When in doubt, make toys not technology.

By Danny Nathan

When in doubt, make toys not technology.

Work and play are widely considered to be at opposite ends of the spectrum where never the two shall meet. We've all heard, "All work and no play make Jack a dull boy (and Jill a dull girl)." Sure, we've also heard "Find a job doing what you love and you'll never work a day in your life." But while, generally speaking, I thoroughly enjoy what I do, there's no question that it's still work.

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So is it ever possible to bend the spectrum — to bring the two ends together?
Can we build a business and still make toys?
Is there value in doing so?

In my view, the answer is unequivocally YES.

But how…?

Obviously you should quit your job immediately and rush off to become the Willy Wonka of playful, inedible wonders by opening a toy factory, right?

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No, that’s not exactly what I’m driving at…

Instead, I'd like to point out the value to be found in creating playful, entertaining objects that will (dare I borrow an overused phrase) surprise and delight not only your customers, but also your internal team. Let's face it, whether you're working at a burgeoning startup or a corporate behemoth, grinding out bug fixes and new features day after day, sprint after sprint, can be tiring. No matter how much you believe in your product or get excited about the prospect of it changing the world, after a while the continuous cycle of dev sprints can turn monotonous, or worse yet, demoralizing. And if employees are demoralized, I guarantee they're hunting for a new job.

So, as a CEO/manager/captain, how can you help your team get out of — or avoid — this rut? Sure, you could give everyone a day off (which you should do anyway). Or you could inspire your team to make a toy. But what is a "toy" in this context? Just what do I mean by "make toys, not technology?"

Simply put — make something fun.

Better yet, make something fun that will be culturally relevant. Ideally, make something fun that's culturally relevant and is related to your core business. If you're a real ninja about the types of toys you encourage your team to make, you can inspire your team to build a new feature for your product without making it seem like you're having the team build a new feature for your product.

Be mindful here — I'm not suggesting that you hide your efforts from your team, and I'm certainly not suggesting that you lie to your team about your motives. I'm suggesting that building a new feature by creating an alternative use case for it can help inspire a team to work on something relevant without the pressures of a formal sprint. Find a feature that makes a compelling, if not sale-able, stand-alone thing and release it into the wild. Then integrate it into your core product. Think of this as a freemium play — folks who enjoy the stand-alone version might be inclined to purchase your more robust product offering.

Toys in action…

Here's an example from my last role at SEER...

SEER is focused on creating elevated video tools and modernizing digital video distribution for artists, creators, and their fans. Part of this offering is a video management platform that allows customers to quickly spin up and easily manage their own video on demand platform (think: Netflix in a box). Obviously, we needed a test environment on which to deploy new features and demonstrate our platform's capabilities to potential customers.

With that need in mind, we could have simply created an internal instance of our platform for development and sales purposes. After all, that's the obvious way to go about things. But what would be the fun in keeping it to ourselves? Instead, we opted to launch our test environment publicly and to make a concerted effort to use it as our customers might: adding new content every week and managing that content on an ongoing basis. Through this "dogfooding" effort, we'd be able to test and discover pain points before our customers had the opportunity to do so.

We called this toy Vidayo (a play on the word "video"). We created a brand identity and a purpose for this free VOD platform: a place for anyone to discover and watch the best of public domain video content. And we launched it with the fanfare that we might launch a new product... because it was a new product.

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By viewing something that was a necessity — our internal testing environment — as an opportunity to release a toy into the world, we were able to motivate and inspire our team in a manner that wouldn't have worked if we'd simply added another task to the sprint that said "create internal test environment." Instead, we launched Vidayo on Product Hunt and involved the team in the release process by encouraging everyone to share with their networks and to help discover and add new content to the Vidayo library.

What could have been another tedious sprint task became a marketing and sales tool for SEER and a rallying point for our team. And further, Vidayo serves as an opportunity for SEER to demonstrate a sense of play and a "we live here too" attitude, both of which are invaluable from a recruiting perspective. All because of a toy that required only marginal additional lift in workload.

Let’s look at one more…

This example reaches back a little further in my career, and it’s relevant in a slightly different manner.

If you happened to be living in NYC around March of 2009, you couldn't help but notice a barrage of ads featuring snarky sayings in "Snacklish," a quasi-language that was a bit like the Snickers version of Pig Latin.

