On his 10th birthday, Adam Carson received a box of Geomags - magnetic rods and spheres that can be constructed into buildings, cars, monsters and more.
He loved them.
His parents loved them.
"We got hooked on them," recalled mom, Karen Carson of Elkhorn.
The family wanted more Geomags.
But they couldn't find a store that carried the Swiss-made construction toy.
The Carsons expanded their search online and still had trouble. Ultimately they found and ordered the toy from its manufacturer.
During this search, Adam had a brainstorm:
Hey Dad, you ought to build a Web site to sell these.
So began the story of Fat Brain Toys, an independent toy distribution company - and now toy developer - in Elkhorn.
Mark and Karen Carson had long toyed with the idea of starting a business. But it was son Adam's passion for Geomags that made the Carsons ask themselves in 2002: How many other great, creative, quality toys are kids missing out on because they are not mass produced and nationally distributed through the big stores?
They started by selling and shipping Geomags out of the basement of their Elkhorn home.
Eventually they added other little-known specialty toys and expanded their operations into the family garage.
Today, a 40,000-square-foot warehouse in Omaha holds 6,000 educational, thought-provoking and creativity-inspiring toys.
Fat Brain Toys ships all over the United States and to 150 countries. (Their Web site, FatBrainToys.com, shows you to where and what they have shipped in their last 150 orders).
In September 2008, they opened a Fat Brain Toys retail store with another 1,600 toys in Village Point South, at 168th and Dodge streets in Omaha. The brightly lit store invites kids - and adults - to play, explore and sample the toys before buying.
Their mission and motto: to offer toys with "true value" for the child - "open-ended" toys that intrigue, inspire and help children grow developmentally, intellectually, emotionally and creatively. Most of their toys are made by smaller, independent companies.
"Our mission is not to compete (with other stores). We want to offer alternatives," Mark said.
Fat Brain Toys has very few of the licensed and mass-produced plastic toys you find in most discount and chain stores.
"Early on we said licenses are just overused," Mark said.
Manufacturers too often slap on a picture of a popular character like Spider-Man or SpongeBob and turn a mediocre toy into a best-seller, Karen said.
"Our focus is toys that have inherent play value and do not depend on a character to sell it," Mark said.
Online distribution is the foundation of Fat Brain Toys.
However, the Carsons, who have played with and child-tested thousands of cool toys over the past seven years, have embarked on their own toy creating venture: Fat Brain Toy Co.
Their first toy, Dado Cubes, colorful plastic building cubes with slits in the sides, have received wide acclaim. They are in the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art's catalog and have reaped many national toy awards over the past three years, including the 2008 Toy of the Year Award Creative Child Magazine, Dr. Toy Top 20 Best Children's Products 2007 and the National Parenting Center Seal of
Approval in 2007.
"Mark designed it at the kitchen table," Karen said.
Its spin-off, Dado Squares, flat squares with the same slit for three-dimensional construction, received seven national toy honors in 2008 from Dr. Toy, the National Parenting Association and organizations representing gifted children and early childhood education.
And Fat Brain Toys does not just rely on the Carsons and their base of imaginative employees to come up with great toys. The company searches the globe for other ingenious toy creations that simply have not caught the eye of big toy producers.
Just in time for the holidays, Fat Brain Toy Co. has released three new toys: AnimaLogic, a problem-solving puzzle; Tri-Spy, a board game of patterns and concentration; and Brain Food, colorful putty that Mark describes as "putty for your hands ... a playground for your mind."
The Carsons are very picky about what they stock and sell.
"We test almost every product that comes in," Karen said.
Her "we" is a collective that includes their three children: Adam, now 17; Makenzie, 12; and Jenna, 10. It also includes their employees' children and reviews from customers, which are posted on the company Web site.
"If we see a trend of something not holding up, that product is pulled," Karen said. "We always want quality."
Added Mark, "If a toy is not a value to our customer, we don't want to waste our time with it."
Reach Erin Andersen at 473-7217 or firstname.lastname@example.org.