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R E V : S E P T E M B E R 2 6 , 2 0 0 5

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Research Associate Scott D. Anthony prepared this case under the supervision of Professor Clayton M. Christensen. HBS cases are developed solely as the basis for class discussion. Cases are not intended to serve as endorsements, sources of primary data, or illustrations of effective or ineffective management. Copyright © 2001 President and Fellows of Harvard College. To order copies or request permission to reproduce materials, call 1-800-545-7685, write Harvard Business School Publishing, Boston, MA 02163, or go to http://www.hbsp.harvard.edu. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, used in a spreadsheet, or transmitted in any form or by any means—electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise—without the permission of Harvard Business School.

C L A Y T O N M . C H R I S T E N S E N

S C O T T D . A N T H O N Y

What’s the BIG Idea? (A)

Eventually, 15 years from now, we’d like to be the worldwide inventors’ brand. So when two guys in a pub in Dublin come up with something, they’ll know where to take it. Think about it—if you come up with an idea, what are you going to do with it? Ninety-nine percent of the world doesn’t have any of the experience, access, or resources that you need to take the thing on the back of the envelope and turn it into a product. How many great ideas are never realized because of that?

— Michael Collins, Founder and CEO, Big Idea Group

It was September 2001, and Michael Collins (HBS ’92) was in a decidedly good mood as he finished an early morning conference call with one of his most productive inventors. Collins, the founder and CEO of Big Idea Group (BIG), was trying to hammer out the details of a line of card games he hoped to pitch to a toy company later that month. Collins had met this inventor several months ago at one of his company’s Big Idea Hunts, where scores of inventors would converge at a local hotel to present their ideas to BIG. Discussions like these reminded Collins why he founded BIG—an intermediary between inventors and idea-buying companies in the kids’ industry. Not only did he get the chance to have day-to-day interactions with inventors, he had the chance to make a substantial amount of money doing it!

Collins turned his attention to an e-mail from BIG’s chairman, George d’Arbeloff, with the latest revisions to a sponsorship agreement the two of them had been working on for the past several weeks. The agreement was with a leading tool manufacturer that wanted BIG to apply its process to assist the manufacturer’s own innovation efforts. As Collins read through d’Arbeloff’s comments, he absentmindedly played with one of his own inventions, a miniature bendable astronaut, that sat beside his computer. Collins knew that the process he had developed to take ideas as a resource and transform them into valuable products worked in the kids’ industry; he thought that it could work in numerous other industries. But he wondered—was it really the process that proved so successful or was it his own unique ability to manage all the moving parts that made up the process? He also wondered if he would be able to find the right people to extend BIG into other industries. If he could, BIG had the opportunity to be a tremendously successful and profitable company. “The big question is: Can you take innovation and turn it into a business?” Collins said. “People will say this is Mike Collins, Inc.—more of a ‘practice’ than a company. I plan on proving them wrong.”

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Becoming BIG: Michael Collins’s background

Upon graduating from Dartmouth College with a degree in engineering in 1986, Collins went to work for TA Associates, a leading Boston-based venture capital firm. After spending four years at TA, he entered the Harvard Business School. While exploring his options after graduation, he attended a speech by noted investor Warren Buffett. Collins recalled Buffett’s career advice to a student questioner, “He said: First, find the smartest person you can work for and convince them to hire you and second, be in an industry you really love. That was very good advice.”

While Collins was at HBS, his father would send him the sports page from their Wisconsin hometown newspaper. On the back of the sports page was a human interest section, and one day Collins noticed a story about a group of 300 girls waiting in a rainstorm for a chance to buy a product from Pleasant Company, a Wisconsin-based doll company run by charismatic founder Pleasant Rowland. Collins remarked, “I figured that any company that created that kind of demand must be doing something right and had to have someone very sharp running it. I eventually decided I wanted to be part of that. So I just walked in the front door and said, ‘I want to work here.’ ” By the end of the day, Collins had been hired.

After working with Pleasant for a year, Collins struck out alone, founding a toy catalog company called Kid Galaxy. Two and a half years later, Collins stumbled onto the concept of Bendos (see Exhibit 1 for examples of Bendos), which rapidly proved successful. Collins recalled:

We were doing a catalog photo shoot for a line of wooden vehicle toys. We’d created some bendable characters—Bendos—as props to accompany the vehicles. We found out that the kids could have cared less about the vehicles, but they loved the Bendos. In fact, when we went to pack up, the kids had taken all our samples. On the way back from the photo shoot, I got on the phone with product development and we had 32 characters done in about a month.

I had spent years working my butt off, managing a business from soup to nuts, and we were just getting by. All of a sudden, we had a hot product and it was so much easier. It became very clear to me that value creation—at least in this industry—was all about innovative products.

With the success of Bendos, Collins was inspired to see if he could combine his knowledge of the kids’ space with the venture capital process to create a new way of managing innovation. He hired his own replacement at Kid Galaxy and resigned.

Kids’ industry overview

As the label “kids’ industry” is extremely broad and contains subsegments such as clothing, accessories, and toys, it is difficult to provide precise statistics about BIG’s key target market. The closest proxy is likely to be the toy industry. With almost $30 billion in retail sales in 2000, the U.S. toy industry was extremely large and contained a multiplicity of segments (see Exhibit 2 for key industry statistics). Retailers ranged from large, well-known companies like Toys “R” Us to smaller gift stores that sold impulse toys near their displays. More than 50 percent of toys were sold in one of the top four retailers—Wal-Mart, Toys “R” Us, Kmart, and Target. Retailers purchased toys from a disparate array of distributors and wholesalers running the gamut from large corporations like Hasbro and Mattel to smaller niche players like Kid Galaxy, Basic Fun, and Learning Curve.

