July 25, 2014

We talk a lot about how inventors have to think outside the box. But in this case, it’s all about thinking outside the brick. Although it’s now a global powerhouse now, Lego’s iconic look comes from humble beginnings.

The story started when a failed carpenter – Ole Kirk Kristiansen – who couldn’t get enough wood to make furniture, started using scraps of wood to make toys. Eventually, he invested in an injection molding machine to make plastic toys. The move caused his two older sons to quit the family business, believing that making plastic toys was the wrong direction to take the company in.

Lego patented the plastic brick in 1958, but in the mid 1990s, they were challenged, like many other companies, by the virtual world.

David Robertson, is a Wharton professor and author of “Brick by Brick.” He says the company made a few missteps during this period.

Lego, afraid of the coming digital disruption, put the pressure on designers to focus on the "next great play experience" and it made them stray too far from what they did best. Through the tough period, they learned, almost by accident, that they didn't need to come up with a new, technologically-advanced toy.

It turned out that the most popular items during these tough years were Lego Star Wars & Lego Harry Potter – products that had stories attached to them. But those products were only really hits in years when accompanying movies came out – which left plenty of dry years.

Lego’s story almost ended in 2003, when they teetered on the edge of bankruptcy. But they remained true to the core of their business – the brick – and developed stories and partnerships around the bricks themselves. “You have to have some way of really grabbing attention and so Lego licenses Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Lego Simpsons, and these other properties because they want to tell different stories around the brick,” says Robertson. “The Lego Movie is just the next evolution of that.”

Today, the company even produces sets based on ideas from fans. The Lego version of the Ghostbusters vehicle & the DeLorean time machine from Back to the Future are both examples of this.


David Robertson, Business, toys, Lego

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