Mary Ellroy has been a professional toy and game inventor since 1990. We recently had a chance to catch up with her and learn the story of her path through the industry. Here she shares her experiences and insights.
How did you find yourself in the toy and game industry? What was the point of entry for you?
I had an idea for a game. I did a lot of research in the library (date me much?) to find out how other game inventors made it and I kept seeing references to “Playthings” Magazine. I called them in NY and they happened to mention that they had just published their “Who Makes It” issue, the one that tells you where to get sound chips, doll eyeballs, spinner, dice, etc. (I do miss that! They don’t publish it any more.) I was so excited I could not wait to get it in the mail. I drove from my home in CT to their offices in NYC and got all their back issues plus that special issue.
I called a company that made sound chips and told them what I needed for my game and they asked if I had an industrial designer. I had no idea what that was, but they knew a guy in Stamford whose home office was not far from my house. I made an appointment with him and drove to his house. We talked and he asked me if I had an agent. I didn’t know you needed an agent! But he gave me the contact info for David Shapiro (now VP marketing at International Playthings) who was putting together a rep agency. David liked my game and optioned it to Mattel for a nice advance! (Side note – it never went to market, but at that point I knew what my new career was.) David was great - at one point after a few years -he decided to go back to the corporate world and he called and said he was "launching" me. He gave me a lot of contacts and wished me well. Other wonderful people played a part. Vic Reiling, of "Hot Potato" fame became a mentor. Donna Webster of Ceaco encouraged me and gave me a lot of contacts from her days with Mel Taft. And being on the board of Women in Toys was incredibly valuable in terms of contacts and access.
What is your favorite or most notable contribution to the industry in terms of products that landed on store shelves?
Great States board game by International Playthings
I guess Great States at International Playthings. I think it’s been going steady nonstop for 12-13 years. I sold it to them before David worked there, but it's really a nostalgic rush to check on the game every year at Toy Fair and at the same time say hi to the guy who really jump-started my career.
Many new inventors struggle to discern realistic expectations in terms of how long it might take for their idea to "take off." As a result, some may give up too soon, while others may hang on to an idea when they really should leave it behind and go on to the next one. What are your thoughts on that challenge?
I have an item I have been pitching since 1995. I keep going because it’s been optioned four times! (Fingers crossed for the promised 2014 intro.) I take to heart whatever the inventor relations people say, and usually it’s apparent pretty quickly when something won’t work. I’ve had items I’ve shown to one company and stopped showing after that. It’s really important to listen to the reaction of the inventor relations person
When did you make the crossover from working exclusively as a speculative inventor to working for companies as a contract inventor? What tips would you offer to inventors who hope to make the leap from speculative to contract inventor?
You know I don’t remember when I started doing contract work. It certainly was after I had a bit of a track record. But I still am a spec inventor as well.
You first need a track record of successful inventions. But in my case, I branded myself in a certain category, games, even though I invent and rep both toys and games. It truly was about creating relationships with people and creating products that started the word-of-mouth thing going. Networking, serving the industry on a volunteer basis (example WIT, which is open to men and women) being vocal in the Linked In groups, all those things help.
When did you decide to work as an agent representing inventors? Can you share a client or two that you've worked with to help bring their idea(s) to fruition?
Maybe somewhere around 2000. I belong to (and was president of) the Inventors Association of Connecticut and have gotten to know a lot of inventors who are not specifically in the toy industry, but who occasionally came up with great toy ideas. They didn’t have time or access to pitch products, so I offered to show their products along with mine. It just sort of grew organically after that! One of my favorite clients I met while serving as a judge at the Yankee Invention Expo. He was there showing his game and I loved it. After the Expo I got in touch with him and we moved forward with a contract. Within a year we had sold it to a major!
What do you like to do to spur your creativity when working on a project?
Walk the dogs, pace and swim. I use the Catch app on my phone (best used not while swimming) to jot down ideas. I subscribe to a lot of techie newsletters and try to keep current with gizmodo, quirky, indiegogo, and other websites like that.
What do you like to do when you aren't working on toys and games?
I am a total tech nerd but I also like going to garage sales where you can find all sorts of inspiring things, not to mention game and toy parts. I play guitar and sing with a group of people singing oldies like the Dead and the Eagles. I swim regularly and have been competing in triathlons in a relay (doing the swimming part) yearly.
Are you working on anything new at the moment that you are able to talk about and you'd like us to share?
I am working with some exciting new clients and received my first 3D printed prototype a couple of weeks ago. We are at the tip of the iceberg with 3D printing and it’s thrilling to think where that will go.
If you could give one piece of advice to other inventors, what would it be?
Listen hard without prejudice to the people who review your ideas. Don't ever try to argue with them unless you are sure they may have misunderstood what you are trying to show them or are unaware of certain trends or technologies around your item.
Anything else you'd like to add?
I really admire what Mary Couzin is doing with the inventor community. Thanks for the opportunity for this interview!
It’s our pleasure Mary! To see and learn more about Mary Ellroy, and her professional services - both as an inventor and as an agent representing other inventors, PLEASE VISIT HER WEBSITE!. Mary recently helped Chicago Toy & Game Group brainstorm a new name for our inventor newsletter. It’s now called “I.D.E.A. – Inventors, Designers, Elves, and Authors.” You can subscribe to I.D.E.A. for free to get more stories like this by clicking here. And a big THANK YOU to Mary Ellroy for helping us creatively define our identity!
Michelle Spelman is Editor and Inventor Relations Liaison for Chicago Toy & Game Group. She is a game inventor, and co-founder of Flying Pig Games LLC, creators of award-winning Jukem Football card game. She is also founder of Cincinnati Game & Toy Industry Professionals group, and is the Cincinnati Children’s Toy Examiner. An independent marketing consultant providing contract services, executive coaching and strategic direction, she’s in her sweet spot when she is working with companies focused on women and family-oriented products and services.