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The largest category by far was video games, with reported U.S. retail sales of more than $6 billion. However, there were numerous other robust categories. For example, there was more than $500 million in shipments in categories ranging from fashion dolls to plush toys to skating accessories.

While these statistics indicate there still was an appetite for toys, Collins pointed to some trends that demonstrated that the future was not as bright. Kids were “aging” more quickly, growing out of toys and into other activities such as sports and music at a younger and younger age. In addition, high-tech gadgets—from CD players to cell phones—were competing for their dollars. And in an era where personalization and niche markets were becoming increasingly important, retailers used to mass-market promotions were finding it hard to adapt. Finally, the old strategy of riding a great license (hit movies, TV shows, books, etc.) seemed to be a greater gamble than ever with so many recent properties failing to generate enthusiasm for merchandise.

Key toy manufacturers such as Hasbro and Mattel had struggled for years to develop innovative new products that did not rely on tie-ins with movies such as Star Wars. One industry executive commented: “We’re in a period of lack of innovation, a lack of imagination. People are licensed out. People are going with what they know.”1 Andy Gatto, a senior vice president at Toys “R” Us with responsibility for product development, echoed the sentiment that the industry had been lacking innovation recently, which he said presented an opportunity for BIG:

At a macro level, I would suggest that you are looking at an industry that hasn’t really been growth-centered for the past decade or so. Those of us who depend on fresh content and building brands around innovative platforms are reaching out to whatever resources we can to find that innovation. [BIG’s] timing was perfect. There is a need. If they can deliver on that need, they will have a very bright future.

How to make it BIG: philosophy and processes

Collins founded BIG in July 2000 (see Exhibit 3 for a timeline of key events and Exhibit 4 for brief management biographies). The basic concept was to create a company that would tap into the incredible entrepreneurial power of legions of individual inventors. Collins and d’Arbeloff positioned the company as an intermediary between inventors and idea-buying companies—both manufacturers and retailers—and created a detailed process that resembled one found in the venture capital industry. As Collins noted, “Our model is a lot like venture capital because it’s deal flow. It’s picking which one percent of the projects you’re going to work on, and then cutting the deal. In addition, BIG’s organization chart will look more like a VC firm’s than a typical company, with partners responsible for each vertical market.”

While Collins brought his entrepreneurial flair and innovation background to the table, d’Arbeloff offered more nuts-and-bolts business experience. D’Arbeloff had a long and successful career at Teradyne, a Boston-based test equipment manufacturing and service company. There he held a series of management positions, including leadership of one of the company’s largest product groups. (d’Arbeloff’s brother, Alex, was the founder and long-time CEO of Teradyne). D’Arbeloff, who became BIG’s chairman in October 2000, met Collins through his wife. He remarked, “Mike and I kind of hit it off. And, as it turns out, we complement each other. I’ve run a large company. I’m

1 D’Innocenzio, Anne. “Toy makers resurrect dormant toys to make them must-haves,” Associated Press Newswires, 4 February 2001.

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interested in business problems. I’m good at executive-to-executive relationships and have negotiated lots of contracts. Mike pushes me and I contain Mike.”

Basic Philosophy

The basic philosophy underlying BIG’s process was that invention comes from many different places and in very unpredictable ways, not just via well-funded product development departments within large companies. Though product development departments could come up with great ideas and were strong at evolving existing product lines, they would often exclude from the process thousands of individual “tinker-ers.” While in some industries product development demanded high levels of centralized expenditures, Collins believed that others had virtually flat product development scale curves, implying no real advantage to spending $20 million versus $2,000 to develop a prototype. In industries that fell in the latter category, thousands of independent innovators were busy in garages and basements around the world, creating a fertile ground that the new product development groups of even the largest companies often could not match. As Collins noted:

Corporations have their own product development departments and, yes, they’re coming up with good things. But what we do is help capture the power of parallel processing for innovation. An inventor in Des Moines might see a problem or an opportunity and produce a great idea. But most companies don’t try to access that resource. They keep being dragged back to the day-to-day: worrying about their sales in South Carolina or having too many ‘X11s’ and not enough ‘X12s.’

Since its inception, BIG had enjoyed close relations with Toys “R” Us, a leading U.S.-based toy retailer with more than $11 billion in worldwide sales. Gatto said that the BIG concept added value by providing a fresh perspective on the product development process:

The creative process is sometimes subjective as opposed to objective. It is nice to have an objective third-party point of view because they look at it from a much purer perspective than we can. If someone brings in a product in a category that’s under-performing and people are just emotionally down and drained by that category, insiders might not give something innovative a fair shake.

However, someone from the outside that isn’t tainted by the most recent up-to-the-minute sales information looking at the same product might bring a whole different perspective.

With his personal background as an inventor, Collins also had a strong belief that individual inventors were a resource to be treasured and handled carefully rather than belittled or exploited. “As an inventor, I think I have a sensitivity to what they go through,” Collins asserted. “They want to have their day in court. And if our evaluation is negative, they want to know that too. All they ask is to be treated fairly, truthfully, and respectfully.”

Process

BIG followed a four-step process that it termed its “innovation engine” (displayed in Exhibit 5), which involved: 1) generating idea flow, 2) “winnowing” ideas down to those with the best potential, 3) researching, prototyping, and refining concepts for evaluation, and 4) selling a concept to a manufacturer, retailer, or entrepreneur. As d’Arbeloff put it, “We find ’em, fix ’em, and sell ’em.”

