BlueSquare’s David Fuhrer on collaboration, innovation and ‘acorn moments’

David Fuhrer, BlueSquare

David, it’s great to tie-in. To kick us off, let’s start at the beginning… What set you on the path into this industry?
I moved to Los Angeles after college and started my career at a Hollywood talent agency, in the mailroom. I then became an assistant to the Head of Talent. In my spare time, I had been on a number of television shows because I have this unusual, useless ability to speak backwards. I had a Guinness World Record and had been on some of the biggest talk shows in America with that.

I had been visiting New York Toy Fair in 1987 and my brother, Bob, had a showroom in the Toy Center. In his showroom I met a toy inventor named Mark Setteducati. Mark suggested that my backwards-talking would be a great hook for a board game. I thought that sounded fun, so we worked on a game together which Bob licensed to Random House – so I was in! I’d licensed the first product I’d worked on so I thought it was easy!

Ha! And what was that game called?
Backwords. They advertised it on television and put me in the commercials.

Yes! And we can include a link to the ad here so folks can check that out.

It’s a fun ad! And so the game involved players trying to work out the words that were spelt backwards.
Yes, you’d read a word out backwards with a clue and the other players would have to shout out the answer forwards. So for example, if I said: Ananab – a fruit that begins with ‘B’. You’d shout out…

You got it. And Random House sold a couple of hundred thousand units… Looking back, I think the game could have been improved in a few areas, but Mark was right – my backwards-talking was a good marketing hook. So that was my start. It was a very personal project and I had some great mentors in Bob and Mark. It was a lot of fun and very exciting to see that game come to life.

Going from a Hollywood talent agency to toy and game invention seems like quite a leap. Were there many similarities?
Yes. Being an inventor is a lot like being a producer in Hollywood. You’re basically putting all the elements together. You have a saleable product and you to find distribution and promotion. You have to collaborate with other people to bring it to life. In many ways it’s the same, but I found I liked the people better in the toy industry. Hollywood is a little more cut-throat, whereas in toys it’s a smaller world. The good people find each other and the bad people find each other.

Your licensed products have crossed the billion dollar mark of retail sales, winning many industry awards along the way. And looking at what you’ve licensed over the years, there’s a real mix of products across almost every category. Was it always part of the plan to work across so many different areas of toys and games?
My approach is opportunistic to some degree. I always collaborate with other talented people; they’re not all my own ideas. I look at ideas from a select group of folks that pitch to me and we selectively decide what to work on.

I focus on platforms; I look for things that could become brands. And I try and build it around some kind of proprietary feature or technology, be it an ink or a mechanism or a compound. If it’s not one of those things, then I try to ensure that it’s so well executed that people have to say yes.

I always look at it like everyone’s very busy. You’re busy, I’m busy, the toy company people are busy… The best way for a product to get to the top of someone’s pile is to present something that’s extremely well done, or something they’re not going to get internally; some kind of magic… My special sauce has been to scour the world for technologies.

You mention working with other people. What makes for a successful collaboration?
For me, the personal aspect is always number one – and somebody who has skills that I don’t have. When I work on a product, I look at three things, whether it’s my idea or someone else’s idea… Is it something I really love and believe in? That’s number one – I want to be excited to get up every day.

Number two is: Does this have a chance of being successful? From my experience having done this for a long time, I generally have a sense of whether we have a shot. It doesn’t mean something will get licensed, but it means we have a chance. It’s about being realistic with an end customer in-mind.

And number three?
Number three is: Is this somebody I really love to work with? I see these relationships as life-long, where friendships transcend the business. If the product doesn’t go well, or it never comes out, at least it wasn’t a bad experience… We all believed in it, we loved working together and it had a shot. And it’s not just the inventors I work with that I try and build personal relationships with. I try and do the same with people at the toy companies themselves.

A fantastic approach. You also mentioned about scouring the world for new technologies. That sounds like a mammoth task – how do you set about doing that? What guides you?
The first thing I do is say to myself: ‘You have to show up.’ It means I have to be at the trade shows – whether it’s Nuremberg, London or New York – looking. I had a mentor from Japan, the President of Pilot; a man called Tak Abe. He observed me one day and said I reminded him of a dog – in that I sniffed every bush!

