Soon after Tim Walsh graduated from college, back in 1989 in a one-bedroom apartment in Sarasota, he and two buddies invented TriBond.
The idea was to create an adult board game that combined trivia with problem solving, which players connect three clues to one answer.
Even in his wildest fantasies, Walsh — maybe — thought he would sell a few thousand games. But after five years of rejections and multiple revisions, TriBond became a mega-hit. By 1996 it had sold 1 million units, and by 2010 it had surpassed 3 million sales in 14 countries. It’s one of 22 board games in production for more than a decade with continuous sales, a list that includes Monopoly, Othello and Yahtzee.
Now, 20 years later, Walsh is back with another startup business that faces long odds.
This time it’s Crazy Chins, a new product for a novel category of toys called AppCessories — real toys that connect with devices and gadgets, like smart phones and tablets. Crazy Chins, says Walsh, allows kids to make and share goofy upside-down chin-face videos.
The first part of the products is chin masks, anything from monkeys to squirrels to scary monsters. The next part is portable, fold-up screens and green screens, with a hole where the chin mask fits through. The third part is an iPhone or iPad app that connects the first two parts through dozens of backgrounds.
The app is free, but additional background settings, from a blue sky to a bamboo jungle, cost 99 cents each — a key part of the Crazy Chin hardware/software revenue model. The final product, a recorded skit, can then go to the ultimate showoff land for kids: YouTube.
Walsh’s business partner in the venture, Sarasota entrepreneur Chris Abbott, handles the technology-app side of the business. Abbott runs the Abbeton Accelerator Fund, a startup seed money operation that assists local companies, both with advice, and actual funds. Abbott works out of the HuB in Sarasota, a business incubator.
Abbott says the AppCessories model, the ability to monetize the same idea twice, is what drew him to the project. “There could be no products on the shelf,” says Abbott, “and we will still make money.”
That’s exactly what happened in 2012. The software app launched over the summer, and there were more than 60,000 free downloads of it through mid-December. Even though the actual chin masks haven’t been released, Abbott says the company made $5,000 or so in 2012 through selling the background screens at 99 cents apiece.
Those sales give Walsh a jolt of confidence. Walsh thinks like someone who wears T-shirts with funny designs to work, smiles a lot and has been in the toy industry for 20 years. In other words: He dreams big. “This is the kind of product that could spree and fade away or we can sell 25 million,” he says. “This is a very unique item. It could be a Furby.”
The Furby, a plush electronic toy that looks like an owl and speaks its own language, sold 40 million units in the late 1990s.
To reach anything close to Furby level, Walsh and Abbott say 2013 will be a telling year for Crazy Chins. Key tasks include: securing licensing deals with at least two prominent kids characters; finding an American manufacturing partner; and, possibly most importantly, making sure the final product resonates with children consumers, a notoriously fickle bunch.
Says Walsh: “It will be an interesting 12 months.”
In addition to those internal challenges, Walsh faces a possible external huddle that has short-circuited many startup projects: market timing.
Indeed, Jim Wilson, editor of Timetoplaymag.com, a toy industry website, says Crazy Chins and other like-minded AppCessories might be too futuristic. Wilson says the category shows promise, though the industry has been slow to embrace it. One reason, he says, is many parents, in general, seek to separate hard toys from rationed “screen” time. He also says some products just didn’t correctly make the connection between toy and app.
“It’s a category that will grow,” Wilson says, “but right now the market hasn’t been too well executed.”
Wilson, nonetheless, says Crazy Chins could catch on, especially if the marketing proves how this way of play can’t be duplicated with homemade toys or online. Big toy players, like Disney and Fisher-Price, have been somewhat successful with AppCessories in that regard.
Of course, the marketing budget for Crazy Chins is miniature in comparison to those companies. Low-cost help came in October, when Crazy Chins won a contest sponsored by American Airlines that sought the best ways entrepreneurs use travel connections to boost their business.
The crux of the contest, Flights Camera Action, was to create a video, which Walsh turned into a 60-second commercial for Crazy Chins. (See the video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=LWOC2jwTizI). Walsh’s entry not only earned the company some exposure, but the prize included 60,000 Business ExtrAA points for flights and two tickets to the Inc. 500/5000 conference in Phoenix.
Walsh, who has written two books on toys, including Wham-O Super Book, a historical account of some famous toys, says the Crazy Chins concept is simpler than it might appear. It’s really just kids goofing around, and the advances of technology make it easier to share than ever before. “There are a lot of toys that are extension of physical play,” Walsh says. “People threw pie plates before the Frisbee.”
A native of Voorhees, N.J, a small south Jersey town, Walsh got into the toy industry after TriBond in 1990. That game was born from a conversation Walsh and his friends had one night while they sat around the dorms at Colgate University, in upstate New York. The group had heard a rumor that the creators of Trivial Pursuit went to school there.
Walsh and his friends decided that despite its huge commercial success, Trivial Pursuit was lacking. Players who didn’t know an answer, just didn’t know. Their response was to create TriBond, where the questions are clues. It made its debut at a toy fair in 1990.
Another million-selling product Walsh, 48, invented, is Blurt!, a vocabulary-building board game for children. Born on Christmas, Walsh, furthermore, is a professional speaker on the toy industry and how to inject fun into the workplace. He also was a creative consultant and featured in the 2010 documentary Toyland, which was bought by the Documentary Channel.
The Crazy Chins, idea, meanwhile, goes back to when Walsh was 10 years old. That’s when he drew upside down chin characters, covered his face with a towel and made his sister crack up with laughter.
Walsh called the made up character Chinface Man. “It was (and is) a pretty funny thing to see,” Walsh writes on his toy blog. “It’s also a bit unsettling, which I think adds some freakiness to the fun. You know you’re looking at a human mouth, but the tiny face makes it weird in a wonderful way.”
Walsh began to think more seriously about the business a few years ago. At one point, he even licensed it to a company in Orlando that wanted to make it into a face-painting toy. That effort flopped. “It never even got off the shelf,” says Walsh. “They didn’t do well with it at all.”
That experience taught Walsh the lesson of being sure to find the right partners. He has since had discussions with a wide range of possible distribution entities. The list includes toy giant Hasbro and Kevin Harrington, a well-known Tampa TV products entrepreneur and chairman of As Seen on TV.
The company is exploring other opportunities, too. It’s working on several licensing deals, with characters popular among children. Walsh will also spend the first few months of 2013 going to toy shows with Crazy Chins, from Hong Kong to New York.
“I’m definitely excited about it,” says Walsh. “The potential for this is greater than anything I’ve ever done.”
Name: Crazy Chins
Founder: Tim Walsh
Founded: December 2011
Initial investment: $20,000
Sales: Less than $6,000
Product sales projected for 2013: $1.5 million to $2 million (firm projects an additional $200,000-$500,000 in sales through software apps.)
Fun fact: Walsh played professional baseball in Mexico, and he earned a tryout with the Chicago White Sox in 1989, when the team held spring training in Sarasota. He also was also a wide receiver for Colgate University in upstate New York, though he was recruited to play quarterback.