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Step 1: Generating Ideas

BIG had six primary sources of generating “superior idea flow.” The six were all somewhat interconnected and created a reinforcing network of inventors and idea flows.

Hunts: Perhaps the most inventive and intriguing source of potential inventions were the company’s “Big Idea Hunts,” which Collins termed a “kind of Antiques Roadshow for kids’ products.” While individual companies had run product contests before, BIG was unique in acting as a middleman, not representing a single company.

Typically BIG held six events a year, three in the spring and three in the fall, staged at various locales across the country. To generate interest, BIG would run a series of advertisements in local newspapers and trade journals (see Exhibit 6 for a sample advertisement) prior to the Hunt. For the Hunt itself, BIG would rent out a hotel conference room for a weekend and invite local inventors to come show their concepts to a panel of industry experts. BIG attempted to make the Hunts as fun as possible, and offered cash prizes to “winning” submissions. In return, they asked inventors to pay a modest $35 fee for presenting up to three ideas.

The Hunts often attracted an eclectic group of people. “You see an incredible cross-section of humanity,” Collins said. “From a Harley-Davidson motorcyclist who has a balsa wood airplane concept to a retired toy executive who comes in with a PowerPoint presentation and a $15,000 prototype. You see it all, and they all have a story.”

Bob Bushnell, a music-shop owner from a suburb of Minneapolis, first encountered BIG at a local Hunt. Bushnell began creating games in the late 1960s. While he had come up with dozens of concepts, he’d never found a venue to commercialize any of his ideas. He happened to see one of BIG’s ads and decided to attend the Hunt. Bushnell said, “The important thing with the Big Idea Group is that you are actually seeing somebody—and I think that garners trust, confidence, and encouragement. Those are three things that I never got any other way.”

Collins agreed that one of the primary goals of the Hunts was to get out and mingle with the inventor community—and to treat inventors as professionals. Every inventor met not just with Collins but also with a panel of experts recruited by BIG to review concepts. As Collins said: “Everybody gets a chance to show their idea to a group of industry professionals. Even if a concept strikes us as weak, we give the inventor as much constructive feedback as possible. We think this is very important. There’s also a certain discipline in doing a Hunt on a regular basis that we find valuable. It keeps us from fixating on concepts that might be OK, but not great.”

Outsourced Flow: As BIG began working more intimately with toy companies, the companies realized that they too might be able to tap into the BIG process. Major toy companies often got dozens of unsolicited idea submissions a month, and many had no formalized way to separate good ideas from bad. “A number of companies get a dozen to two dozen unsolicited submissions a week. They might not even open them—they just put them straight into the dumpster,” Collins said. “Some even have a policy where callers get a voice recording that essentially says: ‘We don’t look at outside inventions. Call the industry association.’ ”

Toys “R” Us encountered this problem and thought BIG might be able to help. It outsourced its unsolicited inventor and vendor submissions to BIG for evaluation, winnowing, and refining. “I give companies like TRU credit,” Collins said. “Instead of discarding the inventions, they send them to us. We work up the promising ones and meet quarterly. It’s good for TRU, good for us, and good for the inventor.”

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Gatto said Toys “R” Us decided to outsource its submissions because good ideas may have been slipping through the cracks:

We are inundated with requests from consumers and amateur inventors who think they have great ideas. But I have a relatively lean group of people who are pretty heavily engaged in the day-to-day of making our business go. If I were to entertain every one of these propositions that came in by mail or fax, I would need a staff of people just to handle this segment.

It’s a matter of utilizing our resources in the most effective way. From an infrastructure perspective, I would find it difficult to give this high enough priority to do it internally.

Professional Inventors: Through its Hunts and by word of mouth, BIG began to build a network of “professional” inventors who could work closely with BIG on new kids’ concepts. Sometimes these inventors brought in concepts themselves. Other times they helped evaluate an idea or added their own thoughts and design work to another inventor’s concept. These professionals also helped BIG make key connections to more inventors and to manufacturers or retailers.

In addition to having contacts with individuals, BIG cultivated relationships with inventor communities. BIG became a member of the United Inventors Association, one of the largest inventor organizations in the United States, and publicized Hunts through that organization as well as via direct mailings to local inventor groups.

Industry Outreach: Another method of improving idea flow arose from BIG’s dedication to produce and publish research on industry trends. Beginning in February 2001, BIG began to publish some of its trend research in a free monthly web newsletter, The BIG Scoop (www.bigscoop.net). As of October 2001, the publication had a base of more than 2,000 subscribers, including both industry personnel and inventors. The Scoop generated inquiries about BIG’s services and helped demonstrate the company’s industry knowledge. In addition, Collins said it disciplined BIG to keep a careful watch on trends that could inspire innovative products.

Collins said that BIG received some of the same benefits—awareness and validation—from its association with Toys “R” Us, which allowed BIG to interact with executives from major companies such as Procter and Gamble and Waterpik.

