ThinkFun co-founder Andrea Barthello lovingly calls ThinkFun a “25 year old overnight success,” and it has certainly been a long and exciting journey from the birth of Binary Arts to the global company ThinkFun is today!
by Bill Ritchie, ThinkFun CEO and Co-Founder
Our story begins on February 4, 1985 between 4:00 and 4:15 pm when, in separate meetings, Andrea resigned and I was fired from a Washington DC area real estate company… we left not a moment too soon! Shortly thereafter, the company’s CEO was indicted for insurance fraud and fled the country. While the decision to roll up our sleeves and follow our dreams was daunting, the stars were aligned and we never looked back!
It was not a good time to enter the toy business. Toys R Us was rising to market dominance, independent toy and games stores were going out of business and the big department stores were moving away from selling board games and puzzles at Christmas, which had been a tradition for them. The Rubik’s Cube fad of the early 1980’s, which we took as a sign that our puzzles would be successful, had actually left store owners with a huge overstock of Cubes that still left a bad taste several years later. But we started with complete ignorance about how things should work, which turned out to be a blessing.
Our company mission to start was, “to translate the brilliant ideas of the craziest mathematicians, engineers and inventors into simple toys that can be appreciated by boys and girls around the world.” We still believe that today.
Our first products were three mechanical puzzles, the Hexadecimal Puzzle, the Cat, and the Horse, all invented by my father’s best friend and Bell Labs engineer William Keister. Wonderful as they were, they were over-priced and a bit amateurish. The tagline for The Hexadecimal Puzzle was “An Advanced Mathematical Puzzle With 16 Variations…” quite a mouthful and not a message inviting for novice puzzlers!
By the late 1980s we had introduced three really good plastic brainteaser puzzles to the market: SpinOut (now a Games Magazine Hall of Fame classic), TopSpin and BackSpin. Two things happened around 1990 that catapulted us forward. First, the recession of 1989 threw loads of yuppies (young urban professionals) out of work. They stopped shopping at Sharper Image and Nature Company and looked for less expensive grownup toys and gadgets, which now included our sophisticated $10 brainteaser puzzles. Also at that time, “Edge City” suburban shopping malls were just hitting the American landscape in a big way, bringing with them a new generation of adult lifestyle stores that were hungry for fresh products that included sophisticated brainteasers. Stores like The Museum Company, Natural Wonders, Brookstone, Chesapeake Knife and Tool, World of Science, Hudson Trail Outfitters and InGear came on the scene around 1990 and completely changed the retail landscape in America. The world of retail changed over several years, and suddenly things were tilted our way. We went through a very creative period and developed a widening range of puzzles, all with an eye towards cleverness and integrity of design, and all in collaboration with the best puzzle inventors, with whom we had become good friends.
A moment that stands out most for us was when Izzi Daddaboy, the senior toy buyer for Harrods of London, walked into our booth at Toy Fair to tell us, “We need to do business together,” then placed a huge order. In contrast, the scariest time was in the fall of 1990 when, during the run-up to the first Gulf War, the US military almost commandeered the factory making our puzzles. We got one machine allocated to us, running 24 hours a day to keep up with really big orders flooding in from these new stores. We made the Inc. 500 four years in a row in the early 1990s… it was a whirlwind, but a fun time!
A seminal moment came in 1995, when Nob Yoshigahara showed us his Tokyo Parking puzzle. In the summer of 1996, we brought this puzzle to market as Rush Hour, now an iconic best seller! Our timing was perfect. Once again, the retail market was shifting, and the upscale grownup lifestyle stores were being supplanted by a new generation of upscale children’s toy stores. In the heady atmosphere of the late 1990’s, chains such as LearningSmith, Zany Brainy, Store of Knowledge, Noodle Kadoodle, as well as online toy store eToys took off and grew like weeds. This period from 1995 to 2000 was the most creative and vibrant in the history of American retail shopping.
We knew we had a winner with Rush Hour… we also knew we had a winning formula with our “Beginner to Expert” challenge system. In short order we brought to market Stormy Seas, Hoppers, Railroad Rush Hour, River Crossing, Lunar Lockout, Safari Rush Hour, and many other multi-challenge brainteaser logic puzzles. We also experimented with science toys, optical illusions, simple Aha! Style brainteasers, and started working locally in schools to learn how our games could be used to teach learning skills. Retail customers were hungry for anything that was creative and different, and we had a license to showcase different ideas and introduce a lot of creative inventors to the market.
