People Who Made Millions (And Billions) With A Single Toy Concept
The toy industry is incredibly competitive. Before the fall of Toys R Us, inventors would clamor over the very limited toy space available to them. If you were lucky enough to win a coveted spot on the store shelf you were already ahead of the game. If your toy became successful, untold riches awaited you.
These toy inventors created some of the most popular toys in history and in the process they became millionaires. From rocks made out of toys to a billion-dollar idea created by a former NASA rocket scientist, these toys made their inventors wealthy beyond their dreams.
The Slinky is a $250 million toy invention that was created by accident. The toys inventor, Richard James, came up with the idea for his Slinky toy after he dropped a tension spring on the floor and noticed how it flopped around.
After creating the toy in 1943 it became an immediate success. To date, the Slinky has sold more than 350 million units with profits that have neared $3 billion. Even in today’s tech-driven society, kids still love playing with the Slinky.
The Super Soaker is sold by Hasbro but it was initially the product of Larami, a knock-off toy brand. Inventor Lonnie Johnson approached the company with his patented idea for the Super Soaker and they agreed to mass-produce the toy and pay him a share of the profits.
The toy was eventually acquired by Hasbro, who continued to pay Johnson, a former NASA Jet Propulsion engineer, for his work. The Super Soaker has earned billions of dollars in profit and Johnson has earned an estimated $360 million from the toy. Today, he funds his own research company that aims to revolutionize the electrical power generation and storage industries.
The Pet Rock was a collectible toy released in 1975 by advertising executive Gary Dahl. Using his marketing prowess, Dahl placed his pet rocks inside of cardboard boxes that featured straw and breathing holes.
While the Pet Rock toy fad only lasted six months, Dahl sold an estimated one million rocks at a cost of $4 each. After the success of his novelty pet rock, Dahl stopped giving interviews and opened a bar in California.
Snap Bracelets have been recently making a comeback, not bad for a toy that became popular in the early 1990s. The idea of this toy/accessory is simply, you slap a long piece of fabric on your wrist and it transforms into a bracelet.
Slap bracelets are the brainchild of Stuart Anders. The snap bracelet reportedly earned $8 million per year in the early 1990s before falling out of favor. While not just a toy, children love to play with this accessory which makes it the only multi-use item on our list.
Toy creator Ty Warner became a billionaire after he invented and released his Beanie Babies in 1993. What started as a simple stuff animal soon transformed into a massive industry. Some rare Beanie Babies were soon selling for thousands of dollars, creating a cottage industry of sellers and buyers.
At one point, the Beanie Baby craze netted $700 million in new item sales. That’s a lot of Beanie Babies for a toy that originally sold for just $5 each. Beanie babies may not be as popular today but the company still stocks shelves with the popular stuffed toys.
The Koosh Ball is a simple but fun toy that became incredibly popular after Rosie O’Donnell started flinging the toys on her former talk show. The rubbery ball with colorful fibers is the brainchild of Scott Stillinger.
Stillinger, an engineer by trade, invented the Koosh Ball in the 1980s and after it became popular nearly two decades later the product was acquired by Hasbro. Stillinger co-founded the company OddzOn Products which he sold to Russ Berrie and Co. seven years later. That company, in turn, sold Koosh to Hasbro for a mind-boggling $100 million.
Wacky Wall Walker
Ken Hakuta started selling his Wacky Wall Walker in 1985 and he quickly became a millionaire when the toy became a massive success. The slimy toy which resembles an octopus was capable of “walking” down walls thanks to gravity.
Hakuta actually acquired the rights for the original Chinese toy by paying $100,000 for the invention. After a reporter from The Washington Post wrote about the toy it gained 240 million sales while Hakuta earned about $80 million.
The Hoola Hoop
The modern-day plastic Hoola Hoop was invented by Arthur K. “Spud” Melin and Richard Knerr, the men behind the Wham-O toy company. The two entrepreneurs came up with the idea after watching Australian children using bamboo hoops for exercise.
The brightly colored plastic version started selling in 1958 for $1.98 each. They soon sold more than 25 million Wham-O Hula Hoops and in 1963 they patented the toy. Not bad for simply improving on something that already existed.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles
Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird are both estimated to be worth $20 million each thanks to their toy invention. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles actually started as a comic book from the two men.
The guys borrowed some money and used a small tax refund to start self-publishing a paper comic. Soon, a cartoon followed. From their creation, toys were developed and a billion-dollar toy industry was born. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have been around since the 1980s and are still a popular toy today.
Cabbage Patch Kids
Xavier Roberts met Martha Nelson Thomas in 1976 while they were both attending a craft fair. Roberts was impressed with Thomas’ dolls and asked for permission to sell her creations in Georgia. After a short period, Thomas took away Roberts’ ability to sell her dolls. In 1978, Roberts created his own version and in 1982 he licensed the dolls to Coleco for mass-production
Cabbage Patch Kids became a massive success, selling 20 million units in 1984. By 1999 the soles had sole 95 million units worldwide. Roberts amassed a fortune estimated at upwards of $50 million.
