Mark Carson is the President and Co-founder of Fat Brain Toys, a Nebraska-based toy retailer and manufacturer. A self-taught developer, inventor and marketer, Mark, with his wife Karen, has built Fat Brain Toys into one of the nation’s largest independent toy retailers. In addition to it’s website (www.FatBrainToys.com), Fat Brain Toys operates a retail storefront, mails millions of direct mail catalogs each year, and wholesales their original line of specialty toys and games to over 1,500 stores worldwide. Fat Brain Toys is regularly named to the Hot 100 list by Internet Retailer Magazine and today is one of top 500 Internet Retailers in the county.
Can you tell me a little about how Fat Brain Toys came into being. And where did you get that name?
My son, Adam, received a small set of Geomag for his 10th birthday. Looking to buy a larger set, he searched online to no avail. He casually suggested to me that we should build a website to sell them ourselves. I challenged him to find out who distributed them and said if he could, we would start our own online business selling the toy. Adam successfully located the distributor just hours later and we opened the first iteration of our online toy store. We began shipping toys out of our basement in Elkhorn, Nebraska in the Fall of 2012. Experiencing success that first holiday far beyond our dreams, we knew we were on to something special. From there, we grew our business both online and by opening two Fat Brain Toys stores, eventually stocking over 7,500 toys, games and gifts.
With some original product designs rattling around in our heads, we decided to try our hand at designing our own toys. We created Fat Brain Toy Co., our sister company, that develops and manufactures our own unique line of educational toys. Since that time, we have created over 70 original toys and games.
The Fat Brain Toys name came from our desire to say “educational toys” in a clever, and intelligent way. Based on most accounts, it’s done it’s job well!
Who do you consider to be your competition and speaking about competition, who are your competitors and how do you go about competing with the big boys like Toys R Us or Target?
By virtue of our large online presence, we compete with everyone from small, niche toy websites, all the way to mammoth companies like Toys R Us, Target, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.
We are able to compete with the “big boys” because we keep customer experience at the heart of everything we do at Fat Brain Toys. We believe in transparency, ease of experience, and access to real life product experts across platforms - digital and in-store. We are always coupling what we call “old school” customer service with the latest technology, offering great options for communications and purchasing for non tech savvy grandparents to millennial moms.
Additionally, we are toy specialists through and through. Our ability to understand developing trends and our careful classification of toys by age, enables us to better help our customers find the right gift that inspires and thrills.
You have had some nice growth. How do you go about raising capital for your company?
For the first 13 years of our business, we were 100% self-financed and organically grown. But in 2015, sensing an opportunity to take our business to the next level, we partnered with Winona Capital, a Chicago based private equity firm, to help us deliver our combination of industry-leading customer service and product innovation to a much larger audience.
I notice that on your website you have the largest selection of American made toys. How do you find them?
We travel around the world looking for the very best products. But we’re also excited when we discover products that are made close to home - and many of our customers are searching for the same.
We’ve also had a lot of success over the years leveraging the bright minds on Kickstarter. Often times those on Kickstarter have a hard time taking their product to market - from manufacturing to distribution to marketing. In a number of cases, we’ve been able to step in and offer our assistance and let the inventor do what they do best…invent. A few examples of those have been Chalktrail, Joinks, Box & Balls, and most recently, Offbits.
What is the future for Fat Brain Toys?
We will continue to focus our efforts on “A Smarter Way To Play,” supplying quality, open-ended toys, games and gifts that entertain and educate, and increasing the awareness for our unique approach to play. The future means new products and expanded categories, many of which we will reveal at the upcoming New York Toy Fair.
What toys do you have on your desk right now?
Currently, my desk has two of our newest products from our modern baby toy line - Rollobie and Animal Crackers. Although both items are meant for babies or toddlers, it’s nice to take a short break and enjoy these tactile toys. Plus, I always like to test out our soon-to-be released products one last time before they hit market.