Ha! There’s a compliment in there!
Absolutely! He said it was the trait of a successful businessman. And that’s what I do – I look for innovation and look at other industries. I look at fabrics, inks, the automotive industry… I read different publications. And if I see something that’s applicable to the toy industry, I make an effort to develop something.

I’ve built relationships with laboratories and have been a consultant for Pilot of Japan for almost 25 years. Pilot is the largest pen company in the world, but they have a division called Pilot Ink. They create ink technologies that are used throughout the global toy industry for colour change inks; whether it’s thermochromatic which is temperature sensitive, photochromatic which is light sensitive or hydrochromatic which is water sensitive. Pilot has been a great partner for developing products using those technologies.

They were also the basis for one of the biggest hits of my career: Aquadoodle.

David Fuhrer, BlueSquare

Of course! A proper toy icon – and one my two-year old daughter absolutely loves. Before we dive into Aquadoodle, do you have to adopt a certain lens when you’re looking at things like inks, or working with labs? How do you ‘squint’ to see toy potential in something?
I think I do have a little bit of an innate sense… I can’t always articulate what I’m looking for, but when I see it, I know. Part of that comes from doing this for a long time, but if I see an opportunity that solves an everyday problem – or creates an innovation to a popular play pattern – that really excites me. If I look at the most successful products that I’ve licensed, each of them, at their heart, is a common play pattern with an innovation that enhances that play pattern or solves a problem for the child – or the parent.

Aquadoodle being a great example of that.
Exactly. Aquadoodle was the first opportunity for young children to create on a large surface without making a mess. Parents didn’t have to worry about them colouring on the walls or on their skin. At the heart of it was an activity drawing toy.

It’s the same with our Nerf Vortex Football. That came from the problem that a lot of people can’t throw a traditional American football because it’s a little bit difficult; it requires some technique. The Nerf Vortex Football automatically stabilises itself, so no matter how bad an athlete you are, you can throw it far.

David Fuhrer, BlueSquare

Great examples. Looping back to Aquadoodle. How did that concept come about?
I had built a relationship with Pilot. I had met the President of Pilot as he was trying to get into the Spin Master showroom in New York. I didn’t know who he was, but he was with someone I knew. We started chatting, I got him in and gave him a tour. He then invited me to come and see him at the upcoming Tokyo Toy Fair a few months later. This was Mr Abe who I mentioned earlier.

So I did go to the Fair and met him again, and he said he wanted my opinion on something. We stepped into a tiny closet in his showroom and he showed me the hydrochromic colour change technology. He said: “What do you think? Could it be a good toy?” I looked at him and said: “I think it’s one of the best things I’ve ever seen.”

The product then got developed and launched in Japan. I was able to bring Spin Master into it and they licensed it. Ronnen Harary and Ben Varadi came to Japan and did the deal – and that also opened up their relationships with Japan. But it all started with that innovative Pilot technology. I was their agent to help find partners throughout the world and was also able to offer some innovation to enhance their idea.

Did the product resonate with consumers straight away?
Right out of the gate it became the number one pre-school activity toy in the world. I was so happy because I’d pitched it around to some larger companies – Spin Master was in an early stage of their development – and everyone turned it down. We did the deal with Spin Master and it hit. They were so wonderful and had lots of great people dedicated to the product development of the brand. They did great packaging and marketing. It was like lightning in a bottle. We had this great product and found a great partner in Spin Master. The collaboration worked really well. And Tak Abe became like a father figure to Ronnen; we all enjoyed many wonderful trips to Japan as Aquadoodle grew. It was a wonderful time in my career.

David Fuhrer, BlueSquare

Fantastic. You mentioned the Spin guys there, and you’ve pitched to many inventor relations execs over the years. What do you think makes someone good at the job of inventor relations?
I really value somebody who still gets excited about products. Right now, we have some of the best inventor relations people that I’ve ever seen in my career. In my early days, I’d meet with some people who felt like they were falling asleep in the room. They didn’t seem to care; they were more ‘hunter-gatherers’. And I stress, that wasn’t the case with everybody. I’ve worked with some wonderful people over the years, like Stan Clutton who’s no longer with us, and many others.

As inventors, we’re coming in a sort of a vacuum. We don’t know what else a company is seeing so we’re excited about our product. But you might take something out that someone has seen 10 times before – we all work on similar things, it happens so often. But when I come in and the inventor relations person is excited and has ideas on how it can be improved – and when they work internally to try and figure out where it could go… I value that.

