Zoomer: A Toy Story

toy story

By Lisa Schmelz | Photography by Holly Leitner

On the southern outskirts of Lake Geneva, Peter Greenley and Nick Grisolia, the G’s behind G2 Inventions, are taking a bite out of the $20 billion dollar toy industry. The bite in this case happened with the launch of a toy dog dubbed Zoomer™.  Sold in stores nationwide, and online, Zoomer is a multilingual, interactive, robotic canine, whose unique sensors allow him – or her – to respond to dozens of commands, with lifelike movements.

“We wanted to make something that people actually remember and play with,” explains Greenley, 48. “I want people to play with the things we make and love it.”

THE LINE GROWS

If making things people love to play with is G2 Inventions’ mission, Greenley and Grisolia can officially declare themselves a success. The pair pitched Zoomer to Toronto-based toy manufacturer Spin Master, and Zoomer pups hit toy shelves in the fall of 2013. First-year sales, says Grisolia, surpassed 350,000 units. Seizing on Zoomer’s popularity, the duo quickly added to the line with a menagerie of other animals. Total Zoomer sales, adds Grisolia, have zoomed past five million units.

“You know you’ve hit it big when you have knock-off products,” says Grisolia, 45, standing in the living room of the house they purchased that now serves as G2’s headquarters.

Surrounding Grisolia is proof of that statement. Looming large over the couch is a massive promotional Zoomer dinosaur. Move and it will roar at you. Stacked against the wall by the fireplace are dozens of Zoomer cats. This fall, they will be joined by Zoomer chimps.

Like any family, the Zoomer pets, which pack a surprising amount of personality and realistic motion into their plastic and futuristic forms, have extensive branches. Each species offers an array of colors and names to choose from. Consumers aren’t the only ones smitten with the line. According to Spin Master’s website, the Zoomer brand of robotic animals has won three Toy of the Year awards from the Toy Industry Association, long-considered the Oscars of the toy trade.

Greenly and Grisolia remain humble, though. They earn royalties on the Zoomer products, and like all good inventors, they know how challenging it is to actually profit from a good idea.

“Invention is mostly failure,” says Grisolia. “It’s 99 percent failure.”

INQUISTIVE NATURE FROM THE BEGINNING

Behind them, Greenley and Grisolia have over two decades of work in the toy biz, where they’ve supported major manufacturers with design, electrical and mechanical expertise. Grisolia holds a degree in electrical engineering technology from Purdue University and is the look-before-you-leap partner. Greenley graduated from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale, with a degree in product design, and is the partner more likely to leap-before-looking. They say their opposite natures work well together. It also doesn’t hurt that both their dads worked in television and radio repair, back when we repaired televisions and radios. Tinkering with motors and wires as youngsters, they say, was encouraged.

“My number one favorite toy was my Radio

Shack 201 electronics projects kit,” recalls Grisolia. “You make circuits and stuff with it. It was really absolutely geeky. I made an AM radio transistor and brought it to school. I put the radio in the classroom and I broadcasted from the hallway.”

Greenley remembers a similar and wiry childhood.

“I used to play operation, but not the Operation game,” he says. “I used to operate on all my toys, and I would take them apart to see how they worked mechanically. I was fascinated.”

THE ROCKY ROAD TO SUCCESS

Greenley and Grisolia crossed paths while working for a Chicago toy development company they declined to name. When the economy started to tank in 2005, so did the demand for toys. Seeing the writing on the wall, Grisolia moved to Lake Geneva, where his wife, Cynthia Klemko, worked as a pastry chef. He soon joined Spacesaver Corporation in Fort Atkinson, a high-density, mobile storage manufacturer, as an engineer.

Eventually, Greenley left the Chicago toy development company and at Grisolia’s urging, he, too, made his way to Lake Geneva. But instead of working for someone else, he paid the bills with contract work. Greenley tried to get Grisolia to join him in as a freelancer, but Grisolia wanted the security of steady income.

When he wasn’t doing contract work for other companies, Greenley tinkered with his own concepts. Ultimately, a toy  airplane he designed took flight. It was then that Grisolia set his own sights higher.

“When he started getting success on his own, it lit a fire under me,” recalls Grisolia.

Soon, the two were working from Grisolia’s basement. The basement years may have been fun, but they weren’t easy. They’d work their freelance jobs to put food on the table, and then focus on their own designs. Shaping those designs were a lathe and a mill bandsaw they picked up for the bargain price of $1,100. Eventually, they landed themselves a 3D printer, and the rest is toy story history.

“It took us, like, six years to get a hit,” says Greenley. “We did a lot of work- for-hire, stuff like that. We knew we could survive, and we knew we could make money, and we figured it out, but it was hard. The transition from doing development work to invention work is that you’re not making money while you do it, but it was something we knew we had to do if we wanted to get bigger.”

THE RIGHT DOG AT THE RIGHT TIME

Why do they they think Zoomer’s bark caught the interest of Spin Master?

“I think it was just all perfect storm kind of stuff,” says Grisolia. “There hadn’t been a real innovative dog out in a long time and it was all just perfect timing.”

What set Zoomer apart from other mechanical dogs, explains Greenley, is pep and a lack of giant motors. The pint-sized plastic pooch is fully robotic, but its motors are placed in the dog’s paws, creating smoother, more lifelike movements and mannerisms. Greenly handles the mechanical side of their inventions, and Grisolia takes care of the electrical.

“For a toy, I think we brought a lot of different technologies together, and maybe you consider that a breakthrough- technology to put all this into one toy,” says Greenley on a YouTube video about the dog’s origins.

Toy reviewers point out that the Zoomer line can also be fully charged in under an hour, and advances in voice-recognition technology make it possible for all the Zoomers to do more than was possible even five years ago. Kids get a kick out of directing Zoomer the dog to sit, speak, lay and even relieve himself. (Ever the obedient pup, Zoomer will lift his leg but lacks the innards to fully complete the command.)

Bringing all this technology together wouldn’t have happened without the support of his wife, Grisolia admits.

“My wife’s been a trooper,” he says. “She let me quit my job and pursue a career in invention in the worst economy of our time.”

Greenley’s wife, Erin, is a Montessori teacher, and their daughter, Bergen, 12, and her friends were Zoomer’s first focus group.

How does Greenley sum up his adventures in Toyland?

“It’s freakin’ awesome,” he declares. “I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.  I love it.”

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