Even if you don’t have school-age children, you’ve no doubt heard about the recent Fidget Spinner craze that has swept the globe, with an estimated 200 million units sold to date. I’d never heard of them until my 11 year-old daughter said she just had to have one. Like the hoola-hoop in the 50’s and several other ‘must-have’ toys since, this trend took off quickly and quite unexpectedly but its origins are hard to pinpoint.
This craze got me and my colleague, Mike Damphousse at Category Design Advisors curious about how the whole thing got started. Was there a Category Designer behind it all who had carefully orchestrated and designed a new category now estimated to be worth over $500 million?
It turns out that like most trends this one was purely accidental. But let’s dissect it and see how a few innovators missed out on dominating a new market they had a hand in creating. Many have credited Catherine Hettinger as being the inventor of the fidget spinner although her prototype doesn’t look anything like the $6-$10 spinners you see today. She had filed a patent for a “spinning toy” in 1993, but let it expire in 2005 after Hasbro saw no potential and refused to market it.
Fast forward 10 years to 2015, when Scott McCoskery designed and started selling high-end fidget spinners made out of copper, brass and titanium. The Torqbar retails between $139 and $199. In December, 2016 it was dubbed the iPhone of Desk Toys by Forbes due to its “passionate, cult-like following” in Facebook groups and online forums. It’s about this time that a variety of fidget spinners started to trend online with YouTube stars like Andrew Huang helping to ignite the toys’ popularity.
Meanwhile, in August 2016, the second most successful KickStarter campaign ever was being launched by the McLachlan brothers, who were looking to raise $15K to finance production of their Fidget Cube idea. To their surprise, it ended up attracting 155,000 backers and raising $6.4 million.
They understandably had difficulty meeting their ship date commitments, and soon there were thousands of small fidget spinners and cubes flooding the market as small, nimble manufacturers jumped in to get a piece of the action. Worldwide sales soared into the tens of millions. Even the big toy companies like Hasbro, Mattel and ZURU didn’t see it coming and were late to the dance as there are now more than 11,000 vendors offering about 600,000 spinners across Amazon, eBay and Alibaba.
In the case of fidget gadgets, none of the early stage inventors focused on creating a category blueprint and mapping out the ecosystem of key influencers, suppliers, distribution partners and patent experts they would need to capitalize on the opportunity. Very few executed what we category designers refer to as a lightning strike. This is a highly coordinated series of events designed to launch the category, define a new problem you’re solving and secure that #1 spot in consumers’ brains as buyers think in categories, not products or brands.
The Fidget Cube campaign came the closest to being a category design play. Their KickStarter video pitched the category, introduced a new way to satisfy people’s urge to fidget, and won over a ton of early-adopter influencers. Unfortunately, they weren’t prepared to capitalize on the success of their campaign. They fell short in the production phase of company design and weren’t able to deliver on-time. Had a full strategy been implemented, including company design, product design and category design, the McLachlan brothers would have had a much better chance of conditioning the market to demand their solution and crown them as the king.
An idea that started out 25 years ago as a therapeutic tool for kids with autism, anxiety and attention disorders, has now gone mainstream due to the sheer volume of designs and varieties, not to mention the viral power of YouTube and social networks. The key takeaway here is that instead of one company being synonymous with the category, the product itself became the category. It’s now a commoditized, red ocean of knock-offs and me-too players. Moral of this story is you need to position yourself or you will be positioned.