Furbies were invented by Dave Hampton and Caleb Chung in the 1990s. They eventually brought on a third partner, Richard C. Levy, who was able to secure a distribution deal with Tiger Electronics.
After appearing at the American International Toy Fair in 1998, Furbies became a massive success, selling more than $1.2 billion during their initial period of excitement. Chung has since gone on to find other toy successes, including the $20 million PLEO the animatronic pet dinosaur.
The Rubik’s Cube was invented in 1974 by Hungarian sculptor and professor of architecture Ernő Rubik. He originally called the invention the “Magic Cube.” The cube was invented when Rubik was busily working on a model to help explain three-dimensional geometry.
Rubik eventually licensed the toy to Ideal Toy Corp in 1980 and it has now sold more than 350 million units. Along with the Rubik’s Cube, Ernő also invented several variations of his best- selling toy.
In 1955 Joseph and Noah McVicker were trying to create a better wallpaper cleaner when they stumbled upon the idea to market their invention towards children. Play-Doh was originally rolled over wallpaper to remove chimney soot.
The men formed toy manufacturer Rainbow Crafts and set off to sell their product. The company was eventually sold to Hasbro and has sold more than 700 million pounds of the popular artful toy since its inception. Not bad for something that started as something completely different.
Silly Putty was invented by James Wright while he was working at General Electric’s New Haven, Connecticut lab in 1943. A rubber shortage caused by Japan invading various rubber producing countries led to US efforts to invent synthetic rubbers. Nutty Putty, as Wright originally called it, didn’t work for its original intended purpose.
Several years later, Wright borrowed enough money to secure the production rights for what he rebranded as “Silly Putty.” He hired Yale college students to place the putty into one-ounce red plastic egg containers which he sold for $1 each. By the time of his death in 1976, Wright was worth an estimated $140 million.
Hacky Sack is the brainchild of John Stalberger, Jr. and Mike Marshall. The two men invented the product in the 1980s and with almost no marketing they sold more than one million Hacky Sacks through word-of-mouth.
In 1984 Wham-O paid $1.5 million for marketing rights to the simple but popular product. The product was originally marketed for the sport “footbag” which specifically uses the brand name product for events held at locations around the world. The hacky sack is either a toy or a serious sports accessory, depending on who you ask.
The Crayola Crayon
Crayola will be the first to admit they didn’t invent the crayon, in fact, they make that statement on the company’s own history page. However, Edwin Binney, owner of Binney & Smith, created a more sturdy version of the European crayon in 1902.
In 2003 the company celebrated its 100th anniversary and announced it now produces more than 3 billion crayons each year. At the time of his death, Binney was said to be worth $85 million.
Alfred Carlton Gilbert is the co-founder of Mysto Manufacturing, a company that started manufacturing magic sets in 1907. Later,. he would develop what would become his greatest toy invention of all-time, the erector set.
By 1935, more than 30 million erector sets had been sold. Gilbert didn’t stop there, adding 150 patents for various toys and other inventions during his 50-year-career. He used some of his money to purchase the American Flyer company where his attention to detail, specifically the scale of toy trains, was lauded by collectors.
English Inventor John William “Jack” Odell is the creator of Matchbox toys. His company started selling small products for cars such as dashboards and door handles but quickly shifted gears after Odell’s daughter brought his small steamroller to school in 1952.
Odell’s daughter showed the steamroller to her friends and they fell in love with the product. In a short period of time the company started selling the toy with one million copies ordered right from the get-go. By 1966 the company had sold more than 100 million Matchbox toys. While Odell became a rich man, the company was insolvent by 1982 and was sold to Universal Toys.
Joshua Lionel Cowen was the co-founder of Lionel Corporation, a manufacturer of model railroads and toy trains. The inventor was also the creator of the flash-lamp which he debuted in 1899. The flash-lamp was an early photographer’s flash light source.
Lionel, in 1953, watched his company peak with $33 million in Lionel train sales. In 1958 he decided to retire and sold a majority stake in this company to his great nephew. He sold right at the appropriate time as the golden age of railroading came to an end and was replaced by increasing automobile sales in the TV era. Lionel trains are still available for purchase today.
The mastermind behind Playmobil is German inventor Hans Beck. Trained as a cabinet maker, Beck created small toy vehicles and figures for his younger siblings. Hans eventually started focusing on toys that were flexible and small enough to fit in a child’s hand.
Beck spent three years developing his line of interchangeable accessories and in 1975 the company’s toys began selling worldwide. Beck ran the company until 1998 at which time he trained a new team of designers and then retired.