Fun-Damental Invention’s Gary Pyper shares three “simple” steps to becoming a toy inventor

Gary Pyper, Fun-Damental Invention

Gary, it’s always great to catch up. How has the past year been for Fun-Damental Invention?
It’s hard to split things up into years really because it’s been such a rollercoaster since we started… But without wanting to jinx things, the last 12 months has seen Fun-Damental blossom. Each year we’re licensing more concepts, and more items are ultimately making it onto the shelf. It’s been a very exhilarating – and sometimes unbelievable – ride.

What do you put that down to? Does momentum play a part? Licensing more things leads to licensing more things…
There’s a natural momentum that comes with placing items, but if your successes don’t turn out to be commercial hits, it doesn’t always count in your favour. When you have a few solid products on shelf, your relationships with those companies strengthens. They trust you more… They trust you to be the “safe pair or hands” and know you’re not going to be a loose cannon or, more importantly, a massive pain in the arse!

Ha! I imagine trust is a cornerstone of any successful inventor/company relationship.
Absolutely. And it’s important for inventors not to look at company relationships like ‘us’ and ‘them’. We’re all in this together; we have a common goal – the ‘them’ is actually the hurdles we need to overcome to get an item on shelf. If this process is not smooth, its rarely for contentious reasons; it’s just market factors. You share the successes and the failures.

Sounds like the right approach. And as time goes on, I’d imagine these relationships strengthen, as does your awareness of what resonates for each company?
Yes – and it’s also more fun, especially if your clients become your friends. You get to know the personalities you’re working with and what excites them. That said, it’s also important to keep your ears open all the time because businesses change. What a company may have done well with five years ago is not necessarily what they’re doing well with now.

It’s not a good plan for an inventor to chase their own success. It’s like horse racing… I wouldn’t ever put money on the same horse twice. It’s best to just keep connecting with the whole bubbling landscape of the industry and how everyone fits into it.

Gary Pyper, Fun-Damental Invention

Wise words – and decent betting advice too! We’ll dive into your recent slate of inventions shortly, but they span lots of different categories… What steers your invention process?
Rick Rubin said: “In terms of priority, inspiration comes first. You come next. The audience comes last.” In a way he’s right. Making toys is an art. Initially we have to excite ourselves to create art. If we begin by creating toys to please the ‘committee’, there’s a possibility that no one will be strongly excited by them. That’s kind of what we do. We focus on things that get us excited. It comes down to instinct rather than centring solely on commercial potential.

And how many concepts do you feel like you need to have on your roster at any one time?
We like to have a targeted offering for everyone. When we go and see a company, we know we’ll have a range of solid and applicable propositions for them. We have to provide that, otherwise we’re wasting their time. And while each company has a crossover of interests, no two are exactly the same. To create enough product to deserve those meetings, we need a substantial output. We believe the best guide to a product’s future success is the enthusiasm that the first stakeholder invests in it.

On that, how do you get someone excited about one of your concepts?
Product is king. The salesmanship comes from pushing it over the line, but if it’s the right thing at the right time, I could say nothing and someone would take it. It’s not about smoke and mirrors, or the emperors’ new clothes… These are real things that people can see. And if I wasn’t enthusiastic about an item, I wouldn’t have made it in the first place.

Now, as we’re out the other side of the Toy Fairs, do you feel the industry is in a good place creatively at present?
It’s been a transitional time for the inventing industry. The community is in flux. I feel toy and games have been isolated from other invention industries like kitchenware or pet toys. In those industries, there has always been a popular mythology that you could invent a mop and become an overnight billionaire… The big problem there is that once you proport that the process is that simple, it can devalue the worth of what inventors do; “The craft of toy invention” if you like.

Toys and games are fun and accessible, but they are not frivolous! To fuel this level of craft, there needs to be adequate funding in the system to keep the cogs turning. This will be the challenge of the industry over the coming years.

Fascinating insights. I don’t think we’ve ever really dug into the dangers of making invention look easy.
Well, I’m going to let you in on a little secret… There are actually three simple steps to being a toy inventor…

Oh! Go on…
Number one: Spend countless hours, building, sanding, thinking, sketching and mastering the craft of invention.

Number two: Obsessively try to understand every company, product, successes and failure that exists and has ever existed in the landscape of your business.

Number three: Learn how to understand contracts, complete tax returns and how to be taken seriously when negotiating while making people laugh when presenting.

Ha! As easy as that is it!
I don’t want to make it sound like it’s impossible or inaccessible… It’s like anything, the level of commitment reaps the level of reward.

No, I don’t think you have made it sound impossible. It’s a unique craft, an art as you said earlier, and it’s not a quick or easy thing to master.
And I should stress, it used to be a bit of a stuffy industry and it’d be very counterproductive to say “I don’t want the industry to change”. New people and businesses are breathing new life and excitement into the industry. Look at Mojo – you’re a facilitator, putting all the right people in the right room. You’re not promising people the world. It’s a more inclusive world to break into these days, but whether it’s easier to make money from it… Ha! Well I suppose I could have been a banker?

There’s still time Gary! And does that also explain the closeness of the inventor community? Because it is a tough nut to crack?
Absolutely – and there is a new wave of people that have left big invention houses and started up on our own. It was actually very reassuring to be launching a business at the same time as other people going through the same trials and tribulations. There’s real support for each other.

