Industry stalwart Danny Kishon on innovation, creativity and being a ‘product doctor’ for inventors

Danny Kishon

Danny, it’s great to catch up. Let’s start at the beginning… How did you find yourself working in toys and games?
Well, I had finished a joint degree in physiology and biochemistry and wanted to go travelling around America. I needed a temporary job to make some money to go travelling with. I met these guys who had invented a game called Kensington and got involved in organising their demonstrators across lots of stores and the PR behind it. The game became a big hit and they said: “Can you do London Toy Fair?” And then: “Can you do Nuremberg Toy Fair?” And then this other Toy Fair, and that Toy Fair…

So quite by accident, I suddenly found myself in the games business and within a year ended up as Marketing Manager launching the game all over the world, which inspired me to invent my own game.

A few years there and a couple of other marketing jobs outside games – now aged 28 – I find myself as a Director at a promotional games company that did Bingo in newspapers and scratch cards. I expanded their business into sales promotion by winning a £1m Philips Audio and Video retained account, which led to me becoming a small shareholder – and me pitching the idea of starting a games company with that game I had invented.

And they agreed?
Yes, I guess it was part reward and part we just seemed to be on a roll!

What was the name of your game?
It was called September and had a great “rags to riches” story behind the name. And so yes, I suddenly found myself back in the games business.

Danny Kishon

Amazing. And what was the name of this new games business that launched September?
Paradigm Games. September had a lot of PR and was a big hit selling nearly 200,000 games in the first year. We then followed it up with a bunch of other games including Who’s Had Who with then unknown Richard Curtis, Helen Fielding and Simon Bell, The Grand Knockout Tournament Game for charity with Prince Edward, PSI with a young Steve Knight, who went on to write of Peaky Blinders and lots of others.

Danny Kishon

A brilliant line up there. You also ended up working with Andrew Lloyd Webber?
Thats jumping forward a little, but yes. I had moved away from a business model focused on selling direct to retail in the UK to one focused on selling or licensing product internationally… I got called by a head-hunter asking me if I was interested in helping a celebrity launch their game in the UK. They would not tell me who it was, but after the initial interview with his MD I found out it was Andrew.

He had an idea for a game?
Well, he’d actually done a game before and licensed it to Games Workshop. It was about the insurance business and was called Calamity!… And it was…

Ha! I never knew this!
So, when he invented And They’re Off! – a horseracing game he’d play with his pals on the way to the races for real money and which they all loved – he wanted his company, Really Useful Group, to launch it themselves and not license it. Hence the head-hunter.

So, what happened?
I was sent to America to meet Andrew at Trump Tower. We played the game, got on and they offered me a job – which I initially turned down.

I said they reallly should license it and I could help them. I told him it was very difficult for a company to just launch a single game. You need a range to amortise costs. They asked: “Is there any other way we could do it?” I said: “Well, you could buy a games company and then we could put And They’re Off! in their range.” They said: “Okay!” and gave me a budget of £5m to find a company… But they told me if I couldn’t find one, I’d still have to find a way to launch the game.

Wow! And did you find a company to buy?
Well, this was October and Toy Fair was in January, so although we looked at a couple of companies, we instead ended up putting a range of other games together – plus some merchandise – and launched Really Useful Games.

Danny Kishon

And They’re Off! was a hit in the UK, and we then went on to have a bunch of other international successes including the Magic Dip, an art and crafts kit that marbled any surface just by dipping. We also did the Friends game, based on the episode where the boys lost their flat to the girls and also had success with Sculpture Puzzles. These were 3D puzzles you built layer by layer which sold in the tens of millions of dollars around the world. We manufactured and distributed those through Hasbro, which led to them becoming a shareholder, along with Andrew and myself.

Danny Kishon

Sound like an exciting time. How did you then get involved with Character Options?
Some years later, when Really Useful Group wanted to buy 42 theatres, they had to move out of any non-theatrical related businesses. I introduced Character Options to acquire Hasbro and Andrew’s shareholding, and I moved with the company to become a director at Character Options and MD of Character Games.

Amazing. I also wanted to loop back to your first game – September. How would you pitch that?
It was a strategy game with a great PR story. It was a version of a game I played with pencil and paper at school when you try to link from left to right or top to bottom by joining dots with single lines. I took the play pattern I had enjoyed as a kid and found a way to make it more strategic by creating different shaped playing pieces – like L, T, X and U – that added a new level of strategy.

Yes, I found a clip from 1984 of the BBC interviewing you about it. I’ll pop a link to that below – it features the PR story you mentioned. You pop up four minutes in.

