Additional reporting by Alex Dalenberg
NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- Heather O'Neil, Pat Graves and Tracy Vaninger are three moms with one scary bedtime story to tell big toy companies."The DIY trend kind of helped us," O'Neil told my assistant Alex a few months back. O'Neil is the owner of Happy Doodles, a Needham, Mass.-based on-demand stuffed toy company. "It got people thinking in terms of custom things not having to cost millions of dollars." This mother and entrepreneur, who has absolutely zero engineering or manufacturing background, has reinvented herself as a high-tech toy innovator. By cleverly kludging together off-the-shelf digital design and fabrication systems, O'Neil is becoming a next-gen child's toymaker. With toys starting at $25, she does something giants including Mattel ( MAT), Hasbro ( HAS) and LeapFrog ( LF) tend not to: make a reasonable dollar turning your child's doodles into a ridiculously cute, fully stuffed, plush toy. And she is just one of many successful high-tech toy elves. Though the three did not disclose sales, all said business was steadily growing. "It's definitely an Internet thing," says Graves, who runs Omaha, Neb.-based My Own Cuddly, one of many just such on-demand, small-fab toymakers Alex and I found. "It's all just done out of a room in my house." It might be easy to dismiss "moms with CAD" as no threat to star kids' brands such as Barbie, Hot Wheels or Star Wars. But in these digital times, that would be like dismissing blogging as no threat to newspapers. It turns out that these innovators sit on a leading edge of a shift in the toy, kids and youth media market -- away from established companies. "I'm a businesswoman, so whenever I see something my mind always goes to, 'How can we develop a business around that?'" said Vaninger, yet another owner/mom who presides at on-demand plush doll fab shop Sunny Little Studio in St. Louis. Which means, friends, just as toy giants report optimistic performance and gather for their yearly Toy Fair confab, the toy business is beginning to slog through the same value-crushing digital disruption suffered by publishing, music and financial services.
For starters, research is confirming what any parent will tell you: Kids are living in a strange new digital content age where established brands are less important. "American families see tablets as playmate, teacher and baby sitter," said a 2012 report from New York-based Nielsen. And this portable kids portal is essentially defined by the gobs of cheap content cash-strapped Internet companies are pouring into it. In late 2012, Amazon ( AMZN) rolled out the Kindle FreeTime Unlimited, an all-you-can-eat kids tablet content buffet of mainline brands such as Sesame Street, Reading Rainbow, Nickelodeon and dozens more. All starting at just $3 a month -- a fraction of what cable or satellite TV charges for the same stuff. This value-crushing wave in Kid's brands is further amplified by a new generation of youth-oriented digital entertainment options that -- get ready for this -- have no brands at all. The killer app is the addictive gaming environment called Minecraft, from Sweden's Mojang. This mostly self-provisioning virtual gaming platform opens most of the process of creating interactive experiences to the 40 million or so Minecraft-loving kids and young people who play it. "We knew too well that if the Betty Ford Clinic opened a Minecraft wing, our son could be first on the list if we didn't stage our own intervention," wrote Pam Melyan-Bratton, a blogger on NJ.com, a large, mostly local content media service. Toy company = Publishing 2.0
Toy giants are reacting as similarly threatened movie, publishing and music companies did a decade ago. They are rushing to new technological platforms and brands without truly considering the cost, long odds and low margins they face in new markets. Mattel announced last week just such a new global game, cartoon and interactive franchise called Max Steel. "The multiplatform action-adventure entertainment franchise will also introduce a dynamic Web destination, featuring rich content, including interactive gameplay ... action figures, vehicles, role play items and a diverse line of consumer products," the company news release said. For sure, Max is kinda cool. I really do like the cartoon. But in the collapsing digital age, Max and Mattel must compete against the likes of Spider-Man, The Hunger Games, The Twilight Saga and Harry Potter, to name a few. And all that, in turn, is under siege from a new generation of personal 3-D manufacturing options from companies such as MakerBot, Stratasys Systems and Desktop Factory. The new so-called 3D Cloud Printing Engine from France's Sculpteo, for example, allows any mom to build an intricately designed piece of plastic -- in other words, a toy -- for just a few bucks. And parents can even get paid for their trouble. The company is sponsoring something called the Made in 3D Challenge, in which winning designers can win an iPad. All of which makes our toymaker moms queens of the next-gen toybox. "It's kind of an interesting time, the shift between marketing giant products and an appreciation for locally made things, " is how O'Neil explained it to us. Considering the Chinese consider it a curse to live in "interesting times," Barbie, Ken and the entire toy business may be soon considering new career options.