I do believe inventors genuinely love toys – and when you love something, you want to share it. I’ve never seen anyone in our community be protective over something that would help another inventor.

Do you love it more now that you’re running your own studio?
I’m addicted to it. Nothing gives me a bigger rush than presenting something I’ve made to someone, and them wanting to own it. The endorsement of “Wow…That’s really good!” is a drug that I can’t ditch. Do I enjoy it more now? There are more rules now and the process isn’t perhaps as pure… I’m like an aging junkie!

There’s the headline!
Ha! ‘The aging toy junkie’. It’s true though. I can’t give it up, and to do it takes a mania and a drive. It’s like legitimate pissing about!

Is that mania and love ever dented at all by the number of rejections you must face as a professional inventor?
No, because I protect myself in a duvet of concepts.

Haha! That’s a lovely way of putting it!
It’s true. If you have one idea, when a company crushes it, they’re crushing you! If you wear an armour of other concepts, it spreads things and you’ll take the rough with the smooth.

The things we make come from our hearts; they are forged from hard work and love. The fact it doesn’t break me if someone rejects it doesn’t mean I haven’t felt love for it as I created it… And if the person viewing inventor concepts has an understanding and empathy for that love, they’ll be delicate with the way they handle it, regardless if they want to take it or not.

Gary Pyper, Fun-Damental Invention

Before we start to wrap up, I wanted to discuss some of your recent launches, starting with University Games’ Irritable Vowels. Word games seems a tough area to crack, so how did this come about?
We collaborated with Jacqui Gahan on this one. She’s worked with us on a few ideas and she’s a brilliant and persuasive catalyst for me. I don’t really like word games, and she came in and said: “What about this word game… We keep rolling a dice with vowels on it.” I said: “That’s not a game!”

As I said, she is brilliant and persuasive in the best possible way, so eventually I said: “Alright, I’ll try and think of something!” In the end, I thought we’d need a dice that was irritable… And then irritable leads to ‘irritable vowels’. One phone call later to Toby – “Can we make a self-rolling polyhedron ball? – and there we go! And I should stress, it’s only the genius personified in my business partner Toby that made that last bit sound effortless!

Gary Pyper, Fun-Damental Invention

Good work Toby! In terms of how it’s played, when the Vowel Device settles on a vowel, all players race to create a word using that vowel. And the word must also obey the constrictions of a card. So, the card might instruct you to use the vowel as the ‘First letter of the word’ or ‘Twice in the word’.
Exactly. It feels familiar, but with an injection of newness. That’s an area we like to play in at the moment.

Nice. Another new launch from you guys is Cutie Pops with Eolo. How did that one come about?
The first thing to say quickly is that it’s been fantastic experience. Alex Prieto and Eolo’s enthusiasm and drive is second to none. They’re such an exciting toy company.

In terms of how it happened, simply, our kids used to hang lots of stuff on their bags, but their bags had a tiny handle so they could only hang three keyrings on it. I thought, why not have it so the plush popped together like plush hanging beads, so they could hang in big swathes and sell themselves as the kids walked to school! That was it!

Gary Pyper, Fun-Damental Invention

So we have your kids to thank for that one.
I have my kids – and my wife Stacey – to thank for almost everything!

Moving back to games, another recent creation of yours is Make That Most Magnificent Thing: The Game with Fat Brain Toys.
Yes! We worked with game making legend John Wallis on that one. It’s an open-ended game of invention. You pour lots and lots of bits out and try and make something to fit a brief. And the briefs are things like ‘Breakfast Making Machine’ or ‘Best Way to Get to the Moon.’ Then kids make things up and talk through their inventions. There’s no winner or loser; they get little rosettes saying things like ‘Most Inventive’ or ‘Funniest’. It’s very inclusive.

Gary Pyper, Fun-Damental Invention

And it’s based on a best-selling book?
Yes, but that’s thanks to the brilliant Adam Hocherman. He’d read the book to his kids and had the vision that the brand could suit our game, so he went after it and got the license. We also have another amazing game launching at ASTRA with Fat Brain. They’re a great partner; they create such wonderful products.

Agreed. I also wanted to ask you about Tilt N Shout, your new game with Big Potato. This is a shouty category game where you have to name things before the ball rolls to the bottom of the marble run.
Yes. Again, it has a new but familiar vibe. That will be launching this fall and we’re really excited about it. My kids are pretty apathetic towards the business after all these years, until they heard we are launching a game with Big Potato! I actually got a “Huh!, that’s actually pretty cool dad”.

Ha! High praise indeed – and rightly so, it’s an impressive slate of launches Gary!
We have about 15 new items launching this year in total, including some cool new outdoor items like Splash Shield with Spin Master. It’s a pop-up outdoor water blaster.

Gary Pyper, Fun-Damental Invention

I’m sold! Now, I have one last question… What’s your most underrated creation?
My first job in the toy industry was designing Sindy dolls for Pedigree. We designed about 30 SKUs – and there were only three or four of us. We somehow created a whole toy range. It had moderate success. I know in retrospect it could never have seriously competed with Barbie. But when I look at the quality and execution of the product, I think ‘Wow!’ To go from not knowing anything about toys, to creating that entire range, with no prior knowledge of the industry… It was a remarkable journey, and I was really still a kid myself!

A great pick. Gary, as always, this has been a treat. Thanks again!

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