In the film "Big,'' a boy magically becomes an adult and finds a job at a toy company. In Southborough, a businessman finds his inner boy and starts his own toy company. Eat your heart out, Tom Hanks.
In the film "Big,'' a boy magically becomes an adult and finds a job at a toy company.
In Southborough, a businessman finds his inner boy and starts his own toy company. Eat your heart out, Tom Hanks.
Kenneth Kahn is the businessman behind the boy who owns Oh! Toys, an online retailer specializing in providing the United States with unusual toys from abroad. His business card doesn't read "president,'' "founder'' or "CEO'' under his name. He is simply known as "Player #1.''
"It's a toy company,'' says Kahn. "You ought to have some fun with it.''
Oh! Toy's products stress safety, quality construction and creativity. They also have to be cool. "The unwritten motto about my mission is to offer cool things you can't really find here,'' says Kahn.
The genesis of the company can actually be traced to Kahn's desire to buy a toy, specifically Cuboro, a marble-run set made in Switzerland. "I bought one and when I realized how cool it was, I went looking for an additional set, but I couldn't find it,'' says the Southborough resident.
Kahn's wife, Joanne, looked into the matter, intending to give her husband the new toy as a present. She found a store in Germany that sold it, went online and purchased it.
Kahn eventually contacted the people behind Cuboro and asked them why they weren't selling their product in the United States. "They said they were too busy in Europe,'' says Kahn. "As someone who grew up in advertising and marketing, I told them, 'I think this has a market here and I'd like to try it.' ''
Though Kahn was the co-owner of another company, the idea of working in the toy industry appealed to him. "If you scratch underneath the service, I'm just a big kid in some ways,'' he admits.
The Internet also gave him a venue to start a company without making a large investment. "At that point, the Internet was mature enough so you could set up a commercially viable retail Web site without having to spend a lot of money. I could have a business without all the trappings of a brick-and-mortar retail store.''
As Kahn became more immersed in the toy business, he became more convinced that the industry needed an infusion of quality. He also believed the big box stores weren't serving children in the 4- to 10-year-old bracket particularly well.
"I wanted to give kids things that were really age appropriate, that would help them develop some of their spatial skills, their sense of cause and effect and increase their sense of wonder and experimentation,'' says Kahn.
Toys with television tie-ins weren't the solution. "Not that there's anything wrong with that,'' says Kahn. "I just thought there should be an alternative to that level of mass commercialization.''
Cuboro provided the alternative. "It fit all the things I liked, all the things I was looking for that I felt were missing,'' says Kahn, whose company would become one of Cuboro's biggest distributors in the United States. For the first few years, Cuboro products accounted for most of Oh! Toys' sales. The company, which made its debut in 2000, even supplied other U.S. retailers.
While numerous toy manufacturers produce marble runs, Cuboro makes its sets with a difference, according to Kahn. "First, they're really well made, very sturdy,'' he says. "Then there's the ecological part. They're made from harvested beechwood and the beechwood that's not used for the toys is used in the fires that dry the wood. ... I feel ecologically comfortable about the toy.
"The main thing is where most marble runs are a series of straight ramps or curved ramps, Cuboro creates a system of blocks with channels and tunnels precisely routed through them. Put any block together and you can make the marble go from one block to another. You can build as simply as you like or with as much complexity as you like.
"It seems to be a toy that grows with the kid as they age. They play with it differently at 5 then they did when they were 4.
"There are various levels of sophistication because there so many different kinds of blocks you can put together. The number of possible runs is almost infinite. It gives the kid or the adult a chance to build something, test it and try something else if it doesn't work. There's a whole cause-and-effect thing that's fascinating.
"It also has more dimension than most marble runs. The others tend to be tracks that let you do one or two things. This has much more variability.
"And they seemingly last forever. Ours have taken a lot of abuse and you can't tell the new ones from the old ones.''
Cuboro has its popular standard set and also sells supplementary sets with each one adding blocks the other sets don't have. "For people who really get into it, one set is never enough,'' says Kahn.