And the inventor community values communication. This is 100% how we make a living, so when a concept is pending at a company, it’s precious; it’s important. We want to know what’s happening. Sometimes things go in and you’re waiting weeks to find out what’s happening… The good inventor relations execs will communicate regularly and if it’s a reasonable amount of time they’ll offer an option payment. That keeps businesses healthy and keeps us all excited. The good ones communicate every step of the way and then negotiate fairly on behalf of the company.

Great insights.
And actually, one of the inventor relations people that I got into the industry is Spin Master’s Rich Mazel.

Oh! How did you that happen?
He was in the real estate business and found me through a toy trade magazine. He had a bunch of ideas and for a few years we’d have regular meetings about product. Then I recommended him to Spin Master because he loved product and was so smart. I thought he’d make a great inventor relations executive and he has; he’s wonderful at what he does and is a great friend.

David Fuhrer, BlueSquare

There we go! Some Mazel trivia for us all! Now, we’ve spoken about some of your big hits, but what would you say is one of your more underrated creations?
There’s a lot of answers to that! One of my products that was a hit but got derailed by the pandemic was Twisty Petz with Spin Master. It’s passion project; a really fantastic product. I love this collectable toy – and it’s coming back next year thankfully. It’s a collaboration with Rob Schuyler of DiscoNifty and Richard Kimbrough. The concept is that they are bracelets that you bend and twist like a balloon animal. You can wear it as a bracelet or play with it as a pet.

Yes, I remember Twisty Petz. Glad to hear it’ll be back in 2025.
Richard and I actually licensed it under a different name to Spin Master many years ago – it was called Bizu back then. We were never happy with how it was marketed… It was seen as more of an activity toy where you’d assemble the bracelets. In 2016 I met Rob and we brought him into the project. He did wonderful product development on it to execute this new vision and make it more of a collectible.

David Fuhrer, BlueSquare

They looked great.
Thank you. Another one that comes to mind is Scrushkins. That was a mouldable plush – you could bend and twist the face to mimic emotions. I actually launched that myself, which was probably a mistake because it was extremely innovative and I didn’t have any promotional dollars. I got it into Walmart, but I made a packaging mistake which meant the product got damaged very easily by consumers. That derailed it, but I believe that could’ve been a giant hit. Maybe someone could bring it back!

David Fuhrer, BlueSquare

The campaign starts here! Now, on the other side of the coin, what has been your most successful product over the years?
My most successful and longest-lasting product is the Nerf Vortex Football. I always credit John Barbour, who was the President of OddzOn. They were a small company that licensed that product before that company was acquired by Hasbro and it joined the Nerf portfolio. It was rejected by 23 companies, but John shared our vision for it – I had two partners on that.

John put it through wind tunnel tests at Stanford to make sure the performance was maximised. He hired John Elway – a very famous quarterback in the United States – at the height of his career to promote the product.

We’ll put one of the Elway ads in here so people can check that out.

And it did well right away?
It had distribution at every mom-and-pop retailer, as well as at the majors. OddzOn had a product called the Koosh Ball and they’d set up distribution for that in all kinds of retailers, not just toy stores, so the Vortex was able to benefit from that… And after 23 rejections it became the bestselling toy football in the world.

Amazing. And you mentioned earlier that the idea for this came from the problem that a lot of people can’t throw an American football.
Well, at the time we were trying to create sports toys that were aspirational. What things do kids want to do that they can’t do. Things like hit a home run, dunk a basketball or throwing a long pass in American football. And one of the problems I had as a child is that I could never throw a football properly, so we made a ball that looked like a big javelin. That was the beginning of Vortex, and then we kept modifying it until it got to the right size. We felt like we had an amazing throwing toy – and it didn’t have to be a football. It was so aerodynamic, no matter how you threw it, it always straightened out in the air. It was so much fun.

And when a product has a very wide demographic appeal, it has a greater chance of success. This was a ball – it didn’t matter if you were a boy or a girl, or a child or an adult, it was just fun to throw. When other inventors pitch me things I always look at that; what’s the potential market for that product.

David Fuhrer, BlueSquare

How long as Vortex been out now?
For 31 years. It’s been a baseline product that’s kept the lights on for me to keep doing this. This year, Hasbro did a licensing out deal with Franklin Sports for Franklin to take all of the Nerf Sports products – everything outside of the blasters. So for the first time in many years, we have a new distributor for this product. We’re very excited about it; I had a great meeting with them in Nuremberg and they have lots of interesting plans for the product.

