Fun-Damental’s Gary Pyper, Stacey Pyper and Toby Kinsey show us around their new studio
Gary Pyper, Stacey Pyper and Toby Kinsey are the team at Fun-Damental Invention, the UK-based invention studio responsible for recent launches like Buffalo Games’ You’re on Mute as well as Windy Knickers and Giddy Up from John Adams.
Fresh from moving into a brand new studio, we caught up with the team to find out how 2021 has been so far – and learn more about some of the fresh capabilities that come with having their impressive new space.
Guys! Great to catch up again. This is my first work trip out in the wild since lockdown eased so thanks for getting me out! Now, we’re sat in your swish new studio with the entire team. Gary, we’ve obviously spoken lots before, but let’s do a proper introduction to the full Fun-Damental gang…
Gary Pyper: Yes, let me introduce you to Toby. I’d worked with Toby previously for 15 years, so we knew each other very well. The most important thing about choosing someone to work so closely with every day is trust. It’s not just about trusting that each other’s work is good; it’s about both having the same philosophy, priorities and work ethic. We pretty much discuss and agree on everything.
Toby Kinsey: I can’t remember us ever having a row! We’re very aligned on what we want to achieve in the business.
GP: All three of us share risk, we decide where we want to put our time. In this business, it’s all a slightly educated guess, but we trust each other in the sense we all believe what we’re creating has a real chance.
TK: We also have different areas of strength. Concepts and marketing is Gary’s purview, whereas electronics and mechanism are more my area. We overlap and there are also parts where we differ.
How did you get into toy invention Toby?
TK: By chance! I completed a model making course and was kicking around. A colleague who worked in the toy industry at the time told me they needed another model maker, so I turned up with my portfolio. I was taken straight down to the studio and started working. That was in 1995 and I was there for many years.
Stacey, let’s bring you in! How did you find your way into toys?
Stacey Pyper: I have a design and licensing background. I met Gary 21 years ago; we worked in the same studio. Gary was on product design, and I was on packaging design. I progressed to ITV where I was Head of Creative Services. When we decided to start Fun-damental, everything fell into place. I fell into the world of Invention and taking care of the systems that allow us to run an efficient business.
GP: Any invention house that has a stream of ideas, presentations and ultimately agreements knows there’s so much administration involved. You need to stay on top of it all… For example, we hate to show a company an idea for the second time by accident. Stacey takes care of all that because I’m hopeless at systems and admin, but Stacey is a marvel.
SP: And of course, with a background in packaging, I also do all the cardboard construction mock-ups and anything else that’s needed!
We last caught up when you first launched the business, so how has the past year been for you guys?
GP: We’re placing a strong number of items and there’s lots more on the way. We have a very exciting new product out for fall with John Adams this year called Giddy Up. It’s an electronic hobby horse game that’s fully interactive. It’s hilarious!
We also have You’re On Mute with Buffalo Games, which was a super-fast turnaround. As soon as lockdown happened, Fun-damental acquired the trademarks for ‘You’re on Mute’. We had a game in development with Buffalo that fit that trademark perfectly.
How soon into lockdown did the penny drop that You’re on Mute was ‘a thing’?
SP: It was a two in the morning revelation!
GP: I assumed it would be taken, but it wasn’t, so we did it. We do that kind of thing very rarely, but it seemed like an obvious opportunity. Every meeting we had during the start of the pandemic, someone would say, “You’re on mute!” I was praying no one would cotton on! Buffalo did a great job with it and it’s in Target now.
Windy Knickers also had a super strong year and will be making an appearance globally with wider distribution for 2022. We also have some cool plush items launching with DKL Beysal. We currently have lots of exciting toys and games signed for 2022 and even have a few already for 2023, so it’s all happening!
Exciting times! Now, we’ve done quite a few interviews with inventor relations folks in the past year, and when I ask about exciting new studios, Fun-Damental almost always gets a mention! What do you think you and the team are doing that’s resonating with companies?
GP: We understand the challenge that inventor relations people have in selling things internally. We give them a package that makes that easier. We do that by having very finished graphics and visuals, we create whole marketing concepts, and we try to make really appetising sizzles. We love things to look nice! It’s like drawing a picture for your mum… You want her to say, “I really like that!” We want inventor relations people to say “Wow I really like that!”
Is this a trend generally, that inventors are creating more polished concepts for companies that was perhaps needed in the past?
GP: Undoubtably inventor relations execs need more from inventors than they have done in the past. The gatekeepers are used to seeing very finished visuals everyday and everywhere; kids are creating content on TikTok that’s very polished and we have to meet that aesthetic standard.
SP: You have to have a huge amount of energy and drive to continue creating to the level and quantity that is required and expected.
