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Sometimes one good idea is all it takes. Many entrepreneurs spend years chasing “the big idea”, but as technology has become more complicated, so have the products produced by many startups.
The best ideas, however, are often the simplest – and these five Christmas hits show that sometimes “the big idea” doesn’t have to be that big at all – just the right product at the right time.
Rubik’s cube was invented in 1974 by Ernő Rubik, a Hungarian architect who wanted a working model to help explain three-dimensional geometry. Although not initially designed to be used for entertainment, the creation has earned the distinction of being the best selling individual toy in history, with approximately 350 million units sold since 1980.
The cube was spotted at the Nuremberg Toy Fair in 1979 and licensed to the Ideal Toy Corp a year later. It can be rearranged in a mind-boggling 43,000,000,000,000,000,000 (43 quintillion) different ways, and even took Rubik himself a month to solve the puzzle.
Despite the cube’s success as a toy, the Rubik’s Cube website states:
“Ernő has always thought of the Cube primarily as an object of art, a mobile sculpture symbolising stark contrasts of the human condition: bewildering problems and triumphant intelligence; simplicity and complexity; stability and dynamism; order and chaos.”
Richard T. James, an engineer in a naval shipyard during World War II – as legend has it – inadvertently invented the Slinky when a spring fell from a table and started walking off by itself. Enamoured by this, James worked on the design of the spring and figured out the correct dimensions that would allow the contraption to walk down a flight of stairs.
The Slinky, named by James’ wife Betty, was released in 1945, and at $1 each the first 400 sold out in 90 minutes.
Unfortunately, when his company hit a low spell, and James started giving away what money he had to a religious cult (as Betty dubbed it). James reportedly ran off to Bolivia with his new pals, leaving his empire in his wife’s hands in 1960. He never returned, and had sadly died long before the toy made a comeback via the Slinky Dog from Toy Story.
So far, more than 300 million Slinky toys have been sold, which according to the New York Times is enough to circle the earth about 150 times if stretched out.
We can thank Catherine Hettinger for the invention of the fidget spinner. The idea was actually 30 years in the making before it exploded in popularity in 2017.
The idea first came to bear in the 1980s on a visit to Israel; Catherine had heard stories of children throwing rocks at police officers and decided to explore the idea of a calmer, softer toy for children to play with. The idea of a soft rock didn’t come to fruition, but the fidget spinner most certainly did.
Her patent expired in 2005, which allows companies to sell the product independently from her. It’s unknown exactly how many spinners have been sold, but the best estimation lays somewhere between 19 million and 50 million.
The invention of the colourful, plastic Hula Hoop we’re accustomed to seeing is attributed to Americans Arthur K. Melin and Richard Knerr, but ‘hooping’ can be traced back as far as 500BC. It was the bamboo “exercise hoops” made popular in Australia much later that the entrepreneurs heard about and adapted to create this commercial sensation.
The Hula Hoop swung onto the international toy scene in 1958, with 25 million plastic hoops sold by the Californian toy company Wham-O in less than four months. Unsurprisingly that year it became the biggest selling Christmas toy, although due to its awkward shape, probably caused a fair bit of aggro to wrap up.
Ty Warner had noticed a gap in the market: toys in the $5 range that “weren’t real garbage”; so he set out to create a collectible plushie that kids could purchase with their pocket money. The Beanie Baby franchise was launched in the early 90’s. At first, nine were released, but within a year there were fifty official variations.
Wisely, Ty chose to market Beanie Babies solely at smaller toy and gift shops, to ensure that they maintained an air of exclusivity. Warner also occasionally retired certain characters and replaced them with new ones, which led to some individual Beanie Babies and collections selling for ridiculously high amounts. A quick check of eBay at the time of writing shows one in particular on sale for $2,399.00 (£1591.75!)
Sadly, in January 2014, Warner was convicted of tax evasion. He had maintained a secret offshore account in Switzerland since 1996, which according to the prosecution concealed at one point $107 million. He avoided jail time but a judge sentenced him to two years’ probation for tax evasion, ordering him to perform 500 hours of community service and pay a $100,000 fine, on top of his civil penalty of nearly $53.6 million (£32 million).
Certainly a worthwhile contender for our Tax Hall of Shame.
In 1982 nuclear engineer Lonnie Johnson was working on a new water-based heat pump for refrigerators and air conditioners.
“So I was machining some nozzles and experimenting at home and shot some streams of water into the sink and then I turned and shot across the bathroom where I was doing these experiments and I thought to myself geez, this would make a neat water gun. So I decided to put the hard science stuff behind and start working on some really fun stuff.”
Despite his dreams of being an inventor, Johnson was making a living at the time working at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory for NASA’s Galileo Mission.
The ‘Power Drencher’ – later rebranded the Super Soaker – became the number one Christmas toy in 1989, and has to date brought in more than $1 billion. According to Marketplace Johnson continued inventing but moved onto creating an environmentally friendly refrigeration system, as well as a new way to generate energy from the sun. He’s also developed a battery he believes can make electric cars more practical.
As you can see from the entrepreneurs above, a Christmas hit required little more than a good idea. There are more ways than ever to find funding for your startup, including the increasingly effective and popular crowdfunding method.
If you’re inspired by these entrepreneurs and think your newest invention is the next big thing, check out our article on “How to know if your business idea is good or bad”.
We can help you achieve your dreams and start your business – just try not to let your success go to your head, join a cult and run off to Bolivia afterwards. Unless that appeals to you, of course.