Being Smart About Smart Toys

What manufacturers should do to stay on top of this evolving toy category.

by Sean McGowan, founder, SMG Leisure

Toys featuring tech elements such as sound chips, programmability, or the ability to communicate with other toys are not new, but for the last few years, smart toys are eating up more and more shelf space. In this piece, I will look at several aspects of this burgeoning toy category. Some of these toys are truly groundbreaking, but both parents and toy manufacturers need to exercise a great deal of caution and forethought to make sure these toys safely deliver their intended benefit.

For the purpose of this discussion, I’ll clarify what I mean by “smart toy,” or, just as usefully, what I do not mean. I am not talking about toys designed to make your baby, toddler, or preschooler smarter. Instead, the term “smart toy” focuses on the smartness of the toy itself.


Sphero’s BB-8 app-enabled droid launched last year and allows kids to control the robotic ball with an app.

Not-So-Smart Toys

Products typified by Tickle Me Elmo, where a child presses a button (or issues a voice command) and the toy runs through a pre-programmed routine, are not considered smart toys. Some people in the industry refer to these as “watch me toys,” but I have provocatively called them “toys that play with themselves.” These toys don’t make anyone smarter, nor do they use technology that is all that impressive.

The broad category of electronic learning aids, which encompasses educational offerings from companies like LeapFrog and VTech, are not smart toys either, even though some of the tech-infused devices are pretty smart, and many of them are now connected either to each other or to the web.

Smart toys interact with other devices and/or programs, such as apps, other toys, or other devices in the area. These toys often have a capacity to learn about their environments and to respond—sometimes in subtle ways—to changes in the environment.

In some ways, products like Furby, Tamagotchi, and Webkins were the precursors to smart toys. They weren’t actually all that smart, especially compared to today’s smart toys. But I consider them to be the original smart toys because they appeared to be interactive, learn over time, and respond to changes in the environment. In fact, they were really just running on pre-set clocks, testing for a small number of changes the user made, even though they seemed to respond to the user, grow (or die, if you didn’t “feed” them), and interact.

Smart Toys 1.0

The toys I call smart toys 1.0 were effectively crude physical extensions of computer programs and apps. Think of those early apptivities—or app-based toys—that allowed kids to scan in some physical product (a little toy car, a figurine, a plastic gun) to cause changes in an app on a tablet or smartphone. In hindsight, these were little more than app-based games that invited the consumer to use a physical object other than their fingers to control the action. Why was this a good idea? It wasn’t, but it gave toymakers and retailers a way to be involved in a segment of the industry that was rapidly evolving away from them. In my view, the fundamental problem with these toys is that they didn’t allow kids to have more fun than they would have simply playing with the app.

Smart Toys 2.0

The toys I consider smart toys 2.0 are those that promote interaction between a tablet or a smartphone and the physical toy, to create an experience that is very different from—and better than—that which can be enjoyed without that interaction. Perhaps the best example is Furby Boom, but Sphero’s robotic ball (and its best-selling BB-8 version) and Ooboly also fit into this category. Plus, the entire toys-to-life sub-category pioneered by Activision’s Skylanders and now also populated by Nintendo’s amiibo, and LEGO and Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment’s LEGO Dimensions, are also part of smart toys 2.0. While these toys are different from each other in many ways, what they share in common is the focus on both the screen—whether it’s a TV, a tablet, or a smartphone—and the toy.


CogniToys’ Dino is a cloud-based, Wi-Fi connected toy that allows kids to engage in intelligent conversations.

Smart Toys 3.0

As technology becomes even more accessible, a growing number of smart toys either involve minimal screen-time or none at all, which brings us to smart toys 3.0. The emergence of these screen-liberated toys is due in part to backlash from parents who seek to reduce the amount of time their children spend staring at screens (which has apparently been linked to shortened attention spans and difficulty in learning). Additionally, technology that allows the devices to work simply and intuitively without a screen has emerged, such as chip sets, connection technology, and user interfaces. These toys may require a device to control, setup, or program the toys, but the focus is on the toy itself, not the screen of a tablet or smartphone.

We have seen a host of 3.0 toys in the past year, such as Anki Overdrive, which allows artificially intelligent cars to race around connectible track, as well as interactive smart toys masquerading as plain old traditional toys, such as CogniToy and an adorable reworking of a classic, Edwin the Duck. These toys are a break from the prior generation of smart toys because all of the action and fun is in the toys. Kids are not just watching or using a toy to enhance an app experience. Instead, they are using the secondary device to enhance the power of the toy.

One of the aspects I love about the newest generation of smart toys is how some of them encourage all kids to get involved with technology, including girls. LittleBits are designed with a gender-neutral color palette and can be used to create anything kids can imagine. Sphero’s BB-8 app-enabled droid is programmable and can be part of any kids’ play fantasy.

Safety First

Still, some of the same issues that loomed over the prior generations of smart toys continue to linger. First and most important is the question of security. Let’s face it: Anything that interacts with your home’s Wi-Fi network is a potential security risk, but that doesn’t mean it’s pointless to try to make the toys secure—just the opposite. It is imperative that toy manufacturers use security measures that are every bit as secure as those used to secure a teenager’s iPhone camera roll. Adults who purchase connected toys must remain vigilant that they are not serving as Trojan Horses to let hackers into their homes.

While there will almost always be a way to hack a system, the key is to make it so difficult that the hacker will seek more fertile grounds. (Like the old joke about the two campers seeking to avoid bear attacks: The first camper says he plans to wear running shoes. The other camper laughs and says, “You really think you can outrun a bear?” The first one replies, “I don’t need to outrun the bear. I only need to outrun you.”)

And hacking isn’t the only safety issue. For young children, there can be just as much danger if a toy simply serves as an entryway onto the web. Remember Commonwealth Toy’s WikiBear? Unintended consequences can ensue when you let an innocent looking toy surf the web. The idea of a teddy bear kids could use to ask unlimited questions and gain tons of knowledge seemed quite clever, but it wasn’t thought through well enough.