Historically that product sold very well in North America because of American football. That meant it wasn’t seen as an international product because that sport is limited to America. it’s a throwing and catching toy. As such, it sounds like they’re getting a wide range of distributors throughout the world.

Great news. Now, I also wanted to ask you about one of your recent launches: the TOTY-nominated Reel Big Catch with Educational Insights. It looks great; how did that one come about?
It was an idea I had for about 20 years and it finally came to life! The idea was inspired by a collapsible cup that I’d picked up somewhere. I brought in another inventor on this one named Rob Antonio. He’s a great mechanism builder. He has a full-time job now but before then he did some mechanisms for me; he’s a very talented guy. We finally solved a problem I had with this idea and Educational Insights bought it. It’s an innovative way for pre-schoolers to learn about measurements and it’s doing really well.

David Fuhrer, BlueSquare

What was the problem you struggled with on it?
It needed a mechanism that ensured it looked and wiggled like a real fish. The concept of the game is that all the fish look the same when they’re on the table, but when you lift it with the fishing rod they’re all dramatically different sizes. A fish needed to seamlessly move back into itself, and Rob was able to achieve that with a wonderful mechanism. Then the folks at Educational Insights – Brent Geppert and Lisa Guili – did a great job developing the product.

And 20 years wrestling with an idea… Well done for not letting it go!
Stick-to-it-iveness as they say! You’ve gotta know when to quit, but you’ve gotta know when to keep pursuing it.

David Fuhrer, BlueSquare

Now, before I let you go, do you think there’s anything about your personality that has helped you thrive in toy invention?
That’s an interesting thing to think about… There’s a few things. I love people – I’ve had a great time building personal relationships which has helped me place products. I love innovation and still get so excited when I see something new. I work with the same level of enthusiasm that I had 30 years ago. I think you need that inherent love of product and childlike curiosity to work in this business.

And a positive attitude; that has to be baked into you to be good at this. It’s very hard to license a product and it can be so disappointing at times, so you need to have a thick skin and positive energy. That helps you to keep going and going, knowing things will be rejected or come out but not be successful… You need a positive outlook to be able to go into the next project with the same level of energy and enthusiasm. I’ve licensed over 300 products and only a handful have been ‘successful’, meaning they’ve generated enough money to maintain a business. Most of them don’t, which is why it’s so important to work with people you love on things that excite you that have a chance of being successful, because every now and then one of them will be.

Absolutely. Terrific advice.
And you need to be extremely reliable with people and when it comes to showing up. There’s been many times where I’ve thought: ‘Ah, should I go to this European show? It’s expensive… I have other things going on…’ Because I don’t always have a specific reason to go to these things… But then you just go and when you’re there, things happen. That’s what I tell inventors – go, show up, be there. You want to build those relationships with companies and other inventors, and see what’s out there. You might stumble upon that magic that can change the course of your entire life and career.

I call them ‘acorn moments’. They’re those seemingly insignificant moments that then grow into an oak tree.

‘Acorn moments’ – that’s a lovely way of approaching opportunities.
The other thing is that my brother Bob and I were exposed to the industry from a very young age because our dad was in the toy industry. He ran a division of a company that owned some toy and hobby companies. He had a great reputation and was a name in the industry, so that made it easier for us to get into the industry. Bob joined the industry before I did, and he’s been a tremendous mentor to me. He guided me and made introductions for me at the start of my career, and to this day we talk on a daily basis.

One of the best things about being in the toy industry is that despite living in different cities, whenever there’s an industry function, we’re together. And while we have separate businesses, we have each other to confide in, talk to and make introductions for. His two boys are also in the business now, so that’s the third generation of our family in this industry.

David Fuhrer, BlueSquare

David, this has been a genuine pleasure. My last question for you is how do you have ideas? What fuels your creativity?
I have no methodical way of doing it. I call it ‘situational awareness’. I’m always looking and talking and visiting retailers and toy fairs. I read trade magazine and talk to inventors constantly. After doing this for a long time you know when something feels right and that fuels me. I’m working on some of the best things of my career right now and I’m as excited as I’ve ever been about these concepts.

David, thanks again. Let’s tie-in again soon.

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