Well aware that our “Select a Challenge, Beginner to Expert” formula was perfect for online play, we made a hard run at the internet during this time. Our high water mark was when we were selected “Small Business of the Year” by Microsoft in 1997! The late 1990s were a crazy time in the online world, with everyone going nutty in the “dot com craze.” We couldn’t quite buy into the required business formula for the time, which wa s to raise a huge amount of investor money by promising to run the business at huge losses currently and the promise of enormous revenues later… so we lost our techies to the competition and went back to what we did best… working with the wackiest inventors and translating their ideas into wonderful puzzles for boys and girls around the world.
The dot-com bubble burst in the spring of 2000, and loads of technology companies promptly went bankrupt. Right beside them went all of the fancy retailers who had come on the scene during the 1990s. Starting with LearningSmith, the children’s retail market faced bankruptcy after liquidation, as The Museum Company, Natural Wonders, World of Science, Zany Brainy, Store of Knowledge, Noodle Kadoodle, FAO Schwarz, and online retailer eToys all went down within two or three years. This, combined with No Child Left Behind legislation and 9/11, made the early 2000’s as tough a period for creative games and puzzles as the 1990’s were fertile.
We kept making great puzzles to start the new millennium. We also turned our attention to making games for preschoolers and early learners. As it was when we started the company, we didn’t really know what we were doing, and we had a few misses to begin with… Silly Stories, Picture Link and the Same Game were retired within two years. But at the same time we came out with ZINGO!
Little things make a big difference in our business. We thought our first Zingo! package cover was good, but soon learned it was out of step with the times and consumers didn’t like it. It didn’t sell well at the start, but there were a few toy stores that sold Zingo like crazy, so we knew something wasn’t adjusted right. Only when we changed to our newer package did the game take off.
In many ways, Zingo! was as big a product for us as Rush Hour, and it established us as a respected developer of games that build early learning skills. These days Zingo! is our second best seller domestically, and it’s rare I meet a parent of a 4 year old who doesn’t own a copy!
Another example is the Same Game. The product failed for us, but we kept hearing about people who really loved to play it. In 2008 we took another look with more experienced eyes, and re-imagined it as S’Match! S’Match! launched to great success in 2009, with hands-on displays in the game aisle of every Target store in America for all of 2010. Amazing!… It’s the very Same Game!
In 2003, we changed our name from Binary Arts to ThinkFun. Binary Arts was a wonderful name, but it was a glass ceiling name… if you knew us you loved us, if you didn’t know us you likely would never find us. We knew for a long time that we needed to change our name, we just needed to discover the right new name. Our games are designed to inspire players to exercise thinking skills through the magical fun of game play, and we feel “ThinkFun” sums us up perfectly!
In 2006, encouraged by several good puzzle friends, we brought Gordian’s Knot to market. This is an extremely difficult 3-D sliding piece puzzle, and most people thought we were crazy to even try it. Sales started slow but rose steadily, then we heard about people posting movies of themselves solving Gordian’s Knot on YouTube and it’s been upwards from there. In the past couple of years, the trend has swung back to hand held brainteasers again, and we’ve got great new challenges in this category!
Since the beginning, ThinkFun has distinguished itself as an industry leader in making games that support learning and strengthen critical thinking and problem solving through play. Today, we have exciting partnerships underway with schools and non-profit organizations worldwide. Among those are programs in Uganda, Jamaica, and Singapore dedicated to exploring new ways to support and build thinking skills using our innovative games and programs!
Additionally, our education team has been working with university professors and cognitive psychologists, all exploring new ways to use our games to strengthen children’s thinking patterns and skills. We are particularly excited about our work with the Bunge Cognitive Control and Development Laboratory at UC Berkeley, where a preliminary study showed a correlation between students playing Rush Hour and Chocolate Fix and a rise in IQ scores. This team is eager to delve deeper into the impact of ThinkFun games on reasoning ability, and we’re excited to learn more about how our games impact the brain!
The world is changing rapidly, and we are excited to take on the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in the 21st Century. The world is going online, and we now find ourselves more connected to our audience than ever before – this is great! Young people are now growing up online, and while we’ll never abandon what we do best, making brilliant physical puzzles and games and selling them through stores, we are committed to becoming a strong online presence as we grow to support tomorrow’s leaders.
In 2009 we launched Rush Hour for the iPhone, followed shortly thereafter with improved versions for the Android, iTouch,and iPad. In the 8 months following its launch there were over half a million downloads! Fans are raving about our first foray into the world of mobile apps, and in response we’ve got several new games in the works!
With our ThinkFun Live online gaming program, we offer an entirely new play experience that will challenge veteran gamers while also supporting young learners developing problem solving skills through play.
We founded ThinkFun on a dream, that we could change the world by translating the brilliant ideas of the craziest mathematicians, engineers and inventors into simple toys that can be appreciated by boys and girls around the world. At 25 years old, we feel like we are living that dream. Stick with us and follow us as we move onto the internet and beyond. These next few years will be an adventure!