Genius at Play: Secrets of the International Toy Industry Revealed

Tal Schreiber explains what it takes to invent a toy, what kids should get out of it and why timing is the secret to it all.

Dafna Arad
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Tal Schreiber.Credit: David Bachar
Dafna Arad

Tal Schreiber says she can arrange for me to meet with the inventor of Furby. She suggests that photos be taken in the home of Haim Shafir, who’s behind the Taki card game. To my question of how old she is, she replies, “I was born a year after the Barbie doll, in 1960.”

Schreiber has been inventing toys for about a quarter of a century, and her profession has come to dominate her biography, “even though I didn’t invent any global hit.” She didn’t, for example, invent Bakugan, she adds demurely, referring to the toy that has turned the company she works for, Toronto-based Spin Master, into a giant in the realm of children’s entertainment.

In our talk at a Tel Aviv restaurant, Schreiber reveals some of the secrets of the international toy industry, such as the percentage the inventor gets from each unit that’s sold, and which clauses in one’s contract it’s worthwhile to be especially attentive to. She admits that every inventor has a lot more failures than successes, but also urges everyone who thinks he has a good idea not to hesitate to publicize it rather than trying to keep it under wraps by means of secrecy clauses.

“People don’t understand that behind every game or toy there is an inventor,” she notes. “The fun part is that I can think of an idea, sketch it and hand it over to the company. I don’t even have to be part of the development process. The companies buy ideas from outside inventors, then develop, design, manufacture and market the product. Every large toy company has a department that deals with inventors and cultivates them. If the company succeeds, the inventor succeeds. No one ever knows what will be a hit and what won’t be. Sometimes millions are invested in a product and it fails.

“There’s a small community of toy inventors worldwide, whose members meet a few times a year at international conferences,” Schreiber continues. “Everyone has a story. One came up with his idea during an economic recession when he was out of work, a second created a model out of tires, a third will never forget how a company tricked him. All the inventors know each other, and all the ties are forged by networking. On top of which, almost everyone in this field is Jewish, which also helps.”

During our conversation, she places all kinds of new Spin Master toys in garishly colored packages on the table between us. There are dragons, wheeled monsters, a disciplined Zoomer robotic dog and a purple fairy that flies delightfully around until it crashes into a wall. Occasionally we break off the conversation to play Ionix, which is a fusion of Lego and Robotrix, or read the saccharine story of the Kawaii Crush dolls that appears on the package.

Schreiber recalls that the huge Canadian toy company started off with a product called Earth Buddy. Spin Master was founded in 1994 when Israeli-born Odette Levy, who lived in Canada, read in an Israeli newspaper that a million Grass Heads (known abroad as Chia Pets) had been sold back home. If that many were sold in little Israel, she thought, it should be easy to sell many more in Canada. Her son, Ronnen Harary, and his friends, Anton Rabie and Ben Varadi, had just graduated from university, and she suggested that they go into the business.

A month later, on Canada’s Mother’s Day, they launched their version, Earth Buddy, in sales booths. Within a short time they went into mass production and reached the big chains. That tremendous success was the genesis of Spin Master.

A spin at Shenkar

Following the Earth Buddy bonanza, Spin Master was approached by two British inventors with an idea that had been rejected by all the other toy companies: to develop a toy plane that would fly by means of air pressure from a pump. In 1996, Air Hogs, radio-controlled free-flying vehicles, landed in the stores and became a worldwide success. Other big successes of the company include Tech Deck, a tiny skateboard that’s activated with the fingers, a building system based on the Lego patent and the Robotrix figures, and a television series, “Paw Patrol,” which became a major hit on the Nickelodeon Junior channel and generated a line of spinoff products.

Schreiber was recruited a year-and-a-half ago by the company to find business opportunities in Israel. To that end, she meets with toy inventors, technology companies, designers and digital-game developers. In her words, “I have a really great time and get paid for it.”

To expand and train a new generation of toy inventors in Israel, Schreiber (together with Ariel Laden) has developed the curriculum for App Toy, a five-month course held in the Department of Industrial Design at Shenkar College in Ramat Gan, in conjunction with Spin Master. She is currently interviewing candidates who possess a technological, design and creative background for the second course. Candidates should be acquainted with the toy market, processes of invention and development, game methodology, model building, game-oriented thinking, entrepreneurship and presentation skills.

“While preparing the course I realized that during my 20 years in the toy invention field I learned a thing or two that you can’t find in books,” Schreiber observes.