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Alongside this onslaught of linguistic absurdity, Snickers released a website that gave users the ability to "translate" a word or phrase from English to Snacklish:

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It was sorta fun. Jimmy Kimmel talked about it on his show:

Timing is everything.

Remember, this was Spring 2009, the early-ish days of the web 2.0 social media iPhone app store, android pile on, smart phones that could have powered an Apollo mission in our pockets revolution. The masses were MyFace-ing and YouTweet-ing up a storm. Flash was becoming the villain because it didn't run on smart phones. Everyone was a burgeoning blogger and suddenly "UGC" and "CGC" and "CGM" (user generated content, consumer generated content, consumer generated marketing, blah blah blah) were all folks could talk about. Brands were desperate to participate in the space under the belief that their fanbases would lead them to the promised land of marketing made by the people, for the people — all without giving up a modicum of control over the message. (Which, of course, never works. Remember folks, you are what they say you are.)

With all of that context in mind, imagine the disappointment that the official Snickers English to Snacklish translator website didn't actually afford users the ability to customize their own version of a Snacklish-ified Snickers logo. It would translate any English word into a weird Snacklish version, but you couldn't just type something in and have it show up as a Snickers logo. And this was in the midst of an ad campaign/media onslaught of Snacklish oddities that just begged Snickers fans to create their own take on the language and share their own snackilicious statements.

What an utter miss.

At the time, I was spending my days at POKE NY, an agency/consultancy focused on product and marketing innovation in the digital space. We were young, scrappy, opinionated, culturally aware, and digitally savvy. Perhaps most importantly, we were dead-set on making our mark on the (digital) world. And we were rather adept at creating toys that would get people talking (like our live webcam as website or our #NY<3LeBron buttons).

So, when we saw the missed opportunity in the Snacklish campaign, we did what any good group of trolls would do — we made the thing we wanted to see in the world. Within 24 hours of the launch of the "official" Snacklish campaign, we released Snckrz.com. It was a dead simple website that allowed users to type anything into a Snickers logo (and then embed, tweet, and share their creation):

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Coupled with a live Twitter feed of everything that folks shared and every mention of Snckrz.com, we tallied more than 80,000 shares and mentions in around 48 hours:

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Our toy as "brandjacking" effort got noticed quickly by media outlets and industry rags, like AdAge:

The incident does raise the simple question as to why something as intuitive as a logo generator wouldn't be included in the official Snickers campaign based around funny phrases rendered in the brand's type, it also points to the bigger discussion of...nimble sites built around CGM (consumer generated marketing) and social utility...

Of course, the Mars company's lawyers took note as well: Snickers is Ready to File a Lawsuit Against Poke for Snckrz!

We’ve heard the story before: Brand wants to inspire user generated content. Brand inspires user generated content. Brand hires lawyers, and shuts down user generated content.

The resulting cease-and-desist letter and subsequent forced shut-down of Snckrz.com prompted another flurry of commentary pointing out the absurdity of the situation from the likes of Fast Company, Campaign, and My Grandma Blogs Better Than You:

Danielle Sacks of Fast Company really nailed the commentary on this one:

I just don’t get it. Marketers spend millions of dollars on market research, focus groups, ad agencies, digital shops, so on and so on, just so their brand can catch fire with the cultural zeitgeist. It almost never works... Yet, when it actually does...control-freak corporations don’t know what to do other than bring out the litigious arsenal. When are they ever going to learn?

At this point, a cease-and-desist letter was too little, too late. The damage was done. Our toy, Snckrz.com, was out in the wild, getting noticed and talked about. Our team at POKE had received the attention and the credit for being culturally aware, nimble, and execution-focused — at the expense of Mars and their incumbent agencies who created the original Snacklish campaign and web experience. All of which was the result of a few hours spent building something that we knew would be taken down via legal action.

Ironically, it’s not over yet. Someone brought the Snacklish generator back to life. And people are excited about it… Apparently Snickers and Mars have either learned something, or this iteration is flying under the radar because it’s been live for a year with no repercussions or cease-and-desist letters.

All of this happened because we built a toy.

Think about the value of the marketing and brand awareness that befell POKE over those few days because we built something. Be careful not to let the term “toy” fool you in this regard. Toys have real value. Some can be monetized. Others are valuable due to brand awareness and their ability to attract both new clients and new talent to your company. Regardless, train yourself to be on the lookout for opportunities to create toys, or make a concerted effort to find them.

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