Robert Fuhrer - From Placing New Product Ideas to Building a Worldwide Brand

David, Len and Bob Fuhrer

David, Len and Bob Fuhrer

I love this picture of Bob with his father Len and brother David. It was taken at the TAGIE Awards a few years ago when David was a nominee. All three are successful men of great character that have fun living life to its fullest. Sadly we lost Len a couple of years later. He loved our events and would send notes of encouragement every so often. I miss him. The apple doesn't fall far from the tree. Bob has also been a supporter, a friend and has built an incredible international KenKen Empire, from print publications to mobile apps and websites with over 200 million puzzles played since its introduction in 2009!

How did you go from developing internationally recognized game and toy ideas, to building and owning your own brain puzzle brand, KenKen®?

My dad, Len Fuhrer worked for years in the toy industry so I grew up with toys in my blood.  My younger brother, David, also works with new ideas and we both love the industry.  In 1981, I started what became Nextoy.  The name suggests toy innovation, and it also means New Exciting Toys.  A year later I was very fortunate to meet and ultimately partner with Asahi, a Japanese trading company that had a toy division they wanted to expand overseas.  They were eventually acquired by Casio and became Casio Creative Products, and then Bandai.   

We brought hundreds of products to the market and were nominated several times for a TOTY for “Most Innovative Product.  I’m also a proud recipient of the I.D.I.O.T. (International Designer and Inventor Of Toys) award, and was recognized by the TIA with a Caring For Children honor for my work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Together, Asahi and I were pioneers in the sense of “one stop shopping” for new ideas combining Asian engineering and manufacturing know-how with western marketing and innovation.   With a partnership that lasted 27 years, this experience allowed me to spend substantial time in Japan and elsewhere in Asia, and naturally cultivate a wide network of contacts.  This is how I originally met the great Japanese education publisher, Gakken, who had first published the puzzle that has become KenKen®. 

We have heard that Japanese business practices are substantially different from Western ones.  Did you find this difficult, and how did you manage it?

Yes, there are numerous differences beginning with the tradition of bowing vs shaking hands, and there is an emphasis on quality, strong personal relationships, attention to detail, and patience.  Decisions are largely done by committee with an ultra-cautious approach, and it’s necessary to spend a lot of time socializing and getting to know each other. 

This is not a simple subject and I have numerous thoughts and experiences that I’d love to explain but it’s not right for this forum.  Work with the Japanese is truly a team approach and effort, and as an American I needed to prove that I was part of the team, while preserving my independence and entrepreneurship which was a value I added.

I can truly say the learning never stopped.   Navigating a rights acquisition with a huge Japanese corporation is very tricky, and I was fortunate to have the benefit of working with great people in Gakken that teamed up to allow Nextoy to acquire the worldwide rights and work to build the brand.  This may have been easier because the puzzle was brand new and not yet known as KenKen.

Does the name KenKen mean anything?

The original Japanese name for this unique puzzle was “kashikoku naru puzzuru” which means the “makes you smarter puzzle”. 

We changed it to “KEN,” a great word with positive meaning in many languages. In English it means knowledge and awareness.  In Hebrew it means “yes”.  In Japanese KEN means clever or wisdom, so KenKen is “wisdom squared”.   It is a great name, because it’s positive, easy to pronounce in most languages, and it’s a coined term allowing us to have a very strong registered trademark. 

Most puzzles are public domain, including sudoku, crosswords, word search.  It is rare and valuable to have a strong intellectual property in a puzzle or game. 

When you first saw KenKen, did you realize this was a special product?

No, actually, I thought visually it looked too difficult to play to gain mass acceptance, but sudoku was thriving and it opened the door. 

I was aware that the NY Times puzzle editor, Will Shortz lived locally and asked my good friend and fellow game innovator Mark Setteducati if he could introduce me to Will to get his personal opinion.  Will asked me to leave a sample book and several days later contacted me to say that the puzzle was something very, very special.  He has been an amazing ally, opening the door for us to present KenKen to the New York Times. 