Accessibility is Everything

Another issue to be tackled is cost, and its inherent connection to the widening gap between consumers who can afford costly toys and those who can’t. While a very high percentage of the consumer base has access to smartphones, not all have access to the same phones or the fastest Internet connections, and I believe these toys should be designed to be as widely accessible as possible.

The cost for the consumer is not the only cost to consider—developing smart toys isn’t cheap. They require all of the traditional costs associated with getting a toy manufactured, plus extensive upfront development costs, additional bill-of-material costs, and ongoing costs, such as server costs, higher customer service costs, and the cost of operating an ongoing service: Toys as a service (TAAS).

For larger, well-funded toy makers, these costs raise the risks but can probably be justified. For smaller, less lucrative companies, these costs can be prohibitive. Companies such as Seebo, an Israel-based technology company, provide turn-key solutions that allow even the smallest companies to quickly, efficiently, and inexpensively turn their products into smart, connected toys, lowering the costs and the risks.

Keep Your Promises

Finally—and this is ultimately true of any toy—smart toys must deliver on the promise of fun. They can’t be simply showing off some clever feature, or showcasing a new connectivity breakthrough. In fact, they can’t even be simply replicating traditional play, but in a more tech-enhanced way. They have to provide original experiences that engage kids in new ways. Otherwise, who needs them?

SeanMcGowanSean McGowan is the founder of SMG Leisure. He has been closely following the toy industry for 30 years, analyzing product trends, cost changes, marketing practices, and other aspects of how products and companies succeed (or don’t). He also follows digital gaming, sporting goods, and juvenile products. McGowan started SMG Leisure in January 2016 to continue this work beyond the parameters of Wall Street. 

Summer Toy Trends

New toys and games hitting shelves will inspire summertime play whether kids are at home, on vacation, or at the playground. The Toy Industry Association (TIA) spoke with industry experts to gain insight into what’s trending in outdoor play, what indoor playthings encourage creative skill-building and learning, and the top franchises and licenses expected to impact toy sales this summer.

Outdoor Play & New Destinations

As excitement builds for the “lazy days” of summer, toys sales show that families are anything but lazy. The NPD Group reported that the Outdoor & Sports Toys category saw a 9 percent increase in sales last year to $3.59 billion.

“The traditional outdoor play patterns—especially those related to exercise, like bicycling, running, and jumping—may not change much,” says Adrienne Appell, TIA toy trend specialist, “but toymakers are putting twists on classic toys and activities to keep kids engaged.”

New tech trends are complementing outdoor play, says J. Alison Bryant, CEO and chief play officer of PlayScience, PlayLab & Sandbox, adding that kids and families are using mobile technologies to enjoy navigational techniques such as geocaching, so they can learn about what they see on nature hikes or while playing on a beach.

“This is still relatively nascent, but what is great about it is that families are using technology to augment and enhance their play experience, not replace it,” Bryant notes.

Traveling to specialty toy stores can be perfect summer outings, especially during times when it may be rainy or too hot to be outside. Kimberly Mosley, president of the American Specialty Toy Retailing Association (ASTRA), says this season’s store-based events break up families’ packed schedules and provide venues for fun group activities.

“Specialty toy stores compete by making their stores a destination and providing child- and family-centered experiences that are unique in their communities,” Mosley says. “So, in ASTRA stores you’ll often see creative and fun opportunities pop up in the summer—everything from Make Your Own Garden Stone to a several-days-long Build-a-Fort Art Camp.”

Fun Ways to Play Indoors

Not all summer play takes place outside. Kids also enjoy playing inside, especially with toys and games that will boost their creative and artistic abilities. The new offerings from one of TIA’s main trends for this year, named “Ultimate Creator,” encourages kids to find and build their talents as digital artists, filmmakers, jewelers, and more.

“The season also presents opportunities for kids to explore their passions and interests through play,” says Appell. “Once they’ve returned to the house after a day outside, kids may be inspired to make their own ice cream with their parents, or design swimwear with toys and products under the Ultimate Creator trend.”

Additionally, products that teach or reinforce Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math (STEAM) are providing ways to keep learning fun outside of the classroom. Kids wishing to visit exotic and atypical places can arrive there almost instantly with new virtual reality (VR) products and content. Whether with a brand’s VR kit or by assembling cardboard glasses to connect to a smartphone, the sector breaks new ground in terms of offering 360-degree experiences.

“The essence of VR is to be immersed in a location it will teach children about, and transport them to places they couldn’t otherwise visit—deep in the ocean, the edge of a volcano, into a rain forest, or even into the nucleus of an atom,” says David Kleeman, senior vice president of global trends at Dubit. “It’s inexpensive, comfortable, and simple for [kids] to use, and we anticipate a growing amount of content for kids beginning this spring and summer, as the devices become widespread.”

Summer Blockbusters

Licensed toys account for 32 percent of U.S. toy sales, according to The NPD Group, and that number is expected to climb as various new entertainment reaches fans on the silver screen. This summer, theaters will be packed with blockbuster films featuring new and classic characters.

“Fans and industry professionals have high expectations for Captain America: Civil War, while families will likely make an outing for PG movies like Finding Dory,” Appell notes.

Other family-friendly summer blockbusters slated for release include The Angry Birds Movie, and sequels to Ice Age and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The licensed toys and games they inspire will run the gamut from tech to traditional and will keep kids busy playing for hours.

“Films’ toys often further the family fun even after the credits roll because they tend to be engaging and appropriate for all ages,” says Appell. “The play experiences offered by life-size accessories, mobile games, and everything in between should be able to keep toy sales strong and kids playing for hours.”

TIA tracks trends on a year-round basis to provide industry stakeholders with insight into what’s new and what’s on the horizon in the toy and youth entertainment product industry. Visit for more information.

Justin_HeadshotJustin Smulison is the newest member of TIA’s Marketing Communications team, after years as a journalist and custom content producer in legal publishing. A proud husband and father, he is thrilled to report on toys and characters that he and his 2-year-old daughter play with together, and to be involved in an industry that positively impacts her and future generations.