Orphaned Products: Several toy companies that BIG worked with had “orphaned” products that they had either never brought to market or had stopped developing and promoting. BIG could put those products into their process and see if a revitalized line could emerge. Collins pointed to Lincoln Logs as an example of an orphaned product, although BIG was not involved in its rebirth. Lincoln Logs—small plastic and wooden pieces that could be assembled into structures—were a classic American toy, developed in 1916 by the son of noted architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The line enjoyed decades of successful sales. But by the late 1990s, Hasbro had stopped spending serious money on development and marketing of the product, and revenues had shrunk to insignificant levels. Then in February 1999, K’Nex—a toy company noted for its creative product design—signed a licensing agreement with Hasbro. K’Nex re-launched Lincoln Logs the following year. Once again the line proved a hit, with a K’Nex executive commenting that it was selling “three times more product than expected.”2

2 Botwinick, Stacy. “Knock on wood,” Playthings, 1 September 2000.

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Internet & Newsletter Request Program: Through its Web site and a newsletter, BIG solicited suggestions from inventors in specific areas. This solicitation program helped BIG add to lines under consideration or already in development. While the idea flow that resulted from this solicitation was less than that seen from the Hunts, the concepts were more targeted.

Collins estimated that from all these sources, BIG had seen more than 1,500 ideas from its inception up through September 2001, at a rate that has grown to almost 200 ideas a month.

Step 2: Winnowing

The next critical step for BIG was to “winnow” the number of ideas that it had into a manageable number to refine and then take to kids’ companies. Much like venture capitalists who receive hundreds of business plans but elect to invest in only a handful of companies, BIG chose to pursue only the highest potential ideas.

In the course of the Hunts, a panel of industry experts led by Collins handled the winnowing process. The panel did not have a formal process for deciding what ideas to pursue, and ultimate decision-making power rested with Collins. Collins commented on the evaluation process:

There’s a consensus approach with a leader, who in the kids’ space is me. Like a venture partner, I solicit everybody’s input. We meet the inventor, ask questions, and fill out a one- page evaluation form [displayed in Exhibit 7] to help structure the debate. Later we discuss the concept in private. At the end of the weekend, we create a list of the best five to seven ideas. Although we can’t know or call everything right in the kids’ market, the great ideas usually jump out. Concepts that you show to almost anyone and they get it—those are the BIG ideas.

Collins said that he came up with the idea for the panels because he thinks that fairly appraising innovations requires a breadth of knowledge, experience, and taste. “The panel reflects the reality that we’re going to see a wide range of concepts,” he noted. “You don’t want a personal bias—or lack of knowledge—to kill something that has potential. You want a lot of people’s reactions.”

BIG paid panelists $1,000 a weekend for their participation. While individual panelists could be the same from weekend to weekend, BIG tried to mix up the members to get a variety of backgrounds and perspectives. Though panelists did not receive any direct incentive payments in the form of “equity” in concepts, Collins said a potential panelist had never turned down an offer to participate. BIG had developed a pool of approximately 15 panelists culled from Collins’s increasingly large network of contacts within the industry. Collins said BIG pursued panelists both proactively and “opportunistically,” and was always looking for “good athletes” with broad industry experience.

Liz Knight, a Hasbro veteran who had spent the last 14 years as an inventor and designer in the children’s product area, participated in two different panels. Knight, who had known Collins for several years, said she agreed to participate in the panels because she enjoyed “seeing how other people are approaching things. There are so many ideas out there. Inventors will think they have a great idea, but often all they have is a germ of an idea—which can expand into 100 different directions.”

While that lack of refinement can be frustrating, Knight noted that it also stimulated her: “It inspires me. It gives me exposure to new ideas.”

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As for evaluating what she sees, Knight said she did not follow a formal process for deciding what was a good idea. “You see it and you know it—and you know it because of your experience and exposure to ideas,” she said.

To evaluate concepts received outside the context of the Hunts, Collins drew on a number of sources. Professional inventors, designers, consultants, and in-house staff helped critique and refine ideas, applying the same criteria as those used for Hunt submissions.

Step 3: Refinement

Once BIG winnowed the pool of ideas down to a manageable number, it would work closely with the inventor—much like venture capitalists become intimately involved with operating companies in their portfolios—to refine concepts to make them more appealing to kids’ companies. Here, BIG would draw on its existing knowledge of what companies were looking for in new products. Either the original inventor or a stable of outside contractors would refine the concept and produce the appropriate material for presentations.

The typical innovation would take three to six months to refine. Refinements could involve competitive research, repositioning, design, engineering, field-testing, trademark and/or patent research, sourcing and costing, as well as presentation preparation. In cases where the inventor was involved in the refinement, the collaboration had the extra benefit of leading to a closer relationship between BIG and the inventor.

While d’Arbeloff said BIG would not develop a detailed “business plan” for the concept, it did “a fair amount of research on the idea” to make certain the opportunity was sufficiently lucrative and could be manufactured profitably. “We clearly don’t want to present an idea to a company unless we understand the potential, not only for us, but also for the company to whom we are selling the idea,” d’Arbeloff said.

Gatto noted that the refining stage was particularly important because Toys “R” Us would be more excited to pursue something that it “recognized” as opposed to a rough concept. BIG is “good at taking a concept to the next level,” Gatto said. “If someone comes in with a rather crude idea, BIG can sometimes embellish that idea and make it into something that is more on target. Sometimes ideas have a better chance of making the cut if somebody has taken them through that ‘plussing up’ exercise before they get here.”

Step 4: Capturing Value

With a refined product concept, BIG would approach manufacturers, retailers, or entrepreneurs that it thought would best be able to commercialize the idea. Depending on the concept, BIG would target companies ranging from industry behemoths like Toys “R” Us or Mattel to smaller companies like Basic Fun, a niche player that specialized in key chains and related accessories. BIG had three primary ways to monetize a product idea: license the product to a company like Basic Fun, develop the concept internally as a private-label product that either BIG or a company like Toys “R” Us would sub-contract to a private-label manufacturer, or bundle several concepts to sell to an entrepreneur.

