Inventor Assim Ishaque and Character’s Jon Elliott discuss the origins – and potential – of the pixel craft brand Simbrix
Hi guys, it’s always great to chat. Assim, if we kick off with you, talk us through the origins of Simbrix.
Assim Ishaque, Creator of Simbrix: I had three kids and they loved playing with these little beads that you put on a peg board and iron to make them stick together. I’d be there trying to iron these beads together for them and I’d knock them, they’d knock each other… It would always lead to tears and frustration! I thought there had to be a better alternative, but I couldn’t find anything, so it got me thinking…
For nine months, this idea was spinning around in my head, getting clearer and clearer. One day I was at a really boring seminar, so I started to doodle this idea – and it looked quite good! That got me started on this whole journey.
A good advert for bad seminars! And do you have a background in design?
AI: I was actually working on an invention for an insulation system at the same time – as you do! It was a really big project that I’d won some government funding for and through that I’d learnt about manufacturing and injection moulding. With that know-how, I knew that Simbrix could be made… I knew it could become a thing!
Then my colleague and I started making prototypes, and I went through 400 different versions of the design, trying to create the right shape that would lock together. We ended up with the fishtail design that was smooth enough for a six year old to easily put them together, but strong enough that it would stay together.
And just to double check, you said 400 versions!?
AI: Yes! We used 3D printing, laser cutting, cardboard, paper, wood, metal… I got all sorts of cuts on my thumbs putting prototypes together! It was a real labour of love – it had to be perfect. We spent about a year and a half on the prototyping. If I had done it in one block, it might’ve taken about six months, but I was doing other things.
But to answer your question, I don’t have a background in design, but I do have a GCSE in Home Economics!
Ha! Well, it worked out well.
AI: Exactly. I have this dyslexic brain and it just believes that anything is possible. I forget my failures; I’m an eternal optimist. Sometimes a healthy ignorance can be useful. I didn’t have a design background, but that didn’t stop me figuring out how to do it. And I’m curious, so I always felt like I could find answers to my questions.
So you’ve had the idea, you’ve nailed the prototype. What’s next?
AI: We filed a patent, got a few made and then I took it to loads to craft fairs. We had over 1,000 people play with Simbrix – and that’s before we actually started selling any.
That was your market research?
AI: Yes, I wanted to see if this thing was viable. And everybody loved it. It was a joyful, positive experience. I then put Simbrix on Kickstarter where it did okay, and then on Amazon it did quite well – and then did really well. We’ve sold Simbrix via Amazon and on our own website in virtually every continent in the world.
So to have something like that, which had hardly any backing behind it, was amazing. Every step was either a step forward, or an important lesson – and it was all enjoyable.
We’re here because Character has now licensed Simbrix and it had an exciting launch at London Toy Fair. So at what point did you decide that licensing Simbrix was the way to go?
AI: Well, here’s where I need to give a little advert for someone I know in this industry… I met up with a guy called Billy Langsworthy who ran an inventor event in London.
Fame at last!
AI: Ha! Well, it was there that I met loads of interesting inventors. People were talking about their own journeys and I’m quite commercial, so I knew that if Simbrix was really good, there’d come a point where it should be in someone else’s hands. I needed to find a company that really believed in it, in the same way I do.
I met some wonderful companies and had lots of interesting conversations at your event. It was a good advert for the industry; it highlighted that this industry is full of very friendly people who welcome interesting ideas, even if they’re not quite right from them.
Absolutely. Now, let’s bring you in Jon. You met Assim at our Mojo Pitch. What was your initial reaction to Simbrix?
Jon Elliott, R&D Manager, Character Options: Well, Assim has alluded to his gregarious nature and outgoing personality, and that helps in a pitch environment where you’re seeing multiple ideas from multiple people back-to-back. The fun way in which Simbrix was presented was very welcome.
Fundamentally, Assim was presenting a very good idea. Simbrix solves a problem. It really improves on things like Perler Beads and other items in similar space.
And Assim, from your side, why did Character stand out as a great home for Simbrix?
AI: I found Jon to be a calm, quite understated chap. He was coming up with ideas and suggestions. His mind was whirring; I could see something had clicked.
JE: It doesn’t happen very often!
Ha! Is that indicative of how you approach inventor relations Jon? Being active rather than passive?
JE: You’ve got to stay engaged; it’s key. You have to give creative feedback. If I just say ‘yes’ or ‘no’, it doesn’t do the inventors and their ideas justice. People put a lot of effort into presenting ideas to us, so the least we can do is give suggestions and useful comments. Our door is always open, we’re always happy to review things and inventors will always get an open mind and constructive feedback.
AI: I was really impressed with Jon because he was actively engaged – it wasn’t just a case of someone sat there listening. He was bringing all his experience of the sector, knowing what retailers want and what will work… Inventors sometimes get disappointed when you get knocked back by a company, but you shouldn’t because you want the company that’s going to fully embrace what you’re doing. That’s what I’ve got with Character.
And Jon, how important is Simbrix for Character this year?
JE: It’s one of our key brand launches for 23 and had a big display at Toy Fair. We really believe in it. We take some ideas annually from inventors, but we don’t take loads. When we do, we really put our full support behind it. We also have best-in-class distributors who can roll it out outside of the UK and we’ll be doing that next year.
Character has given the brand a refresh and developed several SKUs as part of the launch. Can you talk us through that?
JE: We’ve added a few innovations to the product and themed the sets. Assim had more of a generic offering spanning collections of bricks in nice colours. You’d also get a pack of cards that you could build designs from. We’ve shifted it to a more retail-friendly offering, hitting the key price points of £4.99 up to £29.99.
On the themes, what steered where you went with those?
JE: Well, we’ve sets around unicorns, rainbows, underwater and some gamer sets that riff off the 8-bit trend. There’s also kawaii-style sweets and ice creams. The team here did a lot of work on the packaging for those – shout out to Claire and Hazel for that! A good year-to-18 months of product development has gone into the rebrand, with Assim’s support along the way, and it looks really good.
AI: My version was very simplistic but with what Character has done, it really has life. They’ve brought an enthusiasm and energy to Simbrix with these new designs. It shines through in the packaging but it also comes through with the people. It was cool to see the Character team at Toy Fair playing with Simbrix along with potential buyers.
Kiran and Jon, the joint MDs at Character, have also both embraced the idea, so it was great to know that what Jon was saying flowed through the entire company. They said “Welcome to the family” – and it really felt like that. It’s a proper partnership. And I think I’m a good partner to work with because I know when to shut up! These guys know better than me and I trust them.
And what a feeling it must’ve been to see the new-look sets and big showcase at Toy Fair?
AI: I was blown away. I was almost in tears. It was so cool. One innovation they added which I’m really impressed by is Simstix. These allow you to build layers and make it really 3D. I’m not sure I’d have thought of that.
JE: The Simstix allow flat 2D elements to be built up to make a self-standing 3D display kids can be really proud of. Once the sets are completed they can be displayed or they can be broken down and rebuilt over and over again. With people looking for more sustainability in products these days this is another key benefit of Simbrix over other items in the same space.
Great stuff. And looking ahead, are there plans for more sets? It feels like licensed builds could work well…
JE: Yes, we’re speaking with licensors and innovating with some simple tweaks that improve the play even further. That’s not just with themes, but with the Simbrix system itself bringing features and animation. Get yourself some Simbrix, give it a try, and Get Your Brix Fix!!
I will! Guys, this has been great. Thanks again for taking time out for this and good luck with Simbrix moving forward.
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