A New Landscape: How Smart Toys Are Changing the Toy Market

by Mykola Golovko, toys and games project manager, Euromonitor International

Technology has a transformative impact on countless aspects of our everyday lives. The list of markets disrupted by technology and rapid innovation continues to grow, and as smart toys become more prevalent, significant shifts are expected in how the global toy market works. The changes will be driven primarily by digital natives entering and overtaking the toy consumer base.

Digital Natives

By 2017, annual sales of smartphones will surpass 1 billion units. Tablets and—more recently—wearable electronics have also become mainstream products. In 2016, mobile Internet subscriptions are expected to top 3 billion, and will likely surpass the 4 billion mark by 2019. This puts a smartphone with an Internet connection in the majority of households, in addition to computers, smart TVs, and other connected devices, which are rapidly gaining in popularity. Children worldwide are growing up surrounded by technology. For them, it is a natural component of everyday life, and toys that offer interactive features and integrate virtual components into gameplay will feel natural to this audience. Manufacturers will respond with increasingly sophisticated products that blend physical and virtual gameplay.


Source: Euromonitor International

Software and Content Gain Market Power

So far, the most commercially successful products blending virtual and physical gameplay have been in the toys-to-life category, but going forward, we expect to see expanding physical playability to be the focus of development. Making smart toys more interactive in the real world will require the integration of contextual computing and elements of augmented reality. This will make the software platforms for toys increasingly complex, causing a shift away from the walled garden model of toys-to-life products toward more open platforms that minimize development costs.

This is exactly what happened with mobile phones. As these products became increasingly sophisticated, there was significant consolidation in software platforms, to the point where the market became essentially a duopoly of two operating systems. As software, content, and services gained importance in mobile computing, hardware became commoditized, with significant declines in prices. Similar dynamics are expected in toys and games as smart toys become mainstream products. The value of a toy will be a combination of the physical product, the capabilities of the software platform, and the content this platform can deliver.

Adjusting to Changes

Toys are already becoming more complex products, as licensing becomes an ever-expanding part of the global market. The most successful toy lines are no longer stand-alone products, but integral parts of entertainment franchises that can span feature films, TV shows, and video games, along with apparel and other licensed products.

Smart toys will add software platforms to the total value proposition of a toy. The role of software will enable interaction with digital content in meaningful and engaging ways. Products that integrate new technology for the sake of technology itself have typically done poorly. Products that use augmented reality and contextually aware software to allow children to interact with their favorite characters in new ways will be the must-have toys of the future.

mykolaMykola Golovko is the toys and games project manager at Euromonitor International, a provider of strategic market research. Golovko studies the ways in which technology diffusion rates accelerate and permeate a growing number of aspects of the daily life of consumers.

WIT Stories: June 2016

Wi-Stories_Logo-1Every month, Women in Toys, Licensing, and Entertainment (WIT) turns the spotlight on members who are making an impact in toys, licensing, and entertainment and within the organization. These members exemplify leadership, commitment to the industry and the mission of WIT, and it are proud to recognize and celebrate their diverse talents and contributions through their WIT Stories.

NICKELODEONFarnaz Esnaashari-Charmatz
Creator and Co-Executive Producer, Shimmer and Shine, Nickelodeon

Farnaz Esnaashari-Charmatz is the creator and co-executive producer of Shimmer and Shine at Nickelodeon. She has been a WIT Southern California Chapter member since 2016.

What is the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as a businesswoman today and why?
Stay true to your vision and know that the devil is in the details. There will always be a lot of information and opinions coming at you from every direction, but if you know the vision for what you are trying to accomplish, always keep that in sight. Also, it’s important to use the advice from others as guidance to get you to where you need to be.

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced in business, and how did you overcome it?
It was very challenging at first, to make the transition from my previous role at Nickelodeon to my new role as series creator. It took time to understand my new responsibilities, but I just kept working hard at it every day.

What advice would you offer women wishing to break into the toy/licensing/entertainment industry?
Soak up as much information as you can, review mommy blogs, watch YouTube, look in the toy aisle, and learn the industry from every angle possible.  And always keep that love for toys in your heart when you do it.

What inspired you to start your business?
I always like having goals to work towards, no matter how big—the bigger the better.

What is one of your most memorable career accomplishments?
Getting a series with Nickelodeon and being part of this amazing brand. Having grown up at Nickelodeon and worked on different shows, it’s been a dream come true to see Nickelodeon’s support in making my vision come to life in Shimmer and Shine. This show has been my passion because it’s so close to my heart. So now, not only do kids and parents get to share my love for the adorable twin genies-in-training through the show but they will also be able to see the characters come to life with the debut of an entire line of consumer products, including awesome toys from Fisher-Price.

Season two of Shimmer and Shine premieres Wednesday, June 15, at 12 p.m. (ET/PT) on Nickelodeon. The hit CG-animated series, which follows the magical adventures of twin genies-in-training, is currently the number-one preschool show in its time period on all TV. The first-ever consumer products line inspired by series will debut nationwide in July.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Seeing kids enjoy the series and products that we work so hard to create.

What’s the ONE thing you recommend ALL businesswomen do right now to take their business or career to the next level?
Practice speaking—firm, clear, but still kind—because it can be a little hard to be heard.  If you practice, the way your message comes across will be heard exactly the way you intend.

What advice would you offer working moms?
We are all working moms in one way or another. Just always remember to make the time you spend with your kids full of love, kindness and good memories.

What do you do during the first hour of your business day and why?
I try to make the rounds with my team to make sure I’m caught up on everything I need to know before the day starts.

What one thing helps you prepare (and relax) in the minutes leading up to a big pitch/presentation?
I practice out loud in my office and to relax, I surround myself with people on the team who make me laugh and put me at ease.

How do you recharge/reboot?
I like to go on walks during my lunch break. It helps me reset mentally and keeps me happy throughout the day.