So, you’d just moved to Character. Did you work with a lot of external inventors during your time there?
Yes, and even before that. I had always put a lot of time into inventors. You’d maybe call it ‘product doctoring’ now, but I would give inventors a lot of advice before they pitched the big boys, on the understanding that they would come back to me if they didn’t sell it to them. And quite often, like Sculpture Puzzles, we would end up selling ideas back to people who turned them down. I’m not a great inventor, but I think I am a very good product doctor. I can see the germ of something great and know how to tweak it to make it marketable.

So you can see where an idea might go… What its flaws are… What can be done to make it appeal to a company…
Yes – and in today’s world, everyone’s a bit specialist – even within toy and game companies. Someone’s doing the licensing, someone else is doing product development, someone else is selling to retail… Having started at smaller companies where you’re involved in everything, it gives you a great overall picture of what’s going on. That’s an extremely useful lens at which to look at inventor concepts – and it’s a rare skill these days… And getting rarer.

Inventors often come at things from a pure product point of view. They won’t have a vision of marketing issues, pricing issues, retail issues, production problems, licensing opportunities… When I work with inventors, I bring that knowledge – but I can also speak the language of a product person and contribute to the crearive process.

And what happened at Character?
I was at Character for five years and it really was a great time. We were at one point the largest Harry Potter licensee after Mattel. We were one of the first people selling to ‘Kidults’ with every character chess set, from Simpsons to Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.

We did some great games like Electronic Spin the Bottle and lots of different innovative puzzles, including Wiz Arounds, where the reward for finishing the puzzle was a licensed wind up that ran around the track the puzzle created.

Best of all for me was that I started to get involved and learn about toys as well as games. I was there for some amazing successes including Robosapiens… And on the licensing side I got involved in signing up a bunch of European licences for Character, including Scooby Doo and Marvel – as well developing a lot of products. In fact, the product development team I put together is still there and at the heart of all the great new in-house product they are producing.

Fantastic. And what did you do post-Character? When does All in 1 Products launch?
After my buy out I stayed on a couple of years and then decided to go back to developing products for international sales without a domestic market. That’s when I started All in 1 Products. We rode the Sudoku craze, creating tabletop and electronic versions – including the Carol Vorderman version for Character. We then hit the brain training vogue with My Q for Hasbro and many, many other products from inventors and in house developments.

Danny Kishon

Great stuff. You’ve got a tremendous amount of experience Danny. What are some of the biggest changes to hit the inventor space over the years?
There are three that come to mind…

The largest change is that a lot more companies today want things to fit neatly into their specific brand boxes. They’re looking for innovation, but within the areas they already have. If they see something terrific in an area they’re not playing in, they’ll likely turn it down. Previously, if a company saw something terrific, they’d be tempted to embrace it and even enter a new area. That’s how companies grew and succeeded in new categories. Today, there’s a big filtration system that you face when presenting concepts to large companies. You don’t have that same level of gambling on a great idea that you used to have.

Brand management is another big change. This used to be much more of a ‘gutfeel’ industry. A lot of people from FMCG and food in particular, have come into the toy and games industry, and that’s been good in terms of managing brands but possibly not so good for inventors… The perception is that money is better spent growing a multimillion-dollar brand, than trying to create a new one that can grow into multimillions. It’s certainly easier and from a “this year’s EBIT” perspective, sadly makes some sense.

Great insights. And your third pick?
Costs. While the cost of production in China has been steadily going up at 10% a year, retail prices of product have not. Therefore, there’s been a squeeze in the middle that’s resulted in retailers wanting to go direct to manufacturers and companies going direct to consumer. A squeeze which has impacted inventors, as they now have to create products that meets a much more difficult set of criteria when it comes to pricing and margins.

Overall, that means there is less space for innovation – and innovation has tougher hurdles to jump.

Thanks Danny. I wanted to also pick your brain about pitching. You’ve presented concepts to a whole raft of people over the years. What makes someone good at the role of inventor relations?
Being a fun person to talk to is always helpful, but the biggest thing is having the ability to look at an idea not as is, but as it might be. The best ones have that vision – and give clear feedback. A “yes” or a “no” are both good to me. I just want clarity. Explanations behind a “no” are great, because it means I can address that point for the next person I talk to, or even adjust something to make it better. A speedy yes, or no, is terrific.

What is the key to successful creative collaborations?
Listening. Being able to fight for things you feel are important to a product but listening well enough to change your mind. You’re collaborating because you feel that’ll lead to a better outcome than doing it on your own. The best inventors react to suggestions and feedback with “That’s a good idea! That makes sense!” As opposed to: “No, the reason I’ve done it this way is…”

You speak with a lot of passion and enthusiasm Danny. What is it about the industry that you find energising?
People are a big factor. Covid highlighted how much the international toy community is also part of your friendship circles. You see people at fairs, you go out for dinner, you go for drinks… They become part of your social group. It’s a great people business – and they keep it fun. And then there’s all the new product and new ideas… How can you not be excited by new ideas and thinking what you could do with them?