GP: Absolutely. You need a total and unconditional belief that you’re creating cool stuff, whether it is or not. We’ve looked back at some things we’ve done and thought, ‘We wouldn’t have done that now!”
TK: We thought it was good idea at the time! We’re continuously learning. If I look back at when Fun-Damental first started, we’ve matured and the self-censorship of what we produce is far more considered now.
GP: Our capabilities are really wide now too. We can do full animatronics and electronics. We programme our own chips; we build our own robotics. It’s a skill set that isn’t common. Sometimes we’ll also do completely finished tooling CAD. It saves internal teams a lot of time and makes things easier for everyone.
Is there a category that Fun-Damental specialises in now? Or something you guys are starting to be known for?
GP: We’re starting to be known as quite left field. We don’t particularly concentrate on specific brand extensions, although we are happy to on request. The dream for us is to create really cool magic tricks that excite us. The dream for any inventor is to dance to their own tune.
TK: What excites us is the idea. That’s not limited to one area. Brand or category.
GP: To sell an idea, it has to make your jaw drop. Whether that translates all the way to shelf is another thing. A concept can’t just be nice enough to sit on shelf. It has to be so good that it will impact on a company’s business if they turn it down. To do that, it has to stop people in their tracks.
We should talk about this amazing new studio. Why was it important to establish a base like this?
GP: We were lucky because we moved in during lockdown and home-schooling, so it gave the kids a playground and a classroom! They had everything they needed, but they couldn’t go to the park, so we installed a swing! It’s always been part of our ethos that we want a family business, and all our kids have been in our sizzles, the inventor relations teams know them and they’re a core part of our business.
SP: It’s also a really fun space because that’s in our DNA.
TK: It does affect how you ideate. I have a second specialised electronics studio at home and the environment does totally feed into what you do.
GP: Toby’s studio is like something straight out of Short Circuit. Its mind blowing!
TK: Ha! As a child, you have that sense of wonder about things, and you can’t lose that. We need things around us that makes us go “Wow!”
GP: This isn’t our job, it’s our life. At home, we’re continually coming up with toy ideas, there’s never been a line. It’s not work, it’s who we are.
Has the space added any new strings to your bow?
GP: We now have a photo studio, a full traditional machine shop and CAD workshop and lots of desk space. We’ve been taking on freelancers for special jobs and the intention is to carefully grow. We have everything we need to expand now. It’s funny really to think in two years we’ve gone from nothing to a backyard shed to a real studio.
SP: You have to have a total belief that it’s going to work.
GP: When we first started out, I was the driving force but Stacey and Toby unconditionally believed in me. I couldn’t have done any of it without them. That said, I don’t want to say too many nice things and destroy my grumpy old man persona!
Ha! It must also have a great space to bring inventor relations folks to if they’re over here or wanting to make a face-to-face visit.
GP: Definitely. Some are very excited to know there’s a pub next door – you know who you are! Everyone’s welcome. We even have a new cafe downstairs for bacon sandwich hangovers!
SP: We’re very proud of it. We love being here.
GP: As a kid, I dreamed of having a workshop with all my own stuff in it. It sounds like a toy industry cliché, but it’s literally the scene from Big when he buys his first apartment. We have a Big poster on the wall to remind me what it’s all about.
Aside from being in a creative environment, what else helps you have ideas?
TK: It’s about having that passion. I play a game with myself where I think about what Gary would say about a concept to push it further! It helps to drive development.
SP: Lockdown has had an impact because we usually like to visit London, go to shows, galleries and travel to see new things and absorb sights and sounds. You don’t realise the impact that has until you stop doing it.
We’re always thinking about ideas naturally. I’ll talk to friends who are decorating, and they’ll mention that they have no idea what colour to paint a wall. For me, it’s the opposite problem! We can’t switch that off.
TK: We’re always making stuff and creating, and for me the act of creating really drives me.
GP: It’s free therapy!
Ha! Before I let you go, looking at the wider inventor landscape, do you think the industry is in a healthy place right now?
GP: Overall things are looking very good. We survived the last year and are fortunate to be supported by one of the most resilient industries in the world. Not only that, but a swathe of remarkable new professional inventors have emerged and will undoubtedly reshape the future of the business.
Long-term, I think for independent toy invention to thrive, we all have to have a re-think in the industry about sharing risk. Times have changed and the way retail buying is monopolised – particularly in the United States – has had a huge impact in the toy companies’ ability to commit to new IP.
For invention houses to financially survive as early-stage incubators of ideas – rather than turn into micro distribution toy companies – investment has to be free flowing for early-stage ideation.
It’s easier said than done, but fundamentally we are all in the same boat, inventors and toy companies hand in hand, racing to get the most exciting and innovative products out the to the masses.
Well guys, this has been great. Congrats on the new studio – I’m already looking forward to my next visit!
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