“Buckle up and hold onto your hats!” Erik Quam on products that excite him at Smart Toys and Games

Erik Quam, Smart Toys and Games, Deej Johnson

Erik, it’s been a while since we chatted… But people can read your first interview here! That tells us your background and how you like to be pitched to. When we spoke in New York, though, you really seemed to be in your element at Smart Toys and Games. For the uninitiated, who are they?
Smart Toys and Games is currently celebrating its 30th anniversary. We’re a Belgian-based company with offices in Germany, France, The Netherlands, The UK, and the United States. Have you ever heard the old saying that goes something like, “There’s nine people in the toy industry, and you are I are two of those people?”.

Ha! I haven’t heard that, but I love it.
It’s my way of saying I’ve known Smart’s founder, Rolf Vandoren, for over 15 years. We always used to bump into one another at trade fairs around the world… Rolf always made time to stop, catch up and talk trends and products. We’re both incredibly passionate about product and product stories. In fact, one Christmas, my wife and I gave the SmartMax Mega Ball Run as a gift to our daughter, Matilda. That’s one of the few toys that’ve truly stood the test of time here at The Quampound in Nebraska.

The Quampound! Terrific. And what is Smart Toys and Games all about?
Passion! Passion for product. Passion for people. Passion for positive play. In the short time I’ve been with the company, I’ve been blown away by the truly honest thought, care and execution that goes into each of the products they produce. The culmination of all that creative energy is obvious when you open the box of one of our puzzles or games. I always say, “The devil is in the details”, and those details – large and small – are so evident in our product. You simply cannot argue the aesthetics of the Smart Toys and Games product and brand.

No, I agree: they look and feel beautiful, and are incredibly addictive.
Thank you! The ‘all-hands-on-deck’ approach to Smart’s product design has resulted in some really magical mechanisms and surprising play patterns over the course of the company’s 30-year history. Our team of four in-house industrial designers works cooperatively and seamlessly together. We’re constantly asking ourselves, “How can we apply our ‘Smart Sauce’ to each product? Patent pending on ‘Smart Sauce’, Deej!

Erik Quam, Smart Toys and Games, Deej Johnson

I kid, but we’re always asking what we can do to make an item special and different from our last release while still maintaining our brand identity. Those self-issued challenges have resulted in some very well-known and respected toys and games.

Well, let’s talk about that… What are some of your favourite products there?
That’s like asking me to pick my favourite child! I can’t do that. Each of our puzzles, games, and building toys are truly wonderful. I’ve always admired a great puzzle – whether it’s concentration, logic, visual-spatial, or deductive reasoning. I’ll let you in on a little secret, though. I am horrible at solving puzzles…

Oh, really?! That’s funny!
Fortunately, my mentor, a very intelligent and astute person, told me something I’ll never forget. She said “Erik, you don’t have to solve a puzzle to sell a puzzle.” That’s stuck with me over the years, and has honestly allowed me to be more open to product pitches. The graduated-level approach for all our puzzles is another hallmark of a Smart product…

And by graduated-level approach, you mean how the puzzles get harder?
Yes. All our puzzle products begin with Starter challenges, then go up to Wizard level. That way, players can apply the knowledge gained from each level as they advance in play.

Erik Quam, Smart Toys and Games, Deej Johnson

Yes, something that I very much appreciate. I often play Smart Toys and Games with my friend Bertie. As well as that inbuilt training you mention, there’s also a natural feeling of reward.
So let me ask you this… What are some of YOUR favourites?

Oh, nicely done! We like IQ Twins, IQ Arrows… Actually, any of those spatial- reasoning games. My heart nearly fibrillated when I saw IQ Puzzler Pro XXL! That’s so stunning; it’s like a work of art. And I’ve been eyeing up Quadrillion for ages!
Ah! Yes! I’ve always been a huge fan of Quadrillion, and of Bunny Peek-a-Boo. Two VERY different products… The diversity of our puzzle and game range has so much to do with our on-staff puzzle genius, Raf Peeters. Raf has developed and designed more than 100 of our titles. It’s been an absolute honour to get to know Raf, and work alongside this toy legend!

Sounds like I should chat to Raf sometime! What makes an idea right for Smart Toys and Games, Erik? What do you look for in a concept?
As you know, I will never be the inventor relations and product development ‘executive’ who shows up to a pitch meeting with a laptop to take copious notes and then follow up by asking inventors to fill out countless, laborious spreadsheets and information documents. That’s just never been my style. We are an industry driven by people and relationships. Oftentimes, it’s the person behind the idea that makes all the difference. If an inventor has an idea or vision that fits us, and has the desire to work alongside our internal team, that’s a winning combination for all of us at Smart.

Fantastic answer! You do have some guidelines for the products themselves, though?
Yes, on that front, I’ve always been a firm believer in the ‘easy get’ principle. It can be the most complex puzzle, brainteaser, game, or toy, but as long as it can be easily explained and the lightbulb in my head can instantly be illuminated, the inventor has my attention.

Erik Quam, Smart Toys and Games, Deej Johnson

Terrific. And case in point, you recently showed us a lovely new game called Cats & Boxes. Tell us about it!
Cats & Boxes is a wonderful new packing puzzle developed by Raf Peeters. Everyone who’s played this game is an instant fan! The object is to place each one of a number of cats inside a box by moving the box blocks on the board… Beginning with simple challenges – as always – the game moves into some fiendishly difficult puzzles. I’m allergic to cats, but I can honestly say this puzzle game is truly The Cat’s Meow. Sorry, I couldn’t help myself!

That’s okay. You’re allowed two per chat! Now look… Here’s a segue that’s crafted with love: Your surname, Quam, sounds like ‘Qualm’ which means ‘a feeling of uneasiness’… What gives you a feeling of uneasiness dealing with inventors, Erik? What would be a red flag for you in a pitch?
Ohhhhh! Well, I do always stress the importance of due diligence prior to a pitch. Do your homework and understand the niche the company fills in the industry. It’s obvious Smart Toys and Games isn’t in the business of plush or pool toys. As an inventor, know your audience.

I also want to revisit the human side of our industry, for a moment. A pitch should be personal… Inventors, by their very nature, are passionate individuals. I want to know your story, your background, and your reason for bringing me a concept to review. Essentially, I want to get to know you as a fellow human. There’s the potential to enter a long-term relationship with each and every pitch meeting. Let’s take a few moments and get to know one another. After all, we’re in the business of play and bringing joy to people.

Finally, don’t tell me why your product is similar to another product we already produce, or if it’s a twist on another well-known game made by another company. I don’t find that helpful!

Erik Quam, Smart Toys and Games, Deej Johnson

Fantastic. I’m going to remind people that you’ve given your other pitching tips in an interview, because that is such a helpful addendum. Last two questions, then… One: what’s the one thing I could’ve asked you today but didn’t?
What does the future of product development look like at Smart Toys and Games?

And two… What’s the answer?
All I can say is, “Buckle up, and hold onto your hats!” We have several REVOLUTIONARY new products, categories, and brands in the works. I can say, with all honesty, that in the 26 years I’ve been working in the toy industry, I have never seen products that so are truly poised to change the world of play. Smart Toys and Games might be 30 years old – but we’re just getting started!

Wow! That’s a hell of an answer! Thank you, Erik. You come right back and tell us when you’re ready to talk more about that; sounds terrific!

To stay in the loop with the latest news, interviews and features from the world of toy and game design, sign up to our weekly newsletter here

Stay up to date with the latest news, interviews and opinions with our weekly newsletter
Back to top arro

Sign Up

Enter your details to receive Mojo updates & news.