The other thing is that I now wear a lot of different hats. I work with Ferrero on Kinder, creating hundreds of millions of little things for little spaces. That’s a fun challenge. Then I work with lots of different toy companies doing B2B distribution and licensing deals… Plus, I have started working with inventors again as a ‘product doctor’, helping develop raw concepts for manufacture or licensing. There’s enough going on to keep my brain active and interested!

On product doctoring, what are some common mistakes new inventors make that you feel are easily avoided?
Well, I always tell new inventors to think about the TV commercial. You’ve only got 20 seconds, so if you make the commercial in your head, you’ll see what the most important aspects of your toy or game are. If you’re spending a lot of time in a pitch on the other elements, you’re probably not doing your idea justice.

Before we start to wrap up, is there a launch of yours that you would point to as being particularly underrated?
What an interesting question!

I always try to include one!
Ha! Well, it’s not underrated per se, but it’s the one that got away… When I was at Character we were doing a lot of Harry Potter product. We did a Harry Potter Wizardry Kit, where we themed a wizarding (magic) set around every chapter of the first book. We did this using an electronic wand that had a remote-control sender in your pocket that would make the linked wand vibrate or glow. It meant you could do some truly astonishing things.

Danny Kishon

J.K. Rowling changed her mind about it, so we were only allowed to ship a limited quantity in England, Italy and Spain. I’m a member of the Magic Circle and I’d say it was probably the best magic set ever created in terms of requiring really zero skill to do truly extraordinary things.

Can you recall any of the tricks?
You could leave a room and have anyone choose anything in that room. Come back in and walk around with the wand and it would glow over the chosen object. In the set, the objects were all Potter-related, but you could actually do it anywhere, with any number of objects. Most magic sets are too hard to use for the age group that’s really interested in magic… This wasn’t and because it made you look like wizard, not a magician, its appeal went to a higher age group. I think it could’ve been huge!

And magic feels like it’s back in a big way with things like Moose’s Magic Mixies.
Yes! Maybe I’ll dig a set out and start showing it to companies!

I’d love to see it! And at the other end of the scale, what have been some of your biggest hits?
I am lucky enough that there have a fair few, but it’s the recent and current ones I get excited about. I was involved with Cepia on hit collectibles like Bananas and Cats vs Pickles – and this year with the relaunch of Zhu Zhu Pets as Fish. And a new doll line called Decora Girlz that look like they will be big.

Danny Kishon

Then there’s MicroPacks with mini stationary bits and bobs inside. That ended up as part of Real Littles with Moose and sold millions. Tasty Tinies Bake Shop is now launching with Goliath and that looks like it will do the same.

Danny Kishon

Kickerball and Mine It have been in Character’s line for years now and are therefore clocking up big numbers… Plus, a game called Quick Fire that we sold millions in various licences in the past and is just being relaunched by Epoch with Mario Bros – it should do very well again.

I am excited about the present and the future. We had some dozen or so ranges at Toy Fairs this year and there is a lot of inventor product currently getting placed, so I would like to think the biggest hits are still to come. We have recently re-invented Sculpture Puzzles in a unique way, so who knows that might even be amongst them!

So many cool launches there Danny. What helps you have ideas? What fuels your creativity?
Talking to people. It’s when someone has an idea and you’ll say: “What about this?” and then they’ll add something, and so on. Though sometimes, when you have a specific problem, sitting, thinking or sleeping on it can really help.

On the flipside, what kills creativity?
Not having the space to think. If you’ve got something at 2PM, and then something else at 3PM, so you’ve only got 30 minutes to be creative… That’s not helpful. You need give space to creativity.

Danny, this has been fun and insightful in equal measure. Last question. If any inventors are reading and interested in connecting, what do you ideally want people to come to you with?
I like to look at product. It’s fun and I’ll give you my quick feedback for free. That’s stage one. Stage two is if I think there’s something there that interests me. It might be that I think I know a perfect home for the idea, and it may not be a company the inventor knows. Or I might think of a tweak that would make it better or fit somewhere.

From there, it goes one of three ways. One is that I’ll work for a short period of time trying to find it a home. Two is that we’ll collaboratively do some work on it and then try and find it a home. Three is that maybe I’ll be willing to invest some money in it to get it where it needs to go. Hopefully we’ll license it to somebody, or maybe I end up making it – we do that occasionally.

The financial arrangement varies with which of these it is, from something a lot lower than an agent usually charges to becoming a partner. But away from all that, I’m always happy to give people free advice. You won’t find a prince unless you kiss a few frogs!

Danny, a huge thanks again.

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