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Joel Berkowitz reveals how he started London Toy Company in a flash of inspiration.
Harry Potter. London Underground. JCB… Joel, you make plush toy vehicles with some very interesting licenses. What’s your background?
I’ve always had a fascination with transport and vehicles for as long as I can remember. I recall watching London Underground trains pass by from my grandparents’ back garden in North West London, and my dad taking me on trips into London almost every Sunday. My dad’s enthusiasm for Corgi and Matchbox played a huge role in my childhood and, being an only child, I was often left to my own devices…
So you’d actually play with Corgi and Matchbox toys? Not just admire the collection?
Oh yes; I played with them all endlessly: trucks, cars, planes… Fast forward to later years, I attended Coventry University where I studied Transport and Automotive Design which was a lifelong dream; getting to design boats, trams, cars, lorries – I really was in my element.
A dream come true!
It really was. It seems crazy to me when you mention the above licenses… It’s a privilege to be able to work with these among many other properties. I’m fortunate to have had a good work ethic embedded into me by my parents and peers which has driven me to push this business forward. Only the sky is the limit!
So how did you come to found The London Toy Company?
It wasn’t until second year at Coventry came around until it hit me. In my nine-square-metre dorm room, I had a shelf with model toy buses and trains – in particular, a London Underground train. There I was, at two in the morning, looking at this toy; looking at the sausage pillow on my bed; and the idea was born of the tube-train carriage cushion.
Oh, wow… It really was one of those “eureka” moments?
It was! I’d always been very entrepreneurial, but Original Design and Manufacturing was new territory to me, so I needed a plan. Licensing to funding, sales channels to a website, sourcing and sampling… I’d heard about the Enterprise Hub that Coventry University ran where after countless meetings, I was offered free business mentoring and a £2000 proof-of-concept grant.
And what did £2000 let you do?
It doesn’t sound a lot now, does it? But it let me fly to China, find a factory, develop the product concept, pitch to Transport For London – and work out if anyone would even buy into the thing! After about a year or so of toing and froing, Saskia Boersma, head of TfL Licensing at the time, offered me a license for the product. I was their youngest-ever licensee.
Is that right? How old were you at this point? And what were you hoping to do? It seems such an niche area!
I was 19 years old! My vision for the company was to grow from the initial idea with London Underground, and develop soft toys in the form of all the other famous London icons. I was able to pull a range together that included Big Ben, a London taxi, and the classic telephone and post boxes. It was only after we launched at the Spring Fair in 2016 that things really took off.
What was the breakthrough?
We had a big first order from a US client. It was super daunting as I’d never manufactured or shipped a product before! We were also approached by Harrods, Merlin and John Lewis. Subsequently ITV also approached us… We went on to work under license on the Thunderbirds Are Go soft-toy range. From there, retailers grew, new licenses were obtained in deals with JCB and the RAF – and the ranges continued to expand.
“We’ve worked tirelessly with our factories to move away from the cartoon-style soft toys…”
I love this – your story is one inspired moment followed by a load of hard work! How important, then, is great design in what you do?
Design is all around us and goes unnoticed when done well. For me, it was imperative to ensure all the soft toy we were producing were as real to life as possible. That’s why you’ll never see ‘eyes’ or ‘faces’ on any of our toys. They’re true to scale, and include even the finest of details within the graphics.
We’ve worked tirelessly with our factories to move away from the cartoon-style soft toys and bring realism into the category – like nothing seen before. Just like the Corgi and Matchbox toys I played with as a kid, I wanted to encapsulate that realism in a larger scale with little development costs and without moulds. Soft toys has offered a platform to explore this concept and we’ve run with it!
And what other considerations make a design right for you?
Just because something’s worked in one toy category, it doesn’t mean it’ll work in another. I often find that – as cool and easy a given product would be to create – the market could have poor response to it. What’s important is to really vet a concept from feasibility to manufacture and market relevance.
Why, though, would you produce a Spitfire, for example, rather than a Lancaster?
The Spitfire, which is one of our top preforming lines, is a great example of a product that works well due to its history, popularity and play value. We’re always looking to expand our offerings but something like the Lancaster just wouldn’t sell through anywhere near as well as the Spitfire does. It’s important to recognise, though, that a range can have hero items surrounded by lower-seller items, which overall can increase revenue.
And in terms of other licenses, what makes a great partner for you?
When looking to expand licensees, we don’t respond well to the hard sell at all. Generally, the experience gained over the past six years tells us what works and what doesn’t. We know what our clients buy and don’t buy, and try not to pitch ideas unless we know they’ll highly likely have great success. This is all about longevity and continuous supply… That’s what our very original and new partnerships are all about.
“This is all about longevity and continuous supply… That’s what our partnerships are all about.”
Often, we work directly with clients on projects – we develop exclusive toy lines under private label when sourcing of high quality ODM is top of their agenda. We’ve been fortunate to work on these projects with Boeing, Steven Brown Art, London Transport Museum and The Tank Museum among others. It’s a rapidly growing area of business for us.
Are there any licenses that you think would be a great next step; people to whom you’ve yet to reach out?
We’re keen to move into the major food-brand category with toy licensing as well as vehicle manufacturers, operators and airlines, plus evergreen brands with great relevance and existing proven retail presence. Items would have to fit into our portfolio naturally – but we’re always excited to look at new areas.
That being the case, what’s your process? How do ideas go from the back of your mind to the front of a shelf?
New product development meetings, and the development process, are among my favourite parts of the job. Working with assets and brand guides is really fun and when the creativity flows, and excitement in the team is present, you can feel there’s something there. We do a lot of research and competitor analysis before taking on any new line development… We often work with incredible automotive designers and engineers to develop our designs before being sampled by the factories.
We can then take the concept to market and gain client feedback before going ahead with a new product. Missing this part out can leave us with a warehouse full of stock that just gathers dust!
In your opinion, what’s the best thing about this industry?
It’s small yet focussed. The market is large, and is fuelled by the influential imagination of children – and the pockets of parents! The nostalgic expansion into the kidult market is also really cool and it’s one of our biggest areas of growth right now especially in the vehicle/transport category.
Conversely, what’s the worst? Or the most frustrating?
Our items are bulky and take up lots of container space, so I’d be in a position to say the shipping – even pre-Covid crisis. The issues we face now are unprecedented. Shipping aside, however, toy-buying teams are very small and under massive pressure, so it can often take extended periods to secure listings. We’re lucky and honoured to have the partnerships that we currently have and cherish these hugely.
Brilliant! Joel, I’ve enjoyed talking about this tremendously. Thank you for your time – and do keep us posted about any new licenses.
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