Prototyping New Products: What You Can Learn from an Industry Pro

I recently heard a talk by David Small, of Shoot the Moon products, at Hacker Dojo in Mountain View, CA. Shoot the Moon products is an uber-successful product development and invention firm in the toy industry.  Toy industry giants like Mattel, Fisher Price, and Hasbro often look outside the company to inventors and firms like Shoot the Moon, for their breakthrough products and ideas.  Shoot the Moon has had a lot of success with this–with a track record of over 100 product lines developed and licensed, creating roughly $2 Billion in retail sales. These guys are pros.

David, one of the cofounders of the firm, led the audience through several of their biggest hits, such as Laser tag, and showing videos of Elmo and Talking Teddy, two animatronic toys that were very successful in their time.  He then walked through their latest creation, to be released this June by Mattel.  Enter the doll, Fijit.

Starting concept ideation back in 2008, Small highlighted to the audience that it took their expert team 3 years before they would get their product to market. Creating a new product line that was to represent the cutting edge in toys, make kids go crazy with desire, and inspire images of hockey stick growth curves in toy industry execs, is not a feat that would be accomplished without years of hard work.

I think two of the most important takeaways that emerged from his talk were that 1) figuring out how to bring the product to life involved solving numerous, complex problems, the solving of which, led to many new problems, and 2) they used everyday materials, from whatever source they could find, to build out the prototype  It was not easy.

Let’s take #1.  In the ultra-competitive toy industry, price points are crucial, margins are thin, and therefore, cost is king.  Developing the killer new toy technology at a cost that is going to allow for affordable toy pricing, can be extremely challenging.  Anyone could have used high-end technology and disregarded assembly and part cost to build a product like Fijit.  The key was doing it at the amazing retail price point of $49.99.  This required problem-solving to create the desired capabilities as efficiently as possible.  They needed to make a doll that could pull off multiple movements in all directions, but only use a minimum of motors, battery power, and parts to do it. This took a great deal of engineering work and involved several dead-ends. When they finally developed a solution, they realized they had created a new problem: the skins (exterior of the doll) that they typically used with dolls, would not work with this setup.  The victory of the first challenge quickly created the tough work of solving the second–finding a material that would work.

The search for Fijit’s exterior skin was on.  Remember, these guys are familiar with all kinds of materials and have experts at their disposal. They looked at several materials, including plush, and needed to find a material that would house the guts of the doll safely, be flexible enough to move in a variety of directions, and soft and cuddly to the touch.  They went through a lot of options with no luck. They eventually found solution. A very soft, stretchy, rubbery plastic in…another toy.  When questions of prototype building comes up with entrepreneurs, I often encourage them to find and loot whatever off-the-shelf products they can for useful materials.  Not everything must be created from scratch and walking the aisles of stores is the fastest and cheapest way to see what’s out there that you can use.  Not only did David and his team find the plastic toy that used this material, but they bought it and spent painstaking hours taking it apart so it would be usable in their prototype.  It might sound like this is very difficult, and it may be.  But I can assure you that it is usually a faster method than describing a hypothetical material and talking to industry people and vendors to see if such a thing exists somewhere…out there…in the world.  Start with what’s in stores.  Loot existing products and materials that are easily accessible.  Get your hands dirty and be creative.

There can be a lot of dead-ends in new product development.  We spend a lot of time and resources traveling down the exploratory path of sussing out various materials and designs, only to find that they don’t work for some small reason.  It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that we were foolish not to see the problems early on and save ourselves the time.  Well, as David lamented, even the pros go through this very process.  They might go through certain stages faster (even though Fijit development spanned several years), but the product development process is full of uncertainty.  As I mention in this blog post, like startup businesses, the goal is to fail quickly and cheaply, and iterate to success.  Even Thomas Edison described his invention development as a process of getting through failures to hit success.

Fijit is a very impressive toy, at an even more impressive price point.  It won’t be long till we see if 6 year old girls and parents everywhere agree.  Hopefully, for Shoot the Moon, their persistence pays off handsomely.