Toymakers pushed $22 billion worth of product in America last year, according to the Toy Industry Association. That’s more than the GDP of Uganda. Mattel and Hasbro took in $6.4 billion and $4.2 billion, respectively.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of new toys hit the shelves. That's great for toy companies, but for parents, there’s a big problem: Kids don’t play with them for very long.
“The average toy on a toy shelf, you buy it, you take home, it’ll last you four days,” said Isaac Squires, who has been knee-deep in market research for the past year. “The best toys, you’ll get seven to 14 days out of.”
“The toy industry is broken,” adds his wife Carly Gloge. “They don’t care about your kid. It’s more about when can they sell you the next toy, not does your child still love the current one?”
But the Boulder, Colo., couple, who had zero experience making toys, decided to try and change that.
More than a brand
Squires and Gloge studied the toys on the market, and saw mostly movie tie-ins and new iterations of old franchises – all whizz and no pop. “There’s no toy on this shelf that’s doing something interesting for a kid or an adult,” Squires said. “What they really all are, are brands.”
The entrepreneurs, who have built apps and online games for six years, wanted to create a toy with the addictiveness of Angry Birds, the imaginative powers of an adventure book, the educational qualities of a science kit and the cuddliness of a soft, fluffy blob.
And so in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, Ubooly was born: an anime-faced plush, with a souped-up software brain. “We’re trying to take what was really fun in our childhoods – stuffed animals, playing pretend – and injecting all the beauty of technology,” Squires told America Tonight, “which basically means unlimited content.”
Ubooly tells stories, guides experiments, dreams up adventures, speaks five languages and knows your kid’s name. And its smarts are constantly updated, because its core is an app. Download it to your iPhone or iPad, zip the device snug inside and there’s Ubooly’s face. Instead of in-built obsolescence, Squires and Gloge created a toy that never gets old. It’s the world’s first “smart toy” – a phrase they’ve trademarked.
Breaking all the rules
When it comes to making the next blockbuster toy, Squires and Gloge did everything wrong. Firstly, they had no idea how to make a toy. The couple ordered 50 pounds of clay and learned how to sculpt and make molds. They took sewing classes and mocked up more than 50 different characters, from a sheep to unidentifiable space octupi.
And once they had a prototype, they brought in kids to play with it every two weeks, recording their frolics with Ubooly. A team of software developers and teachers would then gather together to eat lunch and watch the videos. “No one would have any arguments on what kids want,” said Gloge. “You’d watch the video and it’d become so clear.”
Teachers and therapists even helped write some of the content for Ubooly, which turns math, languages, spelling and even teeth-brushing into interactive infotainment.
The start-up managed to collect $2.5 million in seed money, including more than $80,000 from online contributions – primarily from the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter. But that wasn’t enough for 30-second ad spots, which are key to getting kids to beg and bother their parents to open their pocketbooks.
“Mattel and Hasbro have $700 million for marketing every year,” says Gloge. “If we were going to put our tiny little budget against theirs, we would get crushed. So we have to make our product that much better.”
And in their grandest violation of toy business conventions, Ubooly is not available in a store near you. It’s almost exclusively available online. But with sales of 30,000 so far, Ubooly is on track to sell out this year. And it already has some devoted fans.
Asked what the fuchsia puff next to him is, 5-year-old Braxon replied, “an Ubooly.” Asked again, he said, “a this.” Pushed a little further, Braxton added, “It’s really soft.”
Then his 7-year-old sister Phoenix chimed in: “A friend.”