One of the things I am most proud of in my career is that with the exception of the classic crossword puzzle, KenKen is the only daily feature the New York Times has introduced in their history and is now a mainstay both in print, seven days a week, and online. We are now in about 200 newspapers around the world.

What appealed to you about KenKen?

KenKen is unusually universal, and is scalable from the simplest and easy to solve, to the most extreme brain-exploding.  There is no age limit to playing— as long as you can add 2+1—so we have children as young as 4 years old to people in their 90’s that write us to say they’re addicted.   There is no gender bias at all; it is played almost equally by men and women. 

And, this is significant, since KenKen is a number puzzle, there are no language restrictions.  So, in our view, every person in the world from the age 4 and up is a potential customer.   It is inter-generational without compromise.  How many activities can a grandparent do with a grandchild where they are both engaged.  And kids often teach their parents which is a wonderful concept.  We also have a fast growing educational side with over 30,000 teachers enrolled to receive weekly puzzles.

I love that the product is just good for society.   The originator of the puzzle is a Japanese math educator named Tetsuya Miyamoto and he just moved to New York.  His philosophy is “The Art of Teaching Without Teaching”.  KenKen builds not only math skills, but helps kids learn how to problem solve and persevere.  At the adult level, in addition to being fun and addictive there is evidence that solving puzzles can ward off dementia and Alzheimers.  It is just a great product and I am fortunate to be in the position to parent it.

What is the future for KenKen?

KenKen was first introduced in the USA at the beginning of 2009, so it is still a young child.  We have just completed several great alliances that will help build the audience and make others aware of this amazing game.  It is now in the USA Today online, and we have entered a partnership with Der Spiegel, one of Europe’s largest media companies to introduce a co-branded Der Spiegel KenKen on apps and online. 

Through a deal with Global Eagle, KenKen will be offered on the entertainment system on most of the world’s airlines beginning this year.  In education, we have partnered with the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, the largest math education organization in the world, to launch a “NCTM Presents KenKen” mobile app, and our interactive game is featured on their website daily.  This is just the tip of the iceberg, and we are expecting fast growing popularity. Our syndication partner is Universal Uclick, who is helping us expand into many more publications and websites around the world.  Our main book publisher is Sterling Publishing. 

Our tagline is “Puzzles That Make You Smarter” and we expect to add other puzzles under the KenKen umbrella brand for the fast growing category of brain puzzles.

What platforms is KenKen available on?

KenKen is just about everywhere.  It can be found in print publications such as newspapers and magazines, books, mobile apps, and websites.  Over 200 million puzzles have been played on and already!  We also have had several KenKen tournaments and there seems to be a healthy appetite for this. 

On May 31, 2015 we will have our first ever international tournament just for students.  Our Indian partner ran a country wide tournament in India with over 20,000 students, and 5 winners will come and compete against students from the USA and other nations.  IBM and Acorda are sponsoring it, along with Pace University and our local Westchester County Youth Bureau.

How does building and marketing KenKen differ from developing mainstream toys and games?

It has different challenges but still a lot fun.  With traditional toys and games there is tooling, factories, safety issues, travel to Asia, shipping, industrial design, etc.  With Nextoy, we always licensed them to marketing companies for a royalty.  While there is licensing with some KenKen products such as books, we own and control KenKen completely and it is closer to a publishing project, and the biggest part of that is digital publishing.  So our challenges are in programming, user interface, and keeping up with technology.  When we first introduced KenKen just a few years ago, there was no iPhone and no Apps of course.  Now mobile apps are one of our fastest growing and most important platforms.

Do you still work on any toy or game concepts?

Yes, on a few special pet projects that are personally appealing.  I also like to mentor and have had great fun developing lifelong friendships with some people that came in as interns and recent college graduates.  I also consult a little with companies or individuals if the chemistry is right and I can provide genuine help.

What is your dream for KenKen?

My simple dream for KenKen is that it will be mainstream in the culture of every nation in the world.  This may sound grandiose, but it is achievable, and we’re off to a great start.