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Michelle Spelman is the inventor of Jukem Football. She says the creation of toys and games is in Cincinnati's DNA. (Photo courtesy of M. Spelman. Other images: File)
CINCINNATI - The Easy-Bake Oven? UNO? Cincinnati has a serious history in toys and games. Now a local group is using Linkedin to build on this heritage.
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CINCINNATI - Michelle Spelman, co-founder of Flying Pig Games LLC and card game Jukem Football , has created a place for Cincinnati toy makers to connect.
Cincinnati Game and Toy Industry Professionals is an informal organization of more than 300 members who connect online and in person to promote the profession.
9 Questions for Michelle Spelman, founder of Cincinnati Game and Toy Professionals
1. Why did you start Cincinnati Game and Toy Industry Professionals?
As a newcomer to the toy and game industry in 2007, I kept stumbling across individuals working in the industry. As time went on, I began to realize there was a surprisingly large, but somewhat disconnected, population of individuals, within or from the Cincinnati region, who are working in toys and games.
Because of my active use of social media channels to promote my own startup game company’s activities, I had established some visibility and was being approached frequently be people seeking resources to move their initiatives forward. I wanted to be helpful, but I didn’t have all the answers and quite frankly, needed help myself to better understand the industry’s dynamics.
I decided to start a networking group to aggregate the community in a way that would be mutually beneficial for all involved. The LinkedIn platform provided a short runway to that end with their “Groups” tool. I initially expected that perhaps we’d attract a few dozen members. Instead, it was hundreds.
2. How does the group try to help people in the toy industry?
The group is a volunteer effort and began simply as a casual opportunity to connect relevant people efficiently, promote Cincinnati’s toy making heritage to the public, and create awareness within the industry for this region as a hotbed of toy and game innovation. Four years into it, I'm proud to say that we continue to make strides toward all those goals.
Our quarterly events have facilitated new business opportunities and helped members find jobs that they would never otherwise have found. They are able to identify local, national and global resources through our group to help them reach their business goals and ultimately, they are able to establish and build relationships that bring value to their activities ongoing.
We publish an annual holiday gift guide that feature toys, games and children’s products touched in some way by Cincinnati’s toy-makers during the journey from idea to store shelf. This year, the guide featured over 70 products from 40 companies!
3. How many people are in the group now, and what parts of the industry do they comprise?
We have over 300 members working in nearly every capacity across the global toy industry. Do you need help finding a manufacturer overseas? We’ve got folks who specialize in that area. Do you want to manufacture your product locally? There’s a very good chance you can do some or all of it here. Need help with prototyping, modeling, sculpting, branding, packaging design, or marketing strategy?
We have a legion of professionals right here with big league resumes that will knock your socks off. Are you looking for legal guidance to help you protect your idea or license it? We’ve got an ace attorney in our pocket with decades of toy industry experience! Are you looking for investment opportunities in the region to diversify your portfolio with something innovative, interesting, financially promising and fun? The startups in our group are doing amazing things that bring value to children and many are looking for your help.
4. What are some famous toys that have Cincinnati roots that people might not know about?
One of my favorites is the Easy-Bake Oven. Still made by Hasbro today, it celebrated 50 years in 2013. It was invented and manufactured right here in Cincinnati for decades by Kenner Toys.
Anyone born after 1980 no doubt played with the legendary Little Tikes Cozy Coupe ride-on toy. Invented by Cincinnati native, Jim Mariol, the Cozy Coupe’s unmistakable orange and yellow model was driven down sidewalks by millions of toddlers. By 1990, it was the bestselling car in North America, outselling the Ford Taurus, the Toyota Camry and the Honda Accord!
Then there’s the UNO card game. It was created by the Merle Robbins family right here in Cincinnati. Mr. Robbins sold the first decks in his barber shop in Reading and at a neighborhood market called Gertz’s – a local, family-owned business that still thrives serving the Reading community today. Today, UNO is owned by Mattel and is frequently cited as the top selling card game in the entire world.
