy blue packages—the forthcoming boys' line of Squinkies, which is populated with aliens, racecars, soldiers, and ninjas. There are packages for licensed characters like Iron Man and Spider-Man, and dice that can turn the whole experience into a game of grade-school craps.
"Girls have relationships with toys," says Nichols, gazing up at the blue wall. "Boys become their toys."
Nichols has the fatherly charm of Bill Nye the Science Guy. He talks fast, thinks fast, and makes decisions fast whenever a staffer pokes a head in the room with a question. With a bonanza like Squinkies to manage, it's the only acceptable pace.
Just months ago, Nichols and Blip Toys—as in, just a "blip" on the radar—struck gold. Nichols didn't realize what they were sitting on until Target sold out the first stock of Squinkies in a week. Then Walmart ran out during the Christmas season. Then you couldn't find them anywhere.
"We got lucky," says Nichols with a battle-weary smile.
Since the holidays, Squinkies have tripled the volume of Blip's business. In February, they won the coveted Toy of the Year award. There's a line of Squinkie clothing on the way, a card game, a board game, even a video game in development with Activision.
"I just played the first beta version, it's awesome," says Nichols.
Squinkies also landed the mother of all promotional deals: a spot in the 2012 McDonald's Happy Meal lineup. It's a race against time to make Squinkies a lasting, licensable character—to take the concept from seasonal "it" toy to childhood classic.
"Squinkies is an 'act of god' product," says Richard Gottlieb, CEO of USA Toy Experts. "Nobody saw it coming. It was just the right product at the right price at the right time."
TRADITIONAL TOYS—EVERYTHING FROM action figures to sports toys to games—still make more money than video games. In 2010, Americans spent $21.9 billion on toys.
With so much money at stake, inventors and toy companies are all chasing the next big thing. The first Tickle Me Elmo sold over a million dolls, with parents fighting in the stores at Christmas time for the last ones. ZhuZhu Pets netted its creators $70 million when it became the must-have toy of 2009. And the take from Bratz dolls has been estimated to be as high as $777 million.
While the sky is the limit in terms of profits, the world of toy inventing has fundamentally changed in the modern era. The age of the pitchman is over. The frontier has been walled up by the big corporate names, with Hasbro and Mattel dominating. Getting the ear of the right people is hard, to say nothing of the checkbook.
Yet there was once a time when an inventor could make his fortune with a box full of homemade prototypes, a snappy pitch, and a few minutes of a toy company exec's time. Minnesota was a hotbed for just those kinds of entrepreneurs for many years. At this time each year—just after the national Toy Fair in February—toy executives from all over the country would fly into the Twin Cities to see what the Minnesotans had to offer. Though the business was never easy, the opportunities seemed endless for the plucky.
"I'd go a year without a placement, but I'd still be fired up," says inventor Scott Crosbie. "You had a chance. The hook was still dangling."
IN 1957, REYN Guyer was fresh out of college. Though he aspired to be a journalist, he found himself working at his father's design business in St. Paul. Guyer's father, a maverick designer with 120 paper-carton patents to his name, hired him to help come up with innovative new in-store displays.
"I did not see a great future in that business," says Guyer.
After several years, Guyer was looking for a new promotional gimmick for a company called Johnson's Shoe Polish. He figured a simple, cheap paper board game might do the trick. Then came a bolt of lightning.