As of September 2001, BIG had monetized 35 different products through five contracts—four licensing deals and one private label. All of the licensing deals featured these terms:

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 An advance of up to $100,000 that BIG would split equally with the inventor.

 A royalty of 2% to 10% of wholesale revenue. Inventors would get half of the royalty fee, up to a maximum of 3%. For example, a 5% royalty fee would be split in half. On an 8% royalty, BIG would receive 5% and the inventor 3%.

 A guarantee of minimum royalties of up to $100,000 that BIG would split evenly with the inventor.

Individual deals could end up being quite lucrative for individual inventors. Bushnell, the game inventor, created a series of card games that BIG sold to Toys “R” Us. “I had planned to not do anything with the games that I had for another 10 years,” Bushnell said. “It was going to be a retirement project. Now it could be my retirement.”

Both Collins and d’Arbeloff said they were pleased by their progress to date. The fact that they had successfully monetized separate concepts in three successive months indicated growing momentum. While both pointed to the process they had created as key to BIG’s success, it was clear that Collins himself was an integral factor as well. Various participants called Collins “the rainmaker” and said his industry knowledge, personality, and inventive flair were critical to BIG’s success.

The Tiny Totes Case Study

Susan Kern, a mother living in Indianapolis, firmly believed that she had the right stuff to come up with compelling toys. Since the 1980s she had spent countless hours trying to break into the industry as an inventor, working with an agent who would represent her concepts to toy companies. Frustrated by her lack of success, she happened to see an ad in Playthings magazine for one of BIG’s Hunts. She contacted the group with a number of concepts that she and two of her friends—one an artist and one a costume designer—had developed. Since they couldn’t make it in person to the Hunt, the three put together a videotape and had a conference call with BIG (BIG normally met in person with inventors, but would allow “virtual” or phone presentations at the request of the inventor).

The concept was a small purse-like item, eventually named “Tiny Totes” (see Exhibit 8 for product info). The miniature bags could be worn on girls’ hands or ankles and contained tiny collectibles. According to Collins, the panel instantly knew that this idea had real potential:

The panel knew that the area of tween fashion accessories is hot. At an earlier and earlier age, girls are giving up Barbie and going to the mall. They like little things and they like to collect. We understood intuitively the market, the opportunity, the macro trends. We also knew that, though the idea needed some work before it was ready to show, there were definitely companies where this would fit. I’ve heard people call it a ‘prepared mind.’ It’s your experience, knowledge, and gut that tell you when you see something great.

Knight participated in the panel that saw the original Tiny Totes concept. Like Collins, she knew right away that the concept could be powerful. “The product targeted the market of young girls and what they like, which is little collective things,” she said. “It hit what was hot—key chains—but gave it a twist so that it wasn’t just another key chain.”

Over the next several months, BIG worked with the three inventors to refine the concept, do some preliminary costing, and create a list of companies that seemed to have the appropriate distribution to market the product. While BIG approached Toys “R” Us and Hasbro, it eventually sold the idea to

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Basic Fun, which, according to Collins, had “the perfect distribution for this product and expertise in miniatures. They are big enough to really run with the opportunity, but small enough to care about the line.” BIG showed the product to Basic Fun in April 2001, had a contract drafted by May, and signed the contract in June. In September 2001, the product debuted at Pre-Toy Fair.

Collins said that without BIG, the invention would probably have never made it to the market:

The reality is, that product would have probably died on the vine for a number of reasons. First, the inventors weren’t sure who to take the concept to. And even if they had found the right company, that company might not have taken the time to look at the product—or see the potential if they actually did review it. Because by the time we presented Tiny Totes, we’d redesigned, re-engineered, and packaged it.

Kern agreed that BIG played a vital role in bringing Tiny Totes from concept to reality. “The chance after all of these years to have this very knowledgeable go-between—you can’t put a price tag on that,” she said. The success with Tiny Totes energized Kern, who with her two friends continued to work on new ideas. “This stuff just pops in my head,” she explained. “I find out what’s fun for me. Then we solve it as a team. We just do what we want.”

Financing / business model

As of September 2001, BIG had raised approximately $850,000 in relatively small chunks from angel investors. Since BIG was positioned as a middleman that did not hold inventory, it did not require major investments or expensive overhead. As d’Arbeloff noted, “Our business model is interesting because we generate high profits for relatively little revenue since overhead is so low. It’s like venture capital.”

Collins did point out some important differences between venture capital and the BIG concept. “Venture capital is a great business model. You make investments with other people’s money and you get 25 percent of the gain. But you have to have a fund, and working with a company can be a decade-long commitment,” he noted. “With BIG, I get equity for value-added, not capital. And our equity is in a portfolio of ideas and product lines, not companies.”

BIG’s business plan projected that it would be profitable in 2002 and would generate $12 million in profit by 2006 (see Exhibit 9 for key financial projections). However, to meet that plan, BIG knew it had to expand beyond its initial focus in the kids’ industry into other vertical markets.

Hitting the BIG time: what next?

In April 2001, with a growing sense that their entry into the kids’ industry was proving to be quite successful, Collins and d’Arbeloff turned their thoughts to the next “vertical” they could attack. Almost since the inception of the business, Collins and d’Arbeloff had thought that the “home and garden” industry would be a natural place to extend their business model. In fact, they received confirmation that home and garden had potential from an unexpected source. Collins recalled:

There’s a program at Tuck Business School where top undergraduates can go through a month-long ‘boot camp.’ Last summer, right when I started the business, they wanted to do a case on us. The assignment was what markets should we go into next and why? They provided

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What’s the BIG Idea? 602-105

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a lot of research confirming the potential of the home and garden market. It’s a big opportunity and the kind of market where independent inventors can easily come up with something.