What’s your favorite mobile app?

What is your favorite productivity tip?
I like to keep active as much as I can throughout the day.  If I’m moving, my brain is moving too.

What is the one thing you couldn’t live without?
My family!

Who is your hero (in business, life or both)?
My Mother.

What does WIT membership mean to you? How has it impacted your career?
A membership with WIT opens new opportunities with other women in the industry. It’s an organization that helps us support and guide one another.

What has surprised you most about WIT?
I was so surprised to see how many chapters there are across the world.

What do you wish other people knew about WIT?
I wish more people were aware about the many different types of support WIT can offer women in the industry, including scholarships for undergraduate programs in toy design.

AshleyMadyAshley Mady
WIT President
President, Brandberry Inc.

Ashley Mady is the President of Brandberry, Inc., and has served as president of WIT since 2014. Brandberry creates, builds and licenses brands, with key areas of focus on toys, candy, cosmetics, children’s entertainment and interactive experiences. She has been a WIT South Florida Chapter member since 2010.

What is the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as a businesswoman today, and why?
To never give up and never grow up. The business of play is ever changing and both companies and consumers are fickle, so I’ve learned to constantly reinvent my pitches and my concepts. Half of the game is showing up and being okay to fail over and over again, your odds get better as you go along. If you can find the fun in the challenge, you’ll enjoy the journey too!

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced in business, and how did you overcome it?
Going out on my own. In 2009, I started Brandberry to follow my passions to create and build brands. Although my network was small, my dreams were big. I decided to make it my mission to build a rich network quickly and one of the avenues that really helped was getting involved in WIT.

What advice would you offer women wishing to break into the toy/licensing/entertainment industry?
The industry is small, so once you are IN you’re IN! Start building and fostering relationships early and getting involved in the industry at large. People move around a lot, so you never know what doors will open for you as time goes on.

What is one of your most memorable career accomplishments?
Becoming president of WIT. When I got involved with the organization back in 2010, I had no idea it was going to play such a big part in my life. In 2014, the idea of chairing the board was presented to me and I decided it was my chance to give back to this amazing organization that had already given so much to me. Serving in this role is an absolute honor.

What do you do during the first hour of your business day and why?
Review my to do list, then work on something that inspires me. I find doing something I am passionate about in the morning charges my energy and helps set my intention for the day.

How do you recharge/reboot?
Getting moving! Really, anything that takes me away from the computer. I’m always working and thinking, but changing the environment is what gets me inspired and refuels my creative juices. It could be walking in nature, travel, doing some window shopping or even just spending time with the people I love.

What does WIT membership mean to you? How has it impacted your career?
It’s a game changer, if you use it properly. Very similar to a gym membership, if you don’t do anything with it, you won’t see the results. For me it has multiplied my network and opened lots of doors for new deals. I’ve made some great friends along the way too and like they say, people like to do business with their friends.

What has surprised you most about WIT?
That it is largely powered by volunteers. The inspired action has been snowballing for over 25 years and if you speak to anyone who is (or has been) involved in WIT, you’ll learn that if they give a little they get a lot out of it.

What do you wish other people knew about WIT?
That there are so many ways to get involved (in ways that benefit your business). So if you’re not already involved or not reaping the benefits you want, let us know and we can change that.

Karen KilpatrickKaren Kilpatrick
Vice President, JazWings; Creator of Pumpkinheads

Karen Kilpatrick is VP of Marketing at JazWings and the creator of Pumpkinheads. She has been a WIT South Florida Chapter member since 2014.

What is the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as a businesswoman today, and why?
Relationships matter. Leveraging relationships has provided more opportunities, both personally and professionally, than I could have imagined! I always try help others as much as I can, without expectation of anything in return, because that’s how I hope to be treated. People have helped me so much along my journey and I can only hope to pay it forward to others. Plus, when you treat the people you work with and for you well, you become more of a leader and less of a boss. And that’s important for a myriad of reasons, only one of which being you will inspire the best efforts of others, which is great for business!

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced in business, and how did you overcome it?
I tend to have a difficult time letting go of control, which can be an impediment to progress and growth. It’s vitally important to surround yourself with people you trust who have skills that you lack. I have learned that building a great team is a must!

What advice would you offer women wishing to break into the toy/licensing/entertainment industry?
Show up, show up, show up. When I first entered this industry, not to long ago, I just made sure I was everywhere I could possibly be, from dinners to conferences to trade events. I introduced myself to everyone. I tried to learn as much as possible. I joined WIT! Learn the industry. Meet the people. Then make your moves!

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
I love creating things – from stories to characters to products. And I love helping people build and market their own creations. Seeing brands progress and grow is extremely satisfying but the most fun will always be when I get that new idea and imagine all it might become!

What advice would you offer working moms?
Don’t be too hard on yourself. It is never possible to be all things at once so it’s okay to stop trying! I try to view my life as a whole and not compartmentalize as work versus home. Sometimes my role in business may command a lot more time and attention than I am able to give my role as mom, but other times I have to elevate my role at home over my business priorities. It’s important to not feel guilty and to realize you’re setting a good example for your children that women can accomplish a lot in the working world while still being a great mom. Just not all days will be equal!

What do you do during the first hour of your business day and why?
Whatever I want to do the least or whatever takes the most mental acuity. Usually if I’m procrastinating on something or not wanting to address it, it means it is something important to me that I’m subconsciously trying to avoid for fear of not doing well. Tackling difficult things in the morning when I’m most clear and least likely to be interrupted makes the rest of the day much smoother (usually!)

How do you recharge/reboot?
Exercise! I run, I do yoga – I really try to stay active daily. This is my time alone with myself, focusing on myself, and it’s important to my sanity!

What does WIT membership mean to you? How has it impacted your career?
Being a member of WIT transformed my career in the toy industry. A month after joining, I was presented with the opportunity to co-chair the S. Florida Chapter and immediately said “Yes!” This was an impactful decision. Through volunteering and helping as much as possible, I made connections and friends that have propelled my business and professional life beyond what I could have imagined. It is an incredible organization full of accomplished, amazing women who support each other that I’m proud to be a part of.