Did any of the 17 graduates of the first course actually invent a toy?

“We had two achievements. First, I was able to infect everyone with the bug of toy inventing. On the practical side, selected ideas of students are already under consideration by the leading companies, including Mattel, Hasbro and Spin Master. Things are happening. There’s pressure for the program to prove itself, along with a strong desire to work with Israeli industry. There’s a similar project in Japan. I understand it took eight years before anything happened there.”

How do you teach toy invention?

“Toy inventors don’t have to be highly educated or geniuses. You need sensitivity, entrepreneurship and innovation. There are different types of inventors. Even though many people think you have to be a designer, it’s actually when you come without prior knowledge that you get the best ideas. Some people come from the technology field, others from the experiential side. Everything we invent already exists around us. Only the connections demand attention.”

Born in Jerusalem, Schreiber now lives in Pardes Hannah. After working as a graphic designer, she became a toy developer 25 years ago, after she decided to follow through on an idea she had for colored refrigerator magnets. She wasn’t able to sell them, and to this day has a stack of a thousand magnets at home. But working on that project gave her the idea for a building toy, based on geometrical shapes in primary colors with magnetic sides. She took the idea to the Nuremberg toy fair, where it was received with interest.

“It was at that fair that I suddenly understood the whole world of toys,” she recalls. “I didn’t yet know that there was such an occupation as toy inventor.”

Schreiber explains that because she came from the world of graphic design, “I only thought of flat products at this stage. I had an idea for a magnetic doll that would walk through a book with the child-reader. That was my second product: game books. I developed the idea for two years and set up a team with a psychologist to advise us, an illustrator and a writer. In the end, we put so much into it ...

“But I was delighted when it came on the market. I took it to a fair of children’s books in Bologna, where I was told by a large Italian publisher that it was really ugly but also the best idea at the fair. They wanted to manufacture it, but the company I was working with refused to give the idea to anyone, and I made a mistake by not fighting for it. Today there are millions of products like that – and I learned from my mistakes.”

Hits and misses

Amazingly, the next product she invented through the Israeli company also featured magnets – this time with cloth dolls that emitted sounds and could be stuck on the refrigerator.

“It took me a long time to kick the magnets habit,” she says, adding, “It wasn’t until I got to Ora Coster, the inventor of Guess Who?, that I grasped that there was such an occupation as toy and game inventor. I went to her because I heard that she received catalogs of toys from the top companies. I had no other way to keep up with what was going on in the toy world, and every time I attended a conference about toys, I saw that all my ideas were already on the shelf. We are still continuing to collaborate, and I admire her.”

When it comes to inventing toys, Schreiber admits, there is no need to reinvent the wheel: “You need to surprise the children and create magic for them. The idea is to let them have fun, not educate them. That’s the story in a nutshell.”

What about contracts?

“There are standard contracts in the United States, and the companies look after the inventor. But in Israel, without mentioning names, that culture doesn’t exist. Everywhere in the world, toy inventors work on the basis of royalties and get 3 to 5 percent of the manufacturer’s price. By the time the product reaches the market, its price jumps five times.”

Which clauses of a contract are problematic for the inventor?

“Most contracts have a clause stating that in the event of a copyright suit in regard to your toy, you are responsible and have to compensate the company. You need to pay attention to that clause ... because even if you are as honest as the day is long, some nut can always claim he was there before you. The opposite happened to me, but I decided it was better to focus on new inventions instead of getting involved in legal tangles.

“When you first get into this field, you want to make everyone sign secrecy agreements and you’re afraid of having your ideas stolen. You have to be careful and know whom to work with and whom to watch out for, but it’s better to tell others about the idea than to keep it locked in a safe.”

Schreiber describes a few of her other inventions: a talking mask, a pajama-party kit, a pasta pot toy for infants filled with “spaghetti” and bells, and Stack-a-Cake, a cloth cake with a candle, that continues to sell worldwide.

“The most interesting stories are about the things that didn’t come to fruition – which is the case with most inventions. My favorite is a bead that you stick into a perforated surface and which allows very young children to make a huge rug. I’m dying to do that with someone.

“You can come up with the best toy in the world, but if the timing is off it’s a lost cause. The big toy companies examine thousands of ideas. I always start from zero – I have nothing, and suddenly something emerges from all my fantasies.”

Spin Master toys.
Spin Master toys.

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