The Home & Garden Industry

The U.S. home and garden or do-it-yourself industry dwarfed the toy industry, with the National Retail Hardware Association reporting more than $160 billion in retail sales in 2000 (see Exhibit 10 for industry facts and figures). Like the kids’ industry, home and garden is made up of numerous discrete subsegments with many different kinds of retailers. While in 2000, the top 25 chains— dominated by the two big national chains, Home Depot and Lowe’s—controlled almost 50 percent of all retail sales, there were almost 40,000 outlets run by smaller companies outside that top 25. As in the kids’ market, there were a wide number of suppliers to the industry, ranging from well- recognized consumer brands like Craftsman, Hunter, and Kohler to specialty brands known largely to home improvement aficionados.

Finding a Sponsor

While BIG received angel financing to go after the kids’ industry, Collins and d’Arbeloff decided to seek sponsorship from home and garden companies that were looking for ways to augment their product development efforts. Collins explained the rationale for seeking sponsors: “In the first place, revenue is better than equity. In addition, there’s going to be huge advantage to having a close relationship with sponsors. We’ve learned that with Toys “R” Us. Working with companies and knowing what their culture is, who the decision-makers are, and where they want to head strategically will help us in all facets of our initiative.”

A BIG angel investor put Collins and d’Arbeloff in touch with Skil-Bosch, a 77-year-old tool company based in Chicago. BIG set up a meeting with Skil-Bosch in Chicago in June 2001. As d’Arbeloff recalled, “Mike and I sat down to meet with the president of the company and one of his staff. We’d put together a slide presentation and were about halfway through it when the president said, ‘I’ve got it, let’s go. How much?’ ” Collins quickly proposed $750,000, the sum BIG spent a year on the kids’ space and the estimated amount that would be needed for home and garden. Skil-Bosch agreed to foot a significant portion of that sum and become lead sponsor of the program. In return, it received the right of first refusal on any ideas within its scope of business that were generated by the BIG process. The two companies signed a letter of intent in August 2001 and formally launched the program in September 2001.

Ann Dow, director of innovation and advanced development at the Skil-Bosch Power Tool Company, said that it decided to partner with BIG to look for ideas outside of its traditional market segments. “We recognize that there are a lot of inventors in our categories and many of their ideas go untapped because people don’t know or can’t locate the appropriate people within a company to share their ideas,” Dow said. “Internally, we’re not organized to proactively contact external inventors to see what else is out there—that’s how BIG adds value.”

Dow added that Skil-Bosch hoped its partnership with BIG would produce at least one big idea along with several smaller ideas each year. Additionally, it anticipated the collaboration would create a “pipeline” of new ideas. “The tool category is extremely competitive right now and companies can’t compete on cost alone,” Dow explained. “You must demonstrate added value to end users, and we believe this will be driven by providing innovative solutions to their problems. Innovation can come

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602-105 What’s the BIG Idea?

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from anywhere, and BIG’s process provides just one avenue out of many to help drive creative solutions.”

The BIG Issue: Is the Process Transferable?

With the next vertical industry selected and a lead sponsor locked up, BIG now needed to turn its attention to actually making the home and garden opportunity happen. Collins and d’Arbeloff had a host of complicated issues they needed to sort out. Were there overlooked inventors in the industry that were sitting on worthwhile products? Would the process that worked so successfully in the kids’ space transfer to an industry that was much different? Could they find the right person to manage the home and garden business unit? And, perhaps most importantly, was BIG really creating a sustainable business with substantial barriers to entry, or would its success invite a slew of copycats that BIG could not defend against?

Presence of Products

Collins and d’Arbeloff were convinced that there were inventors who had developed potentially valuable products in the home and garden space. At annual shows like Yankee Inventor Expo, a number of inventors routinely displayed ideas that fit the home and garden market. In addition, some of BIG’s inventors in the kids’ space had home and garden concepts in development.

Process

BIG intended to employ the same process that had proven so successful in the kids’ industry. It planned to develop a network of inventors to generate deal flow through Hunts and related activities. While Collins recognized the Hunts might be smaller—“we might see 30-40 people during the course of a weekend instead of 100”—he still thought the events would be a valuable way to tap in to the inventor community. BIG would again assemble panels of industry experts to evaluate the inventions gathered through its generation process. As of September 2001, BIG had begun to think about who were the right people to have on its panel, with Skil-Bosch providing an initial list of potential contacts.

The rest of the process would be similar to the one BIG followed in the kids’ space. Ideas would be evaluated and winnowed down from the initial list. Then BIG would follow the same steps of adding value to concepts and monetizing them through deals with the appropriate companies. Although both Collins and d’Arbeloff admitted the process would need to evolve as BIG learned more about the industry, they were confident that their basic system would work.

Finding the Right Stuff

Perhaps the most critical issue facing BIG was finding the manager to head up the home and garden initiative. While existing staff would handle the launch, Collins recognized that it would be necessary to quickly add additional, separate resources to manage the new vertical industry. D’Arbeloff said that hiring the right person would be key to BIG’s successful expansion beyond the kids’ industry. “I think one of the challenges is finding the Mike Collins of home and garden,” he remarked. Collins added what he viewed as the necessary skills for the job:

I think it’s as much a function of personality, creativity, and intelligence as it is domain experience. You can acquire domain expertise in a pretty short period of time with smart panelists and good sponsors. But the job is broad: coaching inventors, working with creative staff, assessing concepts, selling products, negotiating deals, etc. You have to be able to meet

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What’s the BIG Idea? 602-105

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with CEOs for strategic discussions in the morning and then discuss a portable toilet seat with an inventor in the afternoon.