What has surprised you most about WIT?
In my previous career in the legal industry, there was no organization for women to join to receive support and guidance in navigating their legal careers. Even though women in the industry face a lot of challenges and impediments to growth, it was extremely difficult to find female mentors or other women willing to help professionally. WIT is the exact opposite of my experience in the law. WIT members genuinely support each other personally and professionally. It’s a place where you can learn the ropes if you’re new to the industry, and simultaneously a place where you can find new positions and opportunities as an industry veteran. It’s such a great and viable network.

What do you wish other people knew about WIT?
The more you give, the more you will gain! WIT is not an organization you should just join and then forget about – you have to participate and contribute in order to get the most out of your membership. Everyone is willing to help. You just need to ask.

Jodi Norgaard headshotJodi Bondi Norgaard
Founder and CEO, Dream Big Toy Company

Jodi Bondi Norgaard is the Founder and CEO at Dream Big Toy Company. She has been a WIT Chicago Chapter member since 2014.

What is the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as a businesswoman today, and why?
Conquer your fears and trust your intuition.

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced in business, and how did you overcome it?
Going against stereotypes is never easy. Many industry leaders told me my product would fail because it was not mainstream, it was not a fashion doll and girls like fashion. As a woman and a mother of a daughter I was positive girls like more that fashion and knew mainstream ideas never create change. In 2015 my product was in Walmart stores.

What advice would you offer women wishing to break into the toy/licensing/entertainment industry?
It is not easy and be prepared to work very hard. Make as many contacts as you can and always ask questions. People want to help.

What inspired you to start your business?
Nothing makes me cringe quite like “Lovely Lola”. I have told the story countless times when I first encountered “Lola” while shopping with my then 9-year-old my daughter, sitting on a shelf in a crop top, high heels and make up. It still makes me angry. I thought there is not one parent that wants their daughter to look, act or be called “Lovely Lola.” As angry as I was, Lola inspired me to create change and shatter stereotypes in the toy industry. Girls are strong, smart and adventurous and it is important to emphasize what a girl’s body can do versus what her body looks like.

What is one of your most memorable career accomplishments?
Having the opportunity through WIT to pitch my product to Walmart buyers. At the end of my five minute pitch they said yes!

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Every letter, note, email I receive from girls and parents saying ‘thank you.’

What’s the ONE thing you recommend ALL businesswomen do right now to take their business or career to the next level?
Find a mentor…or two! A mentor can help you answer simple and difficult question. They can help you through the business highs and lows and there are many.

What advice would you offer working moms?
I am a working mom. Like all of us, we a juggling a lot. Outside help is beneficial. My kids are older now, but when they were younger, I would work before they got up in the morning, during school hours, then again after they went to bed. It was choppy, but it worked.

What do you do during the first hour of your business day and why?
I answer emails and clean out my inbox. For the most part, I feel like I am getting a clean, fresh start in the morning.

What one thing helps you prepare (and relax) in the minutes leading up to a big pitch/presentation?
>Oddly, I have never been nervous minutes leading up to a big pitch or presentation. It is usually the night before that I tend to be nervous. The more I am prepared for my pitch/presentation, the less nervous I feel. Yoga helps me too!

How do you recharge/reboot?
I work out! Whether it is going for a bike ride, yoga, or a walk with the dog, exercising helps me recharge and focus.

What’s your favorite mobile app?
My favorite is the Go! Go! Sports Girl app…then Directory Spot and Fooducate.

What is your favorite productivity tip?
I’m going say it again, exercise. I am more productive when I incorporate exercise in my day.

What is the one thing you couldn’t live without?
My gym shoes!

Who is your hero (in business, life or both)?
Billie Jean King

What does WIT membership mean to you? How has it impacted your career?
WIT has helped to take my business to the next level by giving me the opportunity to pitch to Walmart. I have met amazing women who inspire me. I have been involved with a lot of organizations over the years and WIT is one of my favorites!

What has surprised you most about WIT?
The amount of passion, organization, and all the women wanting to help other women.

What do you wish other people knew about WIT?
How they are changing the toy industry.

Genji LeclairGenji Leclair
Merchandising Director, The Product Greenhouse

Genji Leclair is Merchandising Director at The Product Greenhouse. She has been a WIT Chicago Chapter member since 2014.

What is the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as a businesswoman today, and why?
My client’s perception is my reality! To always look at the project from their point of view. This is so important for generating collaborative problem solving and creating results.

What’s the biggest challenge you have faced in business, and how did you overcome it?
My biggest challenge has been transforming my communication skills from being self empowered to empowering others around me. It’s a forever process that started when I realized I couldn’t run my business on my own. I had to start developing people around me, listening to their commitment, and trusting them to manage the business. I did this through communication courses, reading and practice.

What advice would you offer women wishing to break into the toy/licensing/entertainment industry?
My advice is to view yourself as an inventor, a toy maker, a development genius! Whatever it is that you do – that’s who you are. In this role, you are NOT A WOMAN, you are a PERSON contributing to children around the world by being in the toy industry, and you are unstoppable. You also have the resources of WIT to light the path.

What inspired you to start your business?
I was 19 and thought I knew everything! Honestly, I believed I could run a great company, better than what I saw available to me. And so – I decided to give it a go. 38 years later, I’m still enjoying being a business leader.

What is one of your most memorable career accomplishments?
There are a few. One was hitting 25 million in sales! That was a fun milestone. Getting our first million-dollar order was another, and getting an order for 10 million pieces of one item. I also remember walking through the airport in Germany and saw 2 people carrying bags we had designed and produced for Spiegel/Eddie Bauer. It’s always a boost to see our products out in the world. 

