Toy Story Three: The new blow-up idea from the Kiwi brains behind Robo Fish

From the New Zealand siblings who brought us the Robo Fish (one of the biggest-selling toys of all time), comes what could be this summer’s toy sensation – a hose attachment the makers claim can blow up 100 water balloons in under 60 seconds. Oh, and help boost sales to $200 million.

It’s a stifling, hot, summer day. One bright spark suggests a water fight, an epic battle. The weapon of choice? Water balloons.

It always seems like a great idea. The parent, filled with purpose, starts filling the first balloon, while the children wait with baited breath.

Then the balloon splits. Oh well, on to the next one. One of the kids insists on filling up the next balloon, and then drops it. She catches her finger trying to tie the third.

After 30 minutes, the children are over it, and the parent wants to stick forks in their eyes. Help may be at hand.

Zuru, a clever New Zealand-owned toy company based in China, has launched a new toy called Bunch O Balloons, which claims to fill 100 water balloons in under 60 seconds. 

Zuru is owned and run by three siblings from Cambridge (the NZ one), who employ 750 people and turn over $100 million – and rising. Bunch O Balloons – a hose attachment with 37 pre-connected balloons – is the latest in a series of successful toy launches, including the wildly-popular Robo Fish. 

So how does a family-owned company discover a potentially game-changing toy? 

Bunch O Balloons is the brainchild of Josh Malone, a Texas father of eight, who wanted
to find a way to fill water balloons quickly. 

His system allows you to fill lots of balloons at the same time, then give them a shake to activate the self-sealing rings and push the balloons off the attachment, ready to go. 

Zuru director Nick Mowbray says they discovered the product the same way as everyone else – via the media. 

Image: Zuru co-founder Nick Mowbray is only 30, but runs a $100m company

Malone put his invention on the crowdfunding platform Kickstarter in July 2014, with the goal of raising US$10,000. Instead, he raised US$1 million in less than 20 days.

The story went viral, attracting a staggering 1 billion media impressions and stories in Time Magazine, CNN, and Good Morning TV. 

Cue, Zuru. Mowbray saw the coverage and wanted the commercial rights. He knew Zuru was up against much bigger players, which could offer more money.  So he got on the phone to Malone and didn’t give up.

“I literally contacted him every day – with no replies because everyone was trying to get in touch with him.”

Mowbray’s team calculated Malone’s invention would take 1.5 hours to put together by hand, as all one hundred balloons need to be pre-tied.

“I eventually managed to get him on the phone and told him the only way that his invention could be commercialised and go to a mass market, was if it was automated.

“This sort of toy can’t be put out at a premium, people can go out and buy a balloon and string for next to nothing. The automation proposal peaked Malone’s interest and he jumped on a plane to see us.”

Zuru’s R&D team, based in Guangzhou, custom-made a test-pilot machine using lasers and advanced robotics to put each ‘o’ ring and balloon on to the straw and assemble it. 

It wasn’t easy.  The first machine had to be redesigned almost 20 times before Zuru had a working model that could be scaled,
says Mowbray.

Malone liked what he saw and agreed to sell the commercial rights for an undisclosed sum. 

Zuru will launch Bunch O Balloons in the US, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa this year, and in Asia, Europe and the Middle East in 2016.  

But Bunch O Balloons is just one part of a wider strategy at Zuru.

The company is building a multi-million dollar facility, the size of three football fields, focused on building machines for many of its other product lines. 

The factory is located in a part of Guangzhou Mowbray calls the “Silicon Valley of Asia”, because it is home to firms like telco equipment company Huawei, across the road, which employs 50,000 engineers.

“We are setting up the facility in the area due to the talent,” says Mowbray. 

TOY STORY ONE

The story is extraordinary: How Nick and Mat Mowbray (and later their sister Angela) went from the horse-breeding town of Cambridge (population 15,000) to Guangzhou (population 14 million) and founded a toy company which now has 750 employees across six offices, turnover of $100 million, and sales in 80 countries.

It started small: with two small boys commercialising a miniature hot air balloon Mat had made for a science fair when he was 11, using material like plastic bags and Coke cans. Ten years ago, sales outgrew the garage, and Mat and Nick reckoned they were on to something. So despite being barely out of their teens, the boys got on a plane to Guangzhou.

They didn’t have anywhere to stay (so they slept under bushes for the first few days), and they didn’t understand China’s business environment. But they figured it out.

“We were very young and did not have much knowledge of how anything worked. We made loads of mistakes but gradually found our feet. The biggest benefit has been building the whole company out of Asia,” says Mowbray.

The big break came in 2012-2013, with the global success of Robo Fish, an electro-magnetic toy that swims like a fish when dropped in water. 

Almost 15 million children got a Robo Fish over those two years, and the toy outsold Lego for a while. 

The popularity of Robo Fish propelled it in to the sights of Disney. Recently, Zuru signed exclusive rights to Frozen 2 and Finding Dory.

The company still produces 65,000 fish a day. 

As CEO, Mat manages the R&D team, and looks for the next big thing – which involves the team at Zuru sifting through many thousands of toy concepts. 

Anna heads the finance and operations teams, and has driven the growth of the company. And Nick, as director and president, heads international sales and marketing and overall global strategy.

Robust debates with each other are not uncommon, Mowbray says.

“Zuru has big plans. We want to strive to find new ideas and technologies to push the boundaries of innovation.

“We want to increase revenue to US$200m by next year and continue to grow aggressively.”

It is also pushing to sign bigger licensing deals with the large movie studios, he says.

“Ideally we want to look at our big competitors, Hasbro and Mattel, and ask: ‘how do we lift the company to the next level’? We are ambitious with our plans, not wanting to settle.”

The company is still owned by the three siblings, and they have grown it organically over the past nine years without any bank or outside investment.

“We have explored the opportunities in terms of floating. The valuations and multiples being achieved in Asia right now are unprecedented. 

“But we feel we are in a major growth phase and can drive our valuation up with a couple more years of doing what we are doing.”