Toy Fair 2013 Logo

In addition to being a venue for manufacturers to present their goods to buyers, New York Toy Fair also represents an opportunity for designers and inventors to pitch their ideas to producers. Those inventors new to the show or the licensing process benefited on Monday from a seminar given by Ron Weingartner and Richard C. Levy. Ron was a development and acquisitions executive at major toy and game companies. Richard is an inventor, developer, and marketing expert with many years in the industry.

Officially part of Toy Fair’s Creative Factor program, I think a more descriptive title for the seminar would have been “Answers to the Frequently Asked Questions of Toy and Game Inventors.”

Here’s what they had to say.

Is Toy Fair a time for selling ideas?

The answer was generally yes. However, Ron and Richard cautioned inventors that the primary purpose of a company’s booth is to sell to buyers. Without an advance appointment, company representatives may not be welcoming. Additionally, in big companies, the acquisitions people are often responding to wishlists from the marketing department. For example, filling a gap in a company’s line with a role-play item for pre-teen boys or finding a board game that can adapted to a recently acquired movie license.

What inventors should focus on, the pair suggested, is scouting booths to figure out which company is the best fit for a product, and also to find out who is the right person to talk to about making an appointment.

[Related to this question, but separate from this presentation, one inventor told me at Toy Fair that some companies were trying to keep inventors out of their booths, presumably because they were concerned about people stealing their ideas.]

Do I need an agent?

Agents can be of particular assistance to first-time inventors. In addition to facilitating introduction to publishers, a knowledgeable agent can help an inventor refine a product to fit the target market. But that catch is one that Richard Levy strongly emphasized. The agent must be knowledgeable and experienced in this industry. As an agent’s fee is typically 40-50%, an inventor wants an agent who can actually get something done. Richard warned the audience against agents that advertise or charge up-front fees.

Ron Weingartner and Richard Levy

What do I need to show my idea?

At least a “looks-like, works-like prototype.” Fancy components aren’t important. What’s more helpful in selling an idea is knowing what market it would be good for and why people would want to buy it.

Richard also suggested at least thinking about potential brand tie-ins, if not actually going out and signing a licensing deal with an available and desirable brand in advance.

How do I maintain control over my idea?

The presenters warned inventors to check their egos at the door. It takes a team to make a great product. A lot of changes will be made during the development stage.

How do I know that my product hasn’t been done before?

The simple answer is you don’t. Richard suggested doing a Google image search. Both said a patent search was a good idea for liability protection. But even if similar things have been done before, Ron and Richard encouraged inventors to work to figure out how to innovate on the basic product.

What should I expect if a company takes my prototype?

Don’t get too excited excited. First of all, it may take a long time for the company to get back to you. Second, companies take a lot more in than they put out. Accepting a prototype for review is by no means a guarantee that it will be produced.

Should I self-produce?

While aware of some stories of success and familiar with crowdfunding as an option, Ron Weingartner made clear his opinion that self-producing in the toy and game business was not a good idea. He explained that it is a lot easier to have a product manufactured than to get it sold. Yes, Kickstarter has the potential to bring in a lot of money but it won’t help place the physical product in to Toys R Us or Walmart.

An additional note of caution for those who are considering crowdfunding, revealing a design publicly will prevent one from obtaining a patent on that design.

Should I obtain attorney representation?

A definite yes. Not only is it really necessary for the patenting process, it’s a very good idea when negotiating license or sale agreements with the toy and game companies.

What about mobile games and apps?

While mobile phone and tablet apps have become a major consumer force, physical products are still essential. The hottest products will integrate the two.

Richard recommended, “This is a fashion industry. Never get caught with your trends down.”

How do I deal with rejection?

Richard’s advice, “Never give up! Never grow up!”