What is the most rewarding part of your job?
Seeing people use and enjoy the products we produce. Watching our team high five when a tough project wraps up and ships. Getting kudos from a client for a job well done. Knowing that we helped an inventor get their product into the world. Meeting the incredible people in this industry who are my friends forever!

What’s the ONE thing you recommend ALL businesswomen do right now to take their business or career to the next level?
I have two. First, take a look at your brand and create stunning packaging. Second is to find a mentor, someone who’s been in your shoes – older than you, and use them up!

What advice would you offer working moms?
Balance your time and make sure your kids know you love them. Feed them and hug them in the morning, and be there when they come home. And if they’re little, surround them with family and a great caretaker who can bring them around your office to see what Mom is up to. My kids grew up in my office, and they are both working in the business now. It was fun, and hectic, and all worked out just fine.

What do you do during the first hour of your business day and why?
Get present to your overall goals. Why are you in this business, who are you to your employees, clients and the world. Read through your short- and long-term plan, every day Then take a moment to be with the universe (or whatever inspires you). Review your schedule, and make a list of your 6 priorities (actions). Leave a little room for surprises throughout the day, but resist doing anything else until you accomplish the 6. Then move on to another 6. That’s the secret – 6!

What one thing helps you prepare (and relax) in the minutes leading up to a big pitch/presentation?
If you are prepared, you won’t be nervous. Create your pitch, and practice it on others until it’s right where you want it. Be sure to have clarity of the outcome you want, and what you will be watching for and listening for throughout your presentation. When you get on the big stage – you’ll be focused on others, and not on yourself as much, and for that reason, you’ll do great.

How do you recharge/reboot?
Bourbon and a trip to the beach! A little yoga and time in the garden is wonderful too.

What’s your favorite mobile app?
Right now it’s Imago – but I also love to keep up with everyone on Facebook and LinkedIn.

What is your favorite productivity tip?
Be clear on your priorities for the day. Limit your to-do list to the top 6 ONLY. Do those and then choose 6 more. Use Smart Sheets and Outlook or Google to organize tasks and priorities.

What is the one thing you couldn’t live without?
Besides the internet? My husband? The kids – my Jack Russell and bees? Hum….. I can live without everything except my husband Steve, a little Sunshine and my Mac!

Who is your hero (in business, life or both)?
My hero in business is Martha Stewart. She has built an empire on empowering people, beauty and creativity. In life – my hero is my husband Steve. He never waivers, he’s my rock and my business partner, and I can’t imagine anyone else I’d rather be on life’s journey with.

What does WIT membership mean to you? How has it impacted your career?
It means sisterhood, empowerment, confidence and power! I’ve been fortunate to sponsor WIT and from that, meet and work with so many talented and passionate women in the industry.

What has surprised you most about WIT?
The reach, the size, the high level of talent and leadership.

What do you wish other people knew about WIT?
I wish for people to know that WIT is there to empower people in the toy industry to succeed and reach the world with their products. And we have a lot of fun along the way.

Click here to nominate someone for WIT Stories.

Swedish Toy Retailer Believes Toys and Baby Products Should be Sold Together

Lena Hedö, swedenBy Lena Hedö

Kungen’s Kurva Shopping Centre, just outside of Stockholm, is Sweden’s largest commerce site. This is where Peter Stenlund opened his sixth store one year ago—only 600 meters from another shop in the same retail chain, and with several other competitors close by.

“If you are confident and believe in your concept there is no reason to be afraid of competition. On the contrary, it is positive to establish your brand where the traffic is,” Stenlund says.

The large shopping center originally came together by several different malls that over time grew in to each other. Kungen’s Kurva, which can pride with having the largest Ikea in the world, also has a brand new shopping arcade and there are plans to double the amount of shopping opportunities. Additionally, there are two other centres in the area: Heron City and Skärholmen’s Centre. “The catchment area is very large,” Stenlund explains, “and tells us there are about 1.7 million potential customers. This opportunity was just right, as the development during 2014 was very strong.”

Stenlund’s business has reached a critical point as it’s become too large to handle without some essential areas being covered. “The fifth store was probably the most difficult,” he says. “We were still working in a small scale and couldn’t hire a Regional Director, but [it was] too big for me to handle myself. It was up to me to delegate the workload, have self-sufficient stores, and to trust the staff. A Store Manager is completely necessary and also functions as a Deputy for the store.”

Lekia kk bp gavel

The competition in the new establishment is grand, however Stenlund says that Lekia’s double establishment isn’t remarkable in the context, and there are several strong examples to mark this. They are contending with the in-size, largest Toys ‘R Us in the Nordics, Big Baby, a large-scale child and baby store, and not to be forgotten—Ikea. ”If I’ve learned anything, it comes down to observing the traffic and most of all customer frequency. Competition can drive customers for each other and at the same time it pushes the retailers to become better and better,” Stenlund says.

The store is located on the second floor in Kungen’s Kurva Shopping Centre and holds 630 square meters of retail place. It is a combined area of Lekia and Babyproffsen, which are both Voluntary Specialist Retail Chains that Stenlund is a member of. This is something he finds both convenient and natural. At our visit to the store, the baby section isn’t fully ready but everything else has found its place. The staffs are fully trained and a walkway is prepared in the center of the store.

“We want the line between ‘play’ and ‘baby’ to be a bit blurred, but it’s essential that it’s easy for the customers to find what they are looking for,” Stenlund says. About 40 per cent of the revenue comes from ‘baby,’ according to Stenlund.

Stenlund is a spokes person who strongly speaks for the sake that toys belong together with child- and baby products. “This is a necessary qualification to achieve profitable stores,” Stenlund says. “You have to see it from the customer’s point of view. The advantage with ‘baby’ is that it requires a deeper knowledge, which means you can’t sell it everywhere.”

Lekia kk barn i bil

As previously mentioned, the employees are an important resource for Peter Stenlund, who works after the principle of “team power.”

