How Two Middle-Aged Dads Invented Germany's Hottest Toy
Patric Fassbender and Marcus Stahl are struggling to keep up with demand for their 'Toniebox' devices, which are now set to break into the English-speaking market.
DUSSELDORF — Bobo's Trip to the Playground. The Adventures of Dr. Brumm and his Goldfish. Liliane Susewind. The Little Owl ...
At the Media Markt in Hamburg-Nedderfeld, there are meters and meters of shelves filled with little figures with cute names and story titles. With Christmas around the corner, the consumer electronics store has devoted an entire aisle to this army of new childhood heroes and the playback devices that go with them.
This device isn't the latest Sony or Nintendo console, but the after-work invention of two industry laymen from Düsseldorf. It's a Toniebox, a colorfully padded cube with two rubber ears. Just place a playing figure on the box, and it begins to tell its story. That's it. No touch display, no Bluetooth, no "Alexa." And it's precisely this lack of technical fuss that seems to make the product so attractive to hundreds of thousands of children and parents in Germany.
Behind this inconspicuous box is also an amazing founding story. It began six or seven years ago, in a daycare center in Düsseldorf. There, two fathers got to know each other: Patric Fassbender and Marcus Stahl. Fassbender, 48, is a graphic designer. Stahl is an engineer and 51. Both have two children.
The two men quickly became friends and would often talk about the joys of fatherhood. But they also harped on some of the annoying aspects of being a dad, like the fact that their children's story CDs were always lying all over the place and invariably ended up scratched.
They had found a gap in the market.
Fassbender and Stahl both belong to the cassette-tape generation. They grew up with tangled tape and the dull sound of cassette-tapes. Today's children, they thought, should have it better. But the digital age brings problems with it.
"I didn't want CDs lying around all over the place. But I also didn't want any displays in the children's bedroom. After all, the children were supposed to listen and keep on playing at the same time, not stare at any screen," Fassbender says, describing what he had in mind at the time.
After a long search, he came to the conclusion that they had found a gap in the market. What he wanted for his children obviously didn't exist. "That surprised me," he says.
Figuring there must be other parents looking for something similar, the graphic designer collected his thoughts and began his first sketches. Then he got his friend, the engineer, on board and the pair discussed technical hurdles and marketing ideas.
Five years ago, they founded a company, Boxine. "It seemed a bit strange to us, becoming start-up entrepreneurs at our ages," says Stahl with a grin.
Now, even though it doesn't look like it at first glance, they are the owners of a rapidly growing company with over 90 employees and sales in the double-digit millions. The company is based in a backyard building in downtown Düsseldorf. The two founders seem as relaxed and boyish as if they were just picking up their children from the nursery. Fassbender wears a baseball cap and sneakers, Stahl a polo shirt with a Norwegian flag. They pour the filter coffee themselves. The champagne bottles on the shelf look as if they have been standing there for quite some time.
And yet, there have been plenty of occasions in recent times to crack one or the other bottle open. Since they brought the first Toniebox into a store — in October 2016 after three years of development and licensing negotiations — they have been experiencing a true Christmas miracle with their invention. "Booksellers and toy shops showed great interest right from the start," they say.
What is it about these pale blue, lime green or pink boxes that people are so enthusiastic about?
When they presented their box for the first time at a toy fair, it was an instant celebration. That enthusiasm was shared by the customers. In the first three months, they were already selling 30,000 Tonieboxes. The following year, five times as many were sold.
The founders, they soon realized, hadn't been optimistic enough. The Christmas business hadn't even started yet, but the phones in the backyard in Düsseldorf kept on ringing. Retailers from all over the country were desperate to order new boxes. By October 2017, they were already sold out.
When Fassbender and Stahl were finally able to deliver again this spring, they were once again taken by surprise by the Easter business. On a single day, 30,000 new boxes were activated. By the end of this year, according to their forecast, they will have sold 600,000 Tonieboxes. But considering how accurate their estimations have been so far, it could also be a few hundred thousand more.
So what is it about these pale blue, lime green or pink boxes — costing around 100 euros — that people are so enthusiastic about? "The development of products for children is often thought out in a parent-like approach," says Fassbender. "Most devices will have play and fast-forward buttons just like those of adults."
Instead, the inventors of the Toniebox tried to free themselves from ready-made solutions and to think like children. It led to funny ideas. If you tilt the box to the side, you can fast-forward. Tap the sides and you can jump to the next chapter. Of course, the product also contains a lot of technology: a near-field communication (NFC) chip for communication between the figures and the box, robust motion sensors, and a cloud architecture in the background. The genius of Fassbender and Stahl is that you don't really notice any of it.
For small children, it's a wonder box with a seemingly inexhaustible treasure trove of stories. From an entrepreneurial point of view, it's a closed system with growing added value. Whoever has the box also wants the figures (called Tonies) that contain the stories. There are, in Germany, currently 150 different Tonie figures to choose from. And uncles, aunts and grandparents like to give new ones as a gift for every occasion. According to the inventors, the average child has 10 figures with his box.
If all goes well, their invention will make Fassbender and Stahl millionaires within a few years.
Each figure costs at least 15 euros, but most cost more. And Fassbender and Stahl are working eagerly with publishers and authors to produce new audio content. "Something to laugh about, music, knowledge — it's a huge playground," says Stahl, happy as a child.
Although it's been on the market for less than three years, the company has exceeded the threshold of 50 million euros in turnover this year. And the Toniebox started selling in Great Britain just a few weeks ago, starting with 15 Tonies in English. If the product is also successful there, then the entire English-speaking region will be open to the start-up company. Or, in other words, the world.
If all goes well, their invention will make Fassbender and Stahl millionaires within a few years. That should also be clear to them. Nevertheless, the two seem pleased, but at the same time somehow nonplussed. Their ambitions are limited, which is unusual for start-up founders.
Although they could probably sell everything associated with the Tonie brand at the moment, the cautious expansion of the product range seems practically oriented. A storage box for the figures, a small stand to line them up. Maybe there will even be a Tonie backpack or headphones in the future.
But despite their new status, the two inventors still look like the fathers they were all those years ago, chatting at the daycare center. Except they're now even prouder, because they've built their own toys for their children.
"It's a great feeling to do something your children understand and like," they say with bright eyes. "To produce something that someone will find in the attic a few decades later and then thinks back to the happy moments of their childhood," says Stahl with a pensive look. "You can't really achieve more than that."