Dow said Skil-Bosch was confident that the BIG process was repeatable in other industries with the right leader:

The key to the process is the leader. Mike calls himself the rainmaker, and he is key. I’ve sat in on a couple of the Hunts that he’s done. He understands the toy category inside and out, so he can successfully lead and drive the conversations with inventors. He recruits additional panelists to provide diversity, balance, and objectivity, but he’s the main driver. BIG’s challenge is to identify a ‘Mike’ in the home and garden segment.

Building BIG Barriers

Collins said he believed that BIG’s system created a virtuous cycle that built potent barriers to entry. Through its idea generation process, BIG formed a network of hundreds of potential inventors. As it worked closely with companies, it learned what ideas were most likely to be successful and could send that feedback to its inventor community to generate more profitable ideas. “I do think there’s great value in the network you create and the business partnerships you establish,” Collins said. “You could replicate our process, but you can’t replicate the human side of the business.”

Conclusion

It had been quite a year for Collins and d’Arbeloff, and they both were excited about the opportunity before them. D’Arbeloff remarked that in contrast to his first (failed) startup venture, which came nowhere close to meeting business plan targets, “In this venture, we’ve done everything we said we would. In fact, we’ve done more than we’d promised.” The pair believed that they had found a new, highly profitable way to handle the innovation process. But questions certainly remained. As Collins remarked:

Big Idea Group is like any invention. We saw a need, developed a prototype, and have experimented to get it right. A few things haven’t worked out, but we keep learning and getting smarter. Home and garden is a big step. We don’t know if it will work as we envisioned. If it doesn’t, we’ll try a new approach—just like any good inventor.

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This document is authorized for use only by Zihao Chen in Technology & Innovation – Winter 2018 taught by Kai Pommerenke, University of California – Santa Cruz from January 2018 to July 2018.

602-105 What’s the BIG Idea?

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Exhibit 1 Bendos Examples

Source: Bendos Web Site (http://www.bendos.com)

For the exclusive use of Z. Chen, 2018.

This document is authorized for use only by Zihao Chen in Technology & Innovation – Winter 2018 taught by Kai Pommerenke, University of California – Santa Cruz from January 2018 to July 2018.

What’s the BIG Idea? 602-105

15

Exhibit 2 Toy Industry Statistics

Source: Compiled by the casewriter based on statistics from the Toy Industry Association (available at http://www.toy- tia.org/industry/statistics)

19.1 20.6 21.2

23 23

3.6

5 6.2

6.8 6.4

1996 1997 1998 1999 2000

22.7

25.6

27.3

29.8 29.4

U.S. toy industry sales

$ billion

Video game

sales

‘Traditional’

toy sales 19.1

20.6 21.2 23 23

3.6

5 6.2

6.8 6.4

1996 1997 1998 1999 2000

22.7

25.6

27.3

29.8 29.4

U.S. toy industry sales

$ billion

Video game

sales

‘Traditional’

toy sales

Toy industry retail outlets

% of U.S. sales, 2000

2.1

2.1

2.2

2.9

3.4

3.5

4.0

5.1

11.9

21.0

41.8

Variety stores

E-tailers

Card/Gift stores

Food/Drug stores

All other toy stores

Hobby/Craft stores

Department stores

Mail order

All other outlets

National toy stores

Discount stores

Toy industry retail outlets

% of U.S. sales, 2000

2.1

2.1

2.2

2.9

3.4

3.5

4.0

5.1

11.9

21.0

41.8

Variety stores

E-tailers

Card/Gift stores

Food/Drug stores

All other toy stores

Hobby/Craft stores

Department stores

Mail order

All other outlets

National toy stores

Discount stores

0.8

0.9

0.9

1.4

1.9

4.7

7.2

7.4

16.5

19.0

Shopko

Meijer

Big Loop

J.C. Penney

Ames

KB Toys

Target

K-Mart

Toys “R” Us

Wal-Mart

Leading toy retailers

% of U.S. sales, 2000

0.8

0.9

0.9

1.4

1.9

4.7

7.2

7.4

16.5

19.0

Shopko

Meijer

Big Loop

J.C. Penney

Ames

KB Toys

Target

K-Mart

Toys “R” Us

Wal-Mart

Leading toy retailers

% of U.S. sales, 2000

For the exclusive use of Z. Chen, 2018.

This document is authorized for use only by Zihao Chen in Technology & Innovation – Winter 2018 taught by Kai Pommerenke, University of California – Santa Cruz from January 2018 to July 2018.

602-105 What’s the BIG Idea?

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Exhibit 3 Timeline of Key Events

Source: Company Documents

Exhibit 4 Brief Management Biographies

Michael Collins (CEO): Worked for four years at TA Associates, a Boston-based VC firm. Founded Kid Galaxy, a specialty toy company and producer of award-winning Bendos line. Recruited management team and non-venture capital board members. Graduated from Dartmouth College with degree in engineering. Received MBA from Harvard Business School.

George d’Arbeloff (Chairman of Advisory Board): Diverse experiences during 30-year career with Teradyne, most recently running $800 million semiconductor test business. Served as CEO of $2.6 million point-of-sale system provider. Graduated from Harvard College with degree in engineering.

Ted Gutelius (Advisory Board Member): President Warner Capital Resources, a proprietary database of accredited angel investors.