“Everyone helps out, and everyone has knowledge of the different areas, even if some have specific responsibilities,” Stenlund explains. “It’s important that you are a sales person in a positive and true sense. For example, we have an extra large retail expertise, as both the Store Manager and the Deputy in charge have a background of working at large retail chains. There is a difference in selling and to have goods for sale.”

On Stenlund’s to-do list we find staff supplementation, as well as to continue having recurring phone meetings with the Store Manager every week. When and if the long-sought-for Regional- or Sales Director can be hired, all depends on when the next store comes to life. In terms of the turnover Peter don’t want to rush to conclusion.

“I expect it to take 24 months before we reach a reasonable level,” Stenlund says.

Game of Drones

Drones compete to be top dog in the R/C aisle by adding extra features, gaming, and more.

Winter is coming—well, at least for the toy industry, which is constantly looking forward to Q4—and toy manufacturers are always competing to provide the best products at the best price.

Last year, we saw an influx of drones hit the market. A lot of companies were jumping on the trend, from traditional R/C companies to newcomers to the game that were importing in unknown brands. Retail shelves and online retailers were flooded with a variety of drones, making it a bit of a struggle for consumers to sift through all the options to find the one that suited their needs. [Read more...]

The New Age of Feature Plush

Feature plush has come a long way, expanding far beyond plush toys that just talk or make sounds. This year, plush are more realistic and interactive than ever.

Last year, most interactive plush introductions responded to touch, voice, or movements. This year, companies continue to raise the standard, taking plush to the next level. [Read more...]

Q&A with Hansa Creation

The Toy Book spoke with Richard Martinez, president, Hansa North America, about what sets the plush company apart.

Tell me about Hansa’s background.

Inspired by our mission to educate today’s generation and future generations on the need to preserve and protect nature’s wildlife, Hansa’s artisans have lovingly designed and hand-crafted the world’s largest collection of “true to life” animals. From the 3-inch mole to the life-size mammoth, the quality, care, and commitment to education, creative play, heirloom quality, and exacting detail are reflected in each Hansa item.


What are your plans for expanding U.S. distribution?

Hansa offers its dealers unique opportunities through multiple merchandising and display platforms. Everybody loves animals, and offering customers and guests “wow”-evoking, traffic-driving attractions and must-have quality designs makes your store even more of a destination. Delighting and empowering Hansa collectors—who value the quality, eco-friendly, educational, and creative play features—provides unlimited opportunity for zoos, museums, wildlife parks, children’s and pet stores, specialty retail, display, home décor and furnishings, attractions, promotional, event planners, catalog, eco-friendly, rental, and educational facilities to “share the magic” of Hansa’s Creations.

What makes Hansa different from other plush companies?

Each item is individually hand-crafted, giving every animal a unique personality.

Hansa_GiraffeWhat makes your products so special?

Custom-designed fabrics, pin-point creation detail, and the eco-friendly design studio setting provide the creation team with the environment where gentle paws, swishing tails, and soulful eyes and faces come together to give each character a realistic look and heirloom-quality feel that is unmistakably Hansa.

Are there educational components to your products?

Yes, each item comes with an educational booklet that features factoids, a teaching tag, and pictures and tells the story of the animals in their natural settings.

What messages are you imparting to consumers?

Our mission is to educate, delight, and entertain today’s generation and future generations, reminding them of the need to preserve, protect, explore, and understand nature’s majestic animal kingdom.

What are Hansa’s plans for the future?

Hansa will continue to enhance and expand our collection, availability, and consumer access, while creating opportunities for our dealers with unique, educational, traffic-driving, cuddly, and creative play designs. Hansa will never rest in its goal to make our good products better and our better, best. »

Q&A: Patch Products Becomes PlayMonster

BobWannThe Toy Book catches up with Bob Wann, CEO of PlayMonster.

Patch Products is now PlayMonster! What’s the story behind the new name?

The name was changed to PlayMonster to better represent the diversity and quality of the company’s product line, which is a reflection of our mission and values. We started the process several months ago with motivation to simply update and evolve our logo, but as we researched and examined the changing marketplace, we saw an opportunity to create a playful new brand name that better expresses our belief in the power of play and that play is not only about fun, but also about making a difference in people’s lives.

The new name also better reflects that we are champions of play, a belief and attitude shared by all of our employees—from the management team to sales people to product creators.


How has PlayMonster evolved over the past 30 years?

PlayMonster was founded as Patch Products in 1985 and named for co-founders and brothers Fran and Bryce Patch. The company started more than 30 years ago with children’s puzzles, but has since grown into one of the world’s leading manufacturers and marketers of award-winning games and toys that enrich the lives of the young and the young at heart. The company has grown tremendously over the past five years alone, because we’ve expanded from being a games-only company into a multi-category toy and game company developing play for all ages, with our infant toy line Mirari, all the way to our best-selling games such as The Game of THINGS… for adults. With this variety of products, we’re now shipping millions of units of toy and game products per year, three times as many as we did five years ago. We wholeheartedly believe in bringing high-quality play to people of all ages, and will continue to do so under the PlayMonster name.

PlayMonster has experienced rapid growth over the past few years, and is now a top 30 toy company. To what do you attribute this growth, and how do you plan to maintain it?

We’ve continued to be picky about the games we create and take under our brand. We only want to produce quality products that have timeless play, not a toy or game that’s frivolous, or some short-term fad that will not have long-term appeal. A good example of this is our popular party game 5 Second Rule. We first started working on it seven years ago, and today it’s even more popular than it was when it first launched. It is still a top seller because of the fun interaction it creates. Ellen DeGeneres enjoys it so much that she frequently plays the game on her show, and the interaction between her and her guests is hilarious. In the same way we’re picky about specific ideas, we’re also careful in the acquisitions we make. We look for long-lasting play value, often with a point of difference that makes it special, and that’s what we found with our most recent acquisition of Roominate.

What inspired the acquisition of Roominate? How will this acquisition impact PlayMonster?

With the acquisition of Roominate, a line of toys designed to open up possibilities for kids by showing them that creativity and engineering are fun, PlayMonster expands into the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) category.

