“I love toys. I’m definitely in the right industry,” Sydney Wiseman, BCom’11, says at the offices of WowWee, a robotic toy company in Montreal where her cubicle is crammed with collectibles.
A pink monkey hanging upside down on her window ledge is Wiseman’s – and WowWee’s – toy triumph from 2017, one that had desperate parents scrambling from one sold-out store to another in the days leading up to Christmas.
She came up with the idea for Fingerlings, comical interactive monkeys that curl around your finger and laugh, kiss, snore, burp, fart – you name it.
The Fingerlings, which include slower-moving sloths and unicorns, struck an instant chord last year and became one of the most sought-after toys in the holiday season.
At the toy industry’s “Oscars” in New York City in February, the Fingerlings won ‘Collectible of the Year,’ and shared the prestigious ‘Toy of the Year” award.
Two days later at another gala in Gotham, Wiseman won creator of the year at the annual Wonder Women Awards.
“Winning Toy of the Year was really the moment where I was like “OK, this actually all worked,” Wiseman says.
Of course, there was ample proof before then.
Wiseman calls herself a brand manager at the company owned by her uncles Richard Yanofsky, BA’80, and Peter Yanofsky, BA’77, but says, “We’re not really big on titles here.” Her mother and two cousins also work at WowWee. “I’m chief of all things Fingerlings, I guess.”
She came up with the idea after seeing a photo in multiple places of a tiny pygmy marmoset monkey on a human finger. She thought, “This is a really cool toy, if you just figure out how to make it small so that it could fit on a kid’s finger.”
She took the photo to WowWee’s chief technology officer to see if it was doable, and worked with a colleague who designed the monkeys.
WowWee launched the Fingerlings in the spring of 2017 in Canada, and the United Kingdom where the response was so strong they had pull their television advertising when they ran out of product. “We had purchased four weeks of TV, but after two weeks we were sold out,” Wiseman says.
Canada was similar, “so we were feeling good about it,” she says, but the U.S. market is much bigger and more finicky with way more competition.
The company invested heavily even before the product was released in the U.S. last August to make people aware of it.
Instead of the typical toy industry ‘unboxing” videos where kids watch videos of other kids opening toys, the WowWee team came up with the idea for an ‘unbashing’, Wiseman says. They sent banana-shaped piñatas stuffed with Fingerlings to influential mommy bloggers who bashed them open on “Fingerlings Friday”, the day of the U.S. launch.
The amount of eyeballs they drew to their product that day was “probably case-study worthy,” Wiseman says.
Sales took off quickly in the States.
“Shelves were bare very quickly and it was our job to figure out how to get more products so that we wouldn’t have disappointed kids at Christmas,” she says.
The company’s lawyers also had to contend with counterfeiters when fake Fingerlings sprang up.
Wiseman, who says she’s very superstitious, waited to see what would happen at Christmas. That morning “if you went on Instagram and you searched the hashtag #fingerlings, the amount of kids that had their Fingerlings – that was the highlight of my life probably … It was like ‘Whoa, this is cool, and they like them, and OK, we’re on to something here.’”
The Fingerlings make some 40 sounds that kids can activate – by petting or tapping their heads, for example. Wiseman thinks there are a few reasons why they became such a hit.
Most of the competition in the interactive pet category are “watch me” toys, in Wiseman’s estimation.
What she believes WowWee achieved, that resonated really well, “was the emotional connection between the kid and the toy. So I kiss you and you kiss me back or when I pet you, the toy acknowledges that you made it feel good.
“There really is that ‘OK, I’m able to control the outcome of my toy’, which I think is really magical.”
The Fingerlings targeted a wide demographic, which she believes helped create buzz and momentum. “We saw three-year-olds that were going to bed with it. We saw seven-year-old boys who were making them fart consistently.”
A Montreal native, Wiseman has lots of toy knowledge to draw on. She has collected them all her life.
“My grandfather, he used to have a saying that you can’t spoil a good thing. So I used to get to go to Toys “R” Us every Sunday. I got a toy every single Sunday of my life growing up. Literally, he’s responsible for the reason I’m in toys.”
Her favourites as a kid?
“Polly Pocket [is] number one for sure … it probably changed my life. And then, Barbie, number two.”
Even at McGill where she studied in the Desautels Faculty of Management, Wiseman says her marketing projects were always kid related. So much so, that one of her professors landed her an interview at a rival toy company, Mega Bloks, not realizing that Wiseman’s family was in the toy business.
“She was like, ‘You have to go, it’s such a good fit for you.’ And I was like, ‘Uh, a bit conflicting, so thank you, but…,’” Wiseman laughs.
She wanted to do her own thing to start her career and worked on an app after she graduated. Her office was in WowWee’s building and her uncle would seek her opinion on toys as market research. As that happened more and more, Wiseman says she realized “this is really what I should be doing.”
A lot of her time is spent looking at what’s trending and what’s cool – and how she could transform those trends into toys.
She’s working on making the Fingerlings “a dream brand” with staying power. “That’s really the next goal, is to keep the whole program going as long as we can and making it cool and innovative for kids every year.”
The broadening brand includes an interactive stuffed animal — Fingerlings HUGS — due out in August. Wiseman holds a fuchsia-coloured monkey showing its vocal repertoire, including a kissing “Mwah”, “Weeeee!” when being swung, and “Ouch” when dropped. A HUG can play back what you say to it in a high-pitched voice, and its long arms and Velcro-covered hands enable it to wrap around your neck.
“I wanted to have a fad before I was 30, my whole life. I don’t know why … Since Beanie Babies, it was like ‘I want to have a fad or a craze before I’m 30,’” says Wiseman, 28.