Entrepreneurs

Fingerlings are selling out everywhere—here's how a 28-year-old engineered the viral toy frenzy

A $14.99 toy hardly bigger than your finger has the retail world worked up to a fever pitch.

This holiday season, droves of parents have been on the search for Fingerlings — toy monkeys, unicorns and sloths that cling to your fingers and react to touch and sound by blinking and blowing kisses.

Each time retailers get more in stock, they're swiftly cleaned out.

At Toys R Us, Fingerlings sold out online and they "essentially evaporate from our shelves," a spokesperson tells CNBC Make It, with "customers lined up outside our stores in the wee early morning hours hoping to get their hands on one." They expect the same to happen when they re-stock Fingerlings on Sunday, Dec. 17, with limited inventory.

Fingerlings have also been a best-seller on Amazon. They sold out of its retail selection this holiday season "very quickly," a spokesperson says.

At eBay, one Fingerling was being bought every minute the week ending Nov. 1, the company tells CNBC.

And when you can find a Fingerling, third party-sellers on eBay and Amazon charge three to four times the item's original price, The New York Times reports.

Though WowWee, the 80-employee robotics business behind the toy, tells CNBC Make It shoppers shouldn't worry — there is more inventory coming — this craze is what the company was hoping for.

WowWee set out to create a viral toy, and it all started with Sydney Wiseman, a 28-year-old brand manager at the family-run business founded by her uncles, Peter and Richard Yanofsky.

"Our days are spent literally surfing online seeing things that we look at that have that viral potential," Wiseman tells CNBC Make It.

The central idea to the strategy is that things that are attracting buzz online are likely to catch on with consumers.

"When things get shared all the time ... that means there is something there that resonates with a larger audience. So we're always looking for those types of things that we can really play on — no pun intended," she explains.

About 18 months ago, Wiseman came across such a thing — a photo of a tiny, furry monkey hanging onto someone's finger, which was circulating on Facebook.

It set her imagination to work. She began to think, "What would that mean if we turned it into something for a child?"

She turned to her co-workers and asked, "Look at this! Is this a toy?

"Everyone is looking, 'Yeah this is a toy! This is a toy!'" she says. "Then 18 months later, we had these guys," she says, holding up a Fingerling.

Building a Fingerling

Though the small toys are literally child's play, Fingerlings are rather sophisticated mini robots — and months of work were required to go from snapshot to product.

It began with a sketch of what the creatures might look like. Wiseman sent her ideas to Benny Dongarra, the lead art director behind Fingerlings.

"I probably redraw the item three to four times before we have something that everyone is on board with," Dongarra says of the weeks it takes to get it right. That means designing for, "sometimes hours, sometimes days," Wiseman says, adding that Dongarra would often take work home, "depending on the feedback given at each step from internal teams."

An early sketch of the Fingerlings concept.
WowWee | Benny Dongarra
An early sketch of the Fingerlings concept.

There was a lot of feedback to consider. Should the toys be true-to-life in shades of brown and black, or bright and bold?

And "the fur of the monkey was crucial," says Davin Sufer, the chief technology officer of WowWee. "Should it be a tuft at the top? Is it a Mohawk? How large or small?" he says they asked.

Months were spent on engineering, working to fit sophisticated technology into a toy the size of a child's hand at a price point parents could afford.

"Just the touch interaction for example, that is very similar to the touch interface you have in your smart phone," Sufer says. "The idea of being able to touch a screen and hit a button, [it's] similar technology to activate touch in our Fingerlings."

When you touch them, Fingerlings have over 40 different sounds and animations, including singing, and they do things like blink and burp. If you're holding the Fingerling upside down, it reacts to touch differently than if it were right side up.

Fingerlings also have a microphone to sense sound, paired with software that filters out background noise, so they know to react to signals like clapping or the blowing of a kiss.

They have one motion sensor that knows when you're rocking or shaking the Fingerling, and another can tell the Fingerling's orientation to put it to sleep. Still different mechanics make the eyes move.

The team paid attention to every detail. For example, they gave the sloth Fingerling, an exclusive product for Walmart, a slower motor in its head and slower sound effects to make him seem more lazy.

The software, designs, circuits and animations for Fingerlings are all proprietary to WowWee, Sufer says, and were built from scratch for the toy.

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Dan Kitwood | Getty Images

And at an affordable price point. "We worked hard to hit the $14.99," Sufer says. (According to The New York Times, the toy was originally intended to be sold for $20, but Walmart — known for price cutting— negotiated the price lower.)

"From start to finish, it probably took almost nine to 12 months," Sufer says.

The Fingerling frenzy

Fingerlings finally launched in the spring of 2017 in the UK and Canada, and were met with a welcome reception by consumers. Then came the launch in the finicky U.S. market on Aug. 11, on what WowWee calls "Fingerlings Friday."

The company — which has cultivated a relationship with toy retailers over decades through other products like Robosapien, a standing robot that raps and does Kung Fu — prepared an extensive marketing campaign.

"We had tons of influencers, we had these banana pinatas that influencers bashed open and it was called an unbashing instead of an unboxing," Wiseman explains, referring to the hugely popular trend of YouTube celebrities revealing new toys through videos.

One such influencer, Jayden Bartels, has over 400,000 subscribers on YouTube and 1.2 million followers on Instagram. Her post showing the banana pinata and Fingerlings on Aug. 11 has over 86,000 views on YouTube and 100,000 views on Instagram.

In a different YouTube video — with over 700,000 views — two girls smash open the banana pinata filled with Fingerlings on a playground.

With just those two examples, Fingerlings were seen almost 1 million times online.

"Really every element of the Fingerlings launch was super creative and super different, and very on trend," says Wiseman.

WowWee also created exclusive products for major retailers: a glitter covered, sparkly monkey for Amazon, a sloth for Walmart and a unicorn for Toys R Us, all picked to match trends.

"We don't go [with] the typical dog or bunny or mouse. We really wanted to think more aspiration, and what's really trending," she explains. "Back to the whole viral video thing. What videos go viral online probably make for a really cute Fingerlings character."

The efforts paid off.

"Our first week ... it was crazy," she says. "That first Friday through the whole next week was like 'Whoa! Okay, this is something we never thought would be this ginormous.'"

Because of the demand, WowWee had to start shipping the toys by plane because container ships were too slow. The company added a third Chinese production factory this fall, according to The Times.

But with such huge success came problems.

In October, WowWee filed a federal lawsuit against 165 sellers of counterfeit Fingerlings. In November, a judge granted a temporary restraining order to freeze the counterfeiters' assets and storefronts. (WowWee has created how-to guides for finding authorized retailers, and says product from third-party retailers operating on platforms like Amazon and Walmart isn't guaranteed to be authentic.)

Third-party sellers have the toy listed for over $30, which could be online shopping bots at work, software that buys up new product as it is relisted, to then be sold for more, according to The New York Times.

And despite the product's popularity, Wiseman still gets nervous jitters.

"Until the day after Christmas I'm still probably going to hold my breath, even though everything has been great so far," she laughs. "Christmas morning I just want to see all the positive reviews and kids happy with their Fingerlings."

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