Amelia Island resident Mike Bowling says self-made obstacles ground many an invention.
By Dan Macdonald, Contributing Writer
Mike Bowling, the creator of Pound Puppies, one of the best-selling toys in the mid-1980s, contends that self-doubt is all that might keep an idea from becoming the next big thing.
“The greatest ideas on Earth will never be invented,” the Amelia Island resident told the Southside Business Men’s Club on May 8.
People with great ideas allow excuses and self-made obstacles to ground many an invention, he said.
Bowling’s career began in Cincinnati where he was an 18-year Ford assembly line employee. The pay was good, he had seniority and medical benefits.
He disliked the job.
While driving with his young daughter, he became fascinated at how attached she was to her doll. She took it everywhere. To her it was real.
Bowling began thinking about the strength of that attachment, comparing it to that of a person and pet.
The idea for Pound Puppies was born.
Bowling had no money, no experience and no directional map to success. He hired a patent attorney and toy consultant.
“You can’t sell an idea,” Bowling said, “but you can sell a patent, a copyright and a trademark.”
He found craftspeople to create a professional prototype based on the floppy-eared stuffed dog he made and sold to fellow workers at the Ford plant. It featured droopy, expressive eyes.
By the way, one of his first handmade Pound Puppies recently sold for $5,000.
Even with a professionally crafted toy with packaging that looked like a dog carrier from the pound, the idea was rejected by 14 toy companies before Irwin Toy in Canada bought the licensing in 1984.
A year later, the Tonka company, wanting to expand its brand past toy trucks, bought the U.S. rights.
When Irwin Toy bought the rights, Bowling was $85,000 in debt. One of the greatest joys of his new career was depositing that first check and paying every one of his creditors, he said.
Pound Puppies has been identified as the first truly unisex toy, Bowling said, with girls making up 60% of the sales and boys being the other 40%.
In 1985, more than 2.5 million puppies were sold, according to the mentalfloss.com fact and trivia site. That led to the Pound Puppies animated series on TV.
Pound Puppies made Time magazine’s “All-Time 100 Greatest Toys” list.
Health issues in 2011 prompted Bowling to sell his ownership of the Pound Puppies brand to Hasbro. He retains a relationship with Hasbro and its partner, Basic Fun!, as a consultant and creator.
Bowling declined to say what he was paid and said that as part of the deal he could not disclose the price.
In 1993, Bowling was looking for a vacation home near the ocean. Over 30 days he traveled throughout Florida’s West coast and north on Interstate 95 throughout Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas.
He reached Amelia Island the first week in May, unknowingly arriving at the time of annual Isle of Eight Flags Shrimp Festival. He had found his new home.
“I realized I can do my business anywhere. Why not move here and live in paradise all year long?” he said.
At 69, he could retire to his oceanfront home. Instead, he has an office near the Fernandina Beach Municipal Airport where he continues to oversee quality control and work on new toy ideas.
His latest is Splashlings, a world of tiny mermaids that live in seashells.
This September in time for the holidays, Pound Puppies will be reintroduced in Target and on Amazon.com so that parents who grew up with the brand can buy some for their children.
After the speech, Bowling sat for an interview. These are edited excerpts.
Because plush toys existed, how did you get past the notion that your idea wasn’t totally original?
There were plenty of plush dogs in the marketplace at the time. What I did was create my own identity within the category. My marketing and the name were what it was all about. They were Pound Puppies. They had an identity without having an identity. It didn’t have an identity until the child picked it out, brought it home. It came from a place, the pound.
Why did you choose not to give each puppy a name and a backstory?
The child determined that. If you had two identical Pound Puppies, white, long-eared Pound Puppies on the shelf, a boy could come up and pick it and call it Spike and a girl could pick it and call it Susie and it would take on her personality. Other companies I have worked with have wanted to create breed-specific dogs and give them a name. You can’t do that and succeed.
Your idea was rejected by 14 toy companies. Talk about the importance of perseverance.
I was determined from the start for this to succeed, even if I had to make some handmade ones myself and build them slowly to become a craze. Remember the Cabbage Patch doll? It was a craze before it hit the toy market. Everyone was going to Georgia to get one from the “hospital.” It was slow rolling and kept going and going. Had all the toy companies turned me down, I would have made my own and built it that way.
Most of the toy companies that turned me down did so strictly as a marketing decision. They weren’t looking for a plush toy that year. They might have already had a plush toy they were ready to introduce.
You have a child with cerebral palsy. With Ford, you had medical insurance. How did you make the decision to give up that security to pursue this dream?
In order for me to provide for my daughter, I saw this as my opportunity to succeed and get out of the factory and be able to take care of her in any way, shape or form. It has proven to be true. I never worried about me being able to make a living. (At Ford) I had seniority, benefits and a weekly paycheck. A lot of people don’t pursue ideas because of that.
Talk about your early success.
I remember the biggest rush of enjoyment I got out of inventing Pound Puppies. I licensed it first in Canada in 1984. After it was just in the marketplace, I went to Canada for a business meeting and on the way home I was in the airport and across from me was a little girl with a Pound Puppy. It was the first one I had ever seen in the marketplace. I sat quietly watching her love on it and hug on it. That is such an experience to have an idea, go through the struggles to get your idea out there and watching a child play with it.
Was there ever seller’s remorse after selling to Hasbro in 2011?
Yes, until I decided to get back in the toy business (with Splashlings). It was my baby. I’m glad to say that Hasbro has licensed Pound Puppies to a partner company, Basic Fun! I am working with them as a consultant now on the relaunch so that it is relaunched correctly. The creative part is the part that I love.
You acquired $85,000 in debt. How did you get people to invest in your dream and promise that they’d eventually get their money?
It was a combination of people. Box manufacturers and seamstresses, they wanted their money. I am talking about the bigger piece of the pie – my lawyers. I had convinced them that it was a great idea, so they hung in there with me. I was not (my lawyer) Greg Lunn’s biggest client by any means. However, I ran up $24,000 in legal bills and in 1984 that was a lot of money.
How has marketing a toy changed from the initial introduction of Pound Puppies to marketing Splashlings?
It’s very tough in this day and age. We were the No. 2 best-selling toy (in the small doll/collectible category) in Toys R Us and then they went away. That hurt in a big way. When I started in 1984, the Toy Fair in New York lasted two weeks because all the buyers went through. Now it’s just three days and that is because Walmart and Target control 80% of the business. If you are not inside them, you are in trouble as far as being able to have market share.
A certain generation has its Pound Puppy stories. Do you ever tire of them?
That is one of the biggest enjoyments I get now is the many, many, many stories. A gentleman here today told me that he was driving his family on a vacation out West and when they got to Lake City, his daughter realized that she had forgotten her Pound Puppy. He had to turn around and drive back to Jacksonville to get her puppy. She wasn’t going to go on vacation without her Pound Puppy. That’s how much it meant to her.