“We can relate to each other like nobody else can”: GameBird’s Mary Ellroy on the camaraderie of the inventor community

Mary Ellroy, Gamebird

Mary, thanks for making time to chat. You’re an inventor and agent. What was the first item you got over the line as an inventor?
I sold a game to Mattel. It was through an agent called David Shapiro. He represented me, mentored me and sold my game to Mattel. This was back in the day when people were getting $25,000 advances for board games! David and I split the advance, but the game never made it to market. That was a good early lesson! But the first thing of mine to actually get to market was a card game called Quick Flip.

What areas do you focus on?
Games more than toys. And low-tech! I’ve tried to sell tech-infused concepts many times but they tend to get rejected. Kids are on tablets all day long, but they still love to play board games. The other day I discovered my grandkids are playing checkers – I couldn’t believe it!

What invention of yours nicely crystalises the sorts of games you like to make?
There’s one I created with a partner, Kevin Carroll. He came up with the seed of the idea and I figured out the gameplay. It’s called Pickles to Penguins.

Mary Ellroy, Gamebird

I’m sold on the name alone!
Well I have to say, Kevin came up with the name – but I think it’s the most fun game I’ve ever invented. Kevin now runs Carma Games – he’s the co-designer of Tenzi, if you know that game?

Of course! Great game. So Pickles to Penguins… Are there any others we should highlight?
Another game of mine that comes to mind is Great States. I did that for International Playthings. It’s a simple game but was in the market for 23 years. So they would be my two picks. Pickles to Penguins is the most fun and Great States was on shelves the longest.

Mary Ellroy, Gamebird

Were there any big lessons you learnt early on as an inventor?
The thing that took me a while to learn was that I’m not inventing for the person, parent or friend who will eventually buy the toy or game. I’m inventing for the retail buyer. It was a real lightbulb moment for me. For example, I won’t dedicate time to creating a word game that involves tiles – not because it won’t be a great game, but because that retail real estate is already secured by Scrabble. Obviously, the user has to love it ­– that’s key – but the retailer has to want it on their shelf.

What helps you have ideas for games?
Random things that happen to you. I remember walking past a golf course and they were watering the grass with one of those hoses with the holes punched in them. It was making a rainbow and I thought ‘There’s a toy in that!’ So I invented one. I even sold it to Spin Master and have had several options on it over the years.

Mary Ellroy, Gamebird

I then did an extension of that – it was a water gun that shot rainbows. A company loved it, took it on and put it on the market, but not appropriately in my opinion. It always gets really positive feedback but I’m still trying to sell it. Whenever I get the blues I go outside and shoot me a rainbow – it’s a magical item.

Mary Ellroy, Gamebird

That brings us nicely to your work as an agent. What’s the key to being a good agent?
I try to respect everybody. Someone might come to me with something that makes no sense, but they pay me for my time so I want to respect them and figure out a way to make it work. We’ve made things work plenty of times! When I do that with a client, we negotiate a 50/50 deal because I’ve helped develop this new version of their idea.

As both an agent and an inventor, your relationships with companies is vital. What’s the key to successful relationships between inventors and inventor relations execs?
Respecting them and not trying to convince them if they so no to an idea! If they pass on an idea, or you see them getting bored in a pitch meeting, move onto the next thing. They’re busy people and they see thousands of product ideas! If they don’t get your idea, forcing it on them isn’t going to change their mind. They like it or they don’t!

The same applies to relationships between agents and inventors. I don’t deal with inventors that push ideas onto me if I’ve already said it’s not right.

What are some traits shared by good inventor relations execs?
Being friendly, polite and kind. Giving good reasons for a pass. Having useful wishlists. Those kinds of things.

You’ve been doing this now since the Eighties. What has kept you enthused with inventing?
A large part is the inventor community; it’s a wonderful group. There’s a lot of support between inventors. Everyone understands the joy of getting a ‘Yes’ – you’re walking on air! And we’ve all been rejected so many times. It breeds camaraderie. We can relate to each other like nobody else can.

The other thing is that I really like working for myself. I’ve never been good at being bossed around!

And look, I’m not rich! It’s a tough business and I’ve had good years and bad years. I’ve had years where at home I’ve stumbled across a cheque for $15,000 that I’d forgotten was there! But I’ve had other years where I wonder if I’ll make it to the next day. That’s the toy biz. And as long as I can stand up and do presentations, I’ll keep going!

Mary, this has been fun. Before I let you go, how did you find your way into this industry?
Well, back in Eighties I was in advertising – a lot of people I know in the toy industry were in advertising first! Then I ended up working in telecommunications. My product was custom calling – so call waiting, call forwarding, that kind of thing. I was given a really awful ad budget but a huge computer budget, so I developed a screen-based game! I wasn’t a big computer gamer, but it made me realise I loved games. It was a tough time in the telecommunications industry – the Bell System had just broken up and that was a big deal in the US. It meant lots of people were scrambling around wondering what they were going to do with their lives. I then did a stupid thing! I quit that lucrative job and joined the others in scrambling around!

I remember my boss said to me: “Well, what are you going to do?” And then, out of nowhere, this came right out of my mouth: “I’m going to invent toys.” I have no idea where that came from but I got right to it!

Well, it worked out! And if anyone reading wanted to connect with you Mary, what’s the best way?
My email – it’s maryellroy@gmail.com.

Great stuff. Thanks again Mary.
Thank you Billy.

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