Jeffrey Kennis (Advisory Board Member): President, Enchanted Moments, New England sales group for kid’s products.

Beth Obermiller (Vice President, Kids): Extensive background in children’s products. Served as managing editor at Perfection Learning and executive editor at Pleasant Company. Served as vice president of product development at Kid Galaxy. Received B.A. in English from Grinnell College and M.A. from University of Michigan.

Heather Hill (BIG Scoop Editor): Experienced researcher, writer, and editor. Helped research and manage trend research division at Big Blue Dot. Served as project manager and editor at Parents’ Choice Magazine and Houghton Mifflin. Has B.A. in history from Wheaton College.

Source: Company Documents

For the exclusive use of Z. Chen, 2018.

This document is authorized for use only by Zihao Chen in Technology & Innovation – Winter 2018 taught by Kai Pommerenke, University of California – Santa Cruz from January 2018 to July 2018.

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For the exclusive use of Z. Chen, 2018.

This document is authorized for use only by Zihao Chen in Technology & Innovation – Winter 2018 taught by Kai Pommerenke, University of California – Santa Cruz from January 2018 to July 2018.

602-105 What’s the BIG Idea?

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Exhibit 6 Big Idea Hunt Advertisement

Source: Company Documents

For the exclusive use of Z. Chen, 2018.

This document is authorized for use only by Zihao Chen in Technology & Innovation – Winter 2018 taught by Kai Pommerenke, University of California – Santa Cruz from January 2018 to July 2018.

What’s the BIG Idea? 602-105

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Exhibit 7 Big Idea Hunt Concept Evaluation Form

Source: Company Documents

Kids’ Product Hunt

BIG Evaluation Form

Product Name: ___________________________________________________

Inventor Name: __________________________________________________

Panelist Name: ___________________________________________________

Appeal of product 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Size of market 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Strength of competition 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Longevity/extendability/defensibility 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Ease of sale 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

OVERALL SCORE 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10

Possible Prospects: ________________________________________________

_________________________________________________________________

_________________________________________________________________

To Do’s in Order to Show: _________________________________________

_________________________________________________________________

_________________________________________________________________

_________________________________________________________________

Panelist Signature: ________________________________________________

Date: ____________________________________________________________

For the exclusive use of Z. Chen, 2018.

This document is authorized for use only by Zihao Chen in Technology & Innovation – Winter 2018 taught by Kai Pommerenke, University of California – Santa Cruz from January 2018 to July 2018.

602-105 What’s the BIG Idea?

20

Exhibit 8 Tiny Totes Example

Source: Company Documents

For the exclusive use of Z. Chen, 2018.

This document is authorized for use only by Zihao Chen in Technology & Innovation – Winter 2018 taught by Kai Pommerenke, University of California – Santa Cruz from January 2018 to July 2018.

What’s the BIG Idea? 602-105

21

Exhibit 9 Financial Projections ($000s)

2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006

Revenues

Advances 80 140 210 320 420 570

Corporate Services 100 150 230 300 380 450

Sponsorships 0 750 1,500 2,250 3,000 4,000

Total Operating Revenue 180 1,040 1,940 2,870 3,800 5,020

Operating Expenses 600 1,200 1,800 2,400 3,000 3,600

Operating Profit (Loss) (420) (160) 140 470 800 1,420

Royalties / Direct Import 0 250 1,180 3,050 6,150 10,980

Total Profit (420) 90 1,320 3,520 6,950 12,400

KEY ASSUMPTIONS

Number of vertical markets 1 2 3 4 5 6

Number of deals 5 9 14 21 28 38

Number of “home run” deals 0 1 1 1 2 2

Average royalty per deal 5% 5% 5% 5% 5% 5%

Source: Company Documents

For the exclusive use of Z. Chen, 2018.

This document is authorized for use only by Zihao Chen in Technology & Innovation – Winter 2018 taught by Kai Pommerenke, University of California – Santa Cruz from January 2018 to July 2018.

602-105 What’s the BIG Idea?

22

Exhibit 10 Home Improvement Industry Facts & Figures

Source: Compiled by the casewriter based on statistics from the National Retail Hardware Association (available at http://www.nrha.org/markmeas.html)

Home improvement

retail outlets

% of U.S. sales, 2000

15%

50%

35%

Lumberyards

Hardware

stores

Home

Centers

Home improvement

retail outlets

% of U.S. sales, 2000

15%

50%

35%

Lumberyards

Hardware

stores

Home

Centers 0.7

0.8

0.9

0.9

1.1

1.1

1.1

2.6

10.0

24.1

Wickes

Lanoga

Sears Hardware

Homebase

84 Lumber

Carolina Holdings

Payless Cashways

Menard

Lowe’s

Home Depot

Leading home

improvement retailers

% of U.S. sales, 2000

0.7

0.8

0.9

0.9

1.1

1.1

1.1

2.6

10.0

24.1

Wickes

Lanoga

Sears Hardware

Homebase

84 Lumber

Carolina Holdings

Payless Cashways

Menard

Lowe’s

Home Depot

Leading home

improvement retailers

% of U.S. sales, 2000

124.5 128.0 137.1

145.3 159.7 165.3

1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000

U.S. home improvement industry retail sales

$ billions

124.5 128.0 137.1

145.3 159.7 165.3

1995 1996 1997 1998 1999 2000

U.S. home improvement industry retail sales

$ billions

For the exclusive use of Z. Chen, 2018.

This document is authorized for use only by Zihao Chen in Technology & Innovation – Winter 2018 taught by Kai Pommerenke, University of California – Santa Cruz from January 2018 to July 2018.


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