By Jesse Marx
By Chris Parker
By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
TIM KEHOE, ONE of the youngest Elvin Bash members, committed the cardinal sin of toy inventors when he was only 23 years old. He fell in love with an idea.
It started out as an elaborate design for a wand that could create a teddy bear out of soap bubbles. When he stopped to consider how anyone would be able to tell it was a teddy bear and not just a clump of bubbles, he had an epiphany.
"Why hasn't anyone done colored bubbles?"
Turns out, it's damn near impossible—a holy grail of toy design that has haunted inventors for decades.
At first, Kehoe thought it would be as simple as adding food coloring, but the dye just separated from the bubble solution and sank to the bottom of the jar. He ordered random chemicals online and mixed them together with Jell-O or melted fruit roll-ups. This resulted in a nitric acid bubble that could eat through clothes and caused chemical fires. He even managed to dye the whites of his eyes blue at one point.
Two years into his quest, he finally blew a royal blue bubble that floated off his wand perfectly. It then popped against his bathtub wall, staining it bright blue.
"I had two different places where I lost the damage deposits for new counters and new floors," Kehoe says. "It looked like spin art."
With $3 million worth of investment money and the help of a retired 3M chemist, Kehoe finally managed to blow a colored bubble that popped without leaving a stain. But by then, he was exhausted. In 2007, he sold the colored bubble company and got out of toys. "I was burnt out on the lawyer stuff and the business side," he says. "The model is sort of broken these days. It's hard to sell."
In the 15 years it took him to perfect colored bubbles, the toy industry had changed dramatically. Video games got cheaper, faster, and better, and the conventional wisdom was that a child was basically done with toys by age eight. As the audience shrunk, big-box stores squeezed out the small mom-and-pop toy stores, then the medium-sized chains. Today, more than half of all toy sales are made at a Walmart, Target, or Toys 'R' Us. Retailers began having more say over the products that toy companies made, and small-time inventors got left out in the cold.
Today, the big boys at Hasbro and Mattel won't take a meeting with individual inventors. Instead they deal with a short list of trusted toy agents, about a dozen worldwide. Two of those names came out of Elvin Bash: Marra and Andrew Berton.
As the toy companies stopped buying concepts, Elvin Bash began to erode. The Girschs moved to Colorado to teach seminars and write books on the creative process. Crosbie began spending more time on his music. Samuels decided to go to seminary, then won a Minneapolis city councilman's seat. Moodie started a spice company called Dr. Mops. Polk's product-development company, Whiteboard, diversified into sports equipment and medical devices. Some inventors scattered to the coastal toy companies. One ended up at Blip Toys.
Sometime in 2008, Elvin Bash held its final meeting at Crosbie's house, though no one realized it was the last one at the time. They shared the usual gossip over a potluck dinner. They talked politics in north Minneapolis with Samuels. They wagged their heads and decreed that a Slinky or a Monopoly would never be made in today's market. Then they drifted home and left Elvin Bash in the past.
"It was a riot," remembers Crosbie. "But we all just kind of saw the opportunity window get so tiny. And we started to do other things."
A FEW WEEKS ago, a couple of old Elvin Bashers crossed paths in the architecture building on the University of Minnesota campus. They had been invited by the U's brand-new product design professor to critique the students' toy concepts—though with instruction to be more gentle than they'd been treated at the Embassy Suites.
Tim Moodie surveys the row of projects, clipboard in hand. Some of the students are getting slammed by other critics.
"I'm amazed how many of you are using magnets," lectures one business insider. "A baby once swallowed small magnets. They clipped together in the infant's stomach and the baby died."
The students look stricken.
Moodie tries to keep it positive. He gravitates toward a concept called "Eye See You." The prototype is just a half-circle of wood that spins with a light-up eye pasted on either side. A student tosses bean bags at the shaky model to demonstrate.
"This could be a really simple home run," Moodie tells the eager students.
Rick Polk from Whiteboard agrees. "Kids love throwing stuff!"
Afterward, Moodie and Polk muse on the success of Bill Nichols and his tiny company—evidence, they say, of a budding toy-industry resurgence in Minnesota.
"The hope is that there will be more toy companies like Blip," says Moodie. "They're not huge behemoths like Mattel or Hasbro."
And no matter what the big labels or big boxes say, it can still pay to harbor some of the old maverick attitude, says Polk. "Sometimes success comes to just the person who has the balls to do it."