And this is just the tip of the iceberg!
5. What is a big trend or two that you are seeing in today's popular toys?
The obvious trend is a shift towards incorporating a digital experience into traditional toys and games. This can be seen manifested in digital versions of board and card games and interactive components
being added to analog toys that leverage a brand’s identity. A recent example of this is Pillow Pets World, a virtual world, digital application for children created by local startup, Think University, under license by Pillow Pets.
Another encouraging trend is an emphasis on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) inspired toys, games and experiences. There is renewed interest in products that help children understand how things fit together, function, and how they as human beings fit into the natural world around them.
While advancing technology will be a driving force in future innovation, I firmly believe that value remains in traditional, simple, tangible play activities and will continue to guide the creation of new toys and games.
6. What is the biggest challenge for toy makers in Cincinnati in getting their ideas on the shelves?
The biggest challenge for all toy makers is making their idea become a real, sellable product that kids want. Toy makers in Cincinnati get their ideas onto store shelves a couple of different ways. Some of them develop ideas and then license them to larger companies who are established brands in the industry. This is not an easy path and success is usually only achieved by a small, elite group of professionals who literally generate hundreds of ideas every year, with only a few that ever make it to store shelf.
For small, entrepreneurial inventors, the biggest challenge is frequently marketing and distribution. These people are often very good at creating products, but once their products are ready, selling them can prove to be a difficult obstacle for many creative inventors.
If they are successful at getting to store shelf, the final challenge is being able to manufacture their products ongoing at a cost that is sustainable long term and fits successfully into the marketplace from a pricing and demand standpoint.
This is especially challenging for smaller companies who don’t have the cash flow to operate in the huge volumes that big corporations deal in. Achieving scale and finding strategic partners to grow the business is critical.
7. How helpful have crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter been in helping toy makers make and promote products?
Kickstarter cites games as far and away one of the largest and most successful categories on their platform. Other crowdfunding platforms such as Quirky and I ndieGoGo have also seen lots of successful toy and game campaigns. A great local example of successful crowdfunding for a toy on Kickstarter is the brand new “Mensch on a Bench” plush toy.
Local husband and wife team, Neal and Erin Hoffman, brought this idea to fruition as an answer to their son’s “Elf Envy.” He wanted an “Elf on the Shelf” toy, like his friends had at Christmas time, but the Hoffman family is Jewish and celebrates Hanukkah rather than Christmas.
The Mensch on a Bench is a new family tradition that adds fun to the Hanukkah season much in the same fashion that Elf on the Shelf is a Christmas tradition. They were able to raise over $20,000 on Kickstarter to fund initial manufacturing costs and their first production run instantly sold out!
8. How can a toy-maker or a potential toy maker join the group?
The group currently resides primarily on Linkedin. There are no dues or fees to join our group, but it is respectfully reserved for individuals who have a legitimate interest in the toy and game industry and have a Cincinnati connection. Aside from a few internal industry observers, all of our members are either from the region, they received their education here, they worked here in the industry in the past, or they are working here now.
9. Any new or exciting plans for the group this year?
We have a long list of plans! A short-term goal includes a formal website presence to complement our vibrant community that resides on LinkedIn. This new site will provide information to visitors about the region’s rich and colorful toy history, which dates back over 150 years, blog, news and events, and ultimately an e-commerce platform that increases visibility for children’s products with a Cincinnati connection.
We are also working to facilitate a turnkey marketing program that allows retailers to spotlight and merchandise local toys and games together in a cohesive Cincinnati-themed display for their customers. Additionally, we seek to develop local partnerships to promote the important role of play in a child’s healthy development.
Ultimately, we want to perpetuate the region’s long toy and game tradition, so finding ways to support development of the next generation of toy makers is a priority. Game and toy making is in Cincinnati’s DNA!
Connect with contributor Feoshia Davis on Twitter: @feoshiawrites .