STEM is one of the fastest-growing categories in the toy industry today. What makes Roominate different is that not only do parents like it because it delivers on the principles of STEM, but kids love it because it’s so much fun they want to play with it over and over again. The founders of Roominate did a fantastic job of designing this line with the help of kids so that the fun is new every time. What good is a STEM toy if it’s not fun and kids don’t want to use it, right?


In an age where kids are spending more time with technology at younger ages, how are you helping kids and families spend more time playing together?

We make fun games and toys that promote interaction and quality time by playing with friends and family. We are champions of play because play brings people together with laugh-out-loud fun, and that’s important in today’s high-pressure world. We offer a fun way to escape stress and “screen time”and consumers clearly seem to be responding to that, as evidenced by not only by our increasing sales, but also by all of the awards and accolades our products have received recently. In the last six years alone we have had eight TOTY (Toy Industry Toy of the Year) award finalists across multiple categories—that’s a huge accomplishment for us, as well as a great honor.

What are your future plans and expectations?

We expect to continue to achieve high growth as PlayMonster by continuing our momentum and building on what’s been successful for us, and so far that’s two very essential things: The first is providing great play for all ages, not just for kids or adults or infants, but for everyone. The second is providing high-quality play that stands the test of time and offers a remarkable play experience, not games or toys that will only hold interest for a few days. These two ingredients, plus scaling up our marketing and advertising on digital media and TV, will be our key to continued growth. Last year we promoted one item, Chrono Bomb, on TV, and this year we plan to promote several more, including our popular kids’ game Yeti in My Spaghetti. So we’re definitely Yeti—oops, I mean ready—for an exciting new year!

Q&A: KD Group Plans Expansion in the U.S.

KD.EricLevinThis year marks the return of KD Group as a North American International Toy Fair exhibitor. While the company is better known in Europe, KD Group is no stranger to the U.S. toy and kids’ electronics businesses. The company’s Kurio line has been a leading kids’ tablet brand in the U.S. for the past four holiday seasons.

The Toy Book sat down with KD Group’s Strategic Director Eric Levin to learn more about the company’s plans for U.S. growth and expansion.

What is KD Group’s background?

KD Group has been the leading manufacturer of innovative kids’ electronic toys throughout Europe for more than 20 years. Under our Kidz Delight (KD) brand, we offer a wide range of toys that help build early learning skills for infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. They are sold at mass and specialty retailers in more than 20 countries.

Tell us about your plans for expansion in the U.S.

KD Group is most known in the U.S. currently for our Kurio line of kid-safe Android and Windows tablets. Under that brand, we give kids the latest technology they want, but with the safety features that bring parents peace of mind. Meanwhile, our KD line of toys has been available in the U.S., but has been largely “under the radar.” We are committed to changing that this year and beyond.

We believe KD Group has the experience, resources, and commitment needed to be a significant player not only in the kids’ tablet market, but also in the toy industry more broadly, expanding into categories that include preschool electronics, traditional toys, and licensed products. KD Group is committed to building a talented and experienced team here in the U.S. to ensure that we who are close to the market are creating products that work for American consumers and retailers.

KD Headoffice_RR5_140324

Where do your new product ideas come from? Do you work with outside inventors?

KD Group has always sought to be innovative by adapting new technologies, whether it is motion recognition, voice recording, or image projection, for example, to guarantee cutting-edge educational toys that are ergonomically designed for children. We have an in-house team of product engineers, scientists, and educators who collaborate on product development, and we also work with established outside inventors. In fact, our doors are always open to new opportunities and we welcome inventors to help us innovate.

In the past, Kurio partnered with major players in the app world. Are you open to working with new licensing partners going forward?

On the Kurio side in the U.S., we’ve partnered with everyone from Angry Birds to Fruit Ninja, and from Disney to YouTube Kids. In Europe, KD Group has a strong portfolio of premiere licenses and is the preferred electronic toy licensee for major brands including Peppa Pig, Fireman Sam, Disney, Barbie, and Monster High. We recognize the importance of licenses and are very interested in growing our licensed product portfolio in the U.S.

KD Headoffice_RR5_140324

What is your focus for this year? What can we expect to see from KD Group in the future?

We see a great opportunity for market share gain with Kurio this year, given the troubles our main competitors have seen. We will continue to stay on trend and align with what is driving the business. For example, we are the first company to offer Windows two-in-one options for kids. We are also very focused on the importance of offering a strong value to consumers.

Additionally, we’re excited to expand our Kurio range to include Kurio Watch, a real-working Bluetooth smartwatch designed especially for kids. It combines all the basic watch functions (alarm, calendar, calculator, etc.) with music and video players, a front-facing camera for taking selfies and videos, messaging capabilities, an activity tracker, and mini games using motion sensors.

On the toy side, we’re eager to further expand the reach of our KD line of successful European-designed educational toys in the U.S. Developed in conjunction with childhood learning professionals, the toys offer kids ages 6 months and up stimulation through different shapes and learning themes. Many of the KD toys are bilingual and also double as role-play items. Ranges include: iLOL, a “my first” series of toys for infants; Toddly Fun interactive toys; Silly Sam & Friends toys featuring silly characters in the form of everyday household items, such as a flashlight and a coffee maker; Cheeky Tunes musical instruments; and My Bath Time waterproof-guaranteed tub toys.

Under our Tech-Too brand, we have a new range of realistic, pretend, touch-sensitive toys that look just like mom and dad’s electronic devices, featuring a smart TV, remote controls, a smartphone, a two-in-one tablet, a notebook, and a camera.

We’re also introducing a new range of nightlights for infants and small children with a cute ghostlike character called Tinyboo, who helps comfort kids who may be afraid of the dark. The night-lights utilize LED technology and come in different forms and functions, from a basic Mini Light that makes the perfect bedside companion; to a Baby Light that doubles as a rattle; to a Lantern that brightens to guide young children throughout the home; to a Huggy Plush toy that has a special cuddle sensor built in.