Oh! Toys also sells another Swiss-made marble run called Klimba. This one incorporates music into the mix with the marbles striking xylophone plates during the course of its run and making a melody. Move the plates around and the melody changes.
After attending toy fairs in New York and Nuremberg, Germany, Kahn decided to expand Oh! Toys' product line. His criteria? "What I'm looking for is something that's going to be safe,'' he says. "It also has to be nicely made. I don't want to sell any junk. And it has to have some kind of stimulation factor, some kind of creativity factor. It lets the child drive the play.
"On the safety note, once you're in the toy industry, you get a lot of requests to carry a line. I don't want to pretend that I'm so smart that I knew products from China would ultimately start being recalled, but I never saw anything coming out of the workshops there that really appealed to me.
"The tradition in Europe is such that you have a lot of toy manufacturers and inventors who are very concerned with quality, with coming up with an interesting concept, and not necessarily interested in selling to the big box stores in the United States. In many cases they don't have the resources to market over here. For me, that presents great opportunities to bring something over here that wouldn't ordinarily get here.''
Being a Web-only store, Oh! Toys doesn't have the overhead that a retail store has, Kahn notes. Its economics allow it to sell products without worrying about a big commercial push.
New products hail from Hungary, where the marble-run set is made out of plastic instead of wood; Italy, where magnets factor into construction; Japan, where different shaped blocks allow for the construction of non-traditional structures; and Austria, where wooden tops come in different shapes, patterns and colors. "One of my clients said, 'I went from thinking these were moderately expensive tops to thinking they were really inexpensive pieces of art that you got to play with,' '' says Kahn. "They make good stocking stuffers because their price point is pretty low.''
Oh! Toys plans to shortly introduce on its Web site its first American-made product. Called Quantum Blocks, the toy is the brainchild of Wayland resident David Cylkowski.
"It lets you build things that would simply not be possible with conventional blocks,'' says Kahn, who notes that the inventor is an MIT grad who now works as an architect. ``It's also beautifully made. I have a set on my coffee table and people say, `Oh, that's pretty!' and I tell them it's actually a toy.''
Oh! Toys' products range in price from $14 for its Lonpos puzzle to $239 for Klimba Maxi. Half of the company's revenue comes from the sale of the biggest Cuboro set, Cuboro Standard, which retails for $189. The company has averaged an annual revenue growth of around 20 percent, according to Kahn.
"Cuboro is establishing itself more and more here,'' he says. "Last year, Cuboro got reviewed by Kevin Kelly in his blog, Kevin's Cool Tools, and he raved about Cuboro. So from Thanksgiving to Christmas, all I did was ship Cuboros.''
Though other companies now sell Cuboro toys, they don't focus on the products as Oh! Toys does, according to Kahn. "The others will also frequently be out of stock of certain products,'' he adds. Prices are similar with Kahn calling his shipping costs "very low.''
Kahn notes that his daughters, Kayleigh and Lia, served as toy testers while growing up. Now 16 and 13, respectively, they have "other things to occupy their attention,'' he says.
Kahn, however, remains a toy enthusiast. "The fun of it is I get to be around toys all the time if I want to be and play with toys and call it work because that's research,'' he says. "It helps to be enthusiastic about the products you sell. The enthusiasm can be contagious.
"There is an adult audience for these toys. Particularly the Cuboro products seem to appeal to architects, engineers and designers because they have a strong design and aesthetic component in addition to just being fun to play with. While it's fine for solitary play, it's a great thing for young children to do with their parents and grandparents.''
In this era of high-tech toys, Kahn's company is unabashedly old school. No batteries are required for any of its toys and none of its products contains electronic components.
"I love toys,'' says Kahn, "and I love hearing back from customers about how their kids are enthralled with what we sell. I feel we're doing something good and fun at the same time.''
Bob Tremblay can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 508-626-4409.
Owner: Kenneth Kahn
Company background: Based in Southborough, Oh! Toys is an online toy company that specializes in bringing unusual toys to the United States from Europe and Asia. Its Web site is www.oh-toys.com.