Wow! The stuff of delight and darkness

Hes one of Shropshires most dynamic businessmen, co-founder and boss of a multi-award-winning international toys and games company. But its not all been childs play for innovative entrepreneur Richard North. There has been cut-throat competition and court battles, the pandemic and Brexit. Armed robbers smashed into his home and he survived a horrific car crash. His beloved brother died young. He tells Neil Thomas his inspirational story.

To bring joy to a child, to stimulate the mind of a teenager, to help along that vital part of a young person’s development – play. Imagine the job satisfaction in that!

Welcome to the world of Richard North. The Bridgnorth entrepreneur is Chief Executive and co-founder of Wow! Stuff, a company which invents toys and games.

It’s an international operation, with offices in Richard’s native Wolverhampton, Los Angeles in the USA and Hong Kong, plus manufacturing bases in the Far East.

It has sold millions of toys globally, not least thanks to brand partnerships with leading franchises including Disney, Warner Bros and Marvel. Wow! Stuff has woven a little magic into young lives with a range of Harry Potter products – including the 2019 World Toy of the Year, a wizard’s invisibility cloak.

“To have a toy sanctioned by Warner Bros and JK Rowling is something to be proud of I think,” Richard says.

Other Wow! Stuff toys and games feature famous names such as Jurassic World, Peppa Pig, the US sitcom Friends, The Gruffalo, Toy Story, The Lion King and Finding Nemo.

The company has created wealth, jobs and fulfilment. It has also brought a great deal of happiness into the world – something that has never seemed more important than during the coronavirus pandemic. Lockdowns and school closures have seen children and young people separated from friends, denied social interaction with peers and, for many with no gardens, unable even to go outdoors to play. They have had to contend with loneliness amid months of crushing boredom. Toys and games have graduated from pastime to lifeline.

And adding to the store of human happiness is still a major driving force for 54-year-old Richard, for all the material advantages of his life as a serial entrepreneur.

“I still get a kick out of the thought of children going ‘wow’ when they open one of our toys. It is one of the main things that drives us on here to invent new things to play with.”

He is just as happy at the thought of parents and grandparents yelling ‘wow’ too – Richard wants the company’s products to spellbind children, as he puts it, “from three to 83.”

  The original Harry Potter cape on display at Warner Bros. Film Studios, at Leavesden, Watford, on which the invisibility cloak was modelled.

The toy industry starts off with an advantage – playing is an integral part of growing up, so there will always be demand. However, meeting that demand, as the nature of play frequently changes, presents a major challenge.

“There will always be play; play is as old as the hills. But kids are getting older younger, if that makes sense. There is an age compression and, from toddlers to 14 and 15 year-olds, play has evolved with it. Much of it revolves around this,” he says, showing me his mobile phone. “The use of screens in play means that toys and games have necessarily become more sophisticated.

“I’m often asked ‘how do you invent a toy?’ but the fact is you don’t sit in an office and do it. Ideas can arise out of everyday conversations, or sitting in the loo or the back of a taxi. Taxi drivers in the US and UK are full of ideas. When they find out you’re in the toy industry, they can’t wait to tell you of their idea and they are always convinced they’ve got the next Monopoly or PlayStation,” Richard says with a broad smile.

“Everyone has ideas but it’s all about the execution. You have to protect your idea legally, raise the capital to get it made, choose the right manufacturer, then market it properly and hope that enough people want to buy it to make a profit.”

The launch of Wow! Stuff back in 2006 is a perfect illustration of Richard’s point. He met his co-founders, Kenny McAndrew and Graeme Taylor, at a gift fair in Harrogate.

“They were a couple of scientists who stood out like a sore thumb. They were in ripped jeans and t-shirts before they became fashionable and we hit it off straight away.

“They were selling this bathroom towel they had designed which was a bit crude and laddish but very practical. They had come up with the idea when they had to share a towel in their university flat.

Richard and Dave the Monkey

I asked how many they had sold and they said 2,000. I thought that sounded quite good, imagining that was over the three days of the fair. Then I found out that was actually over three years.

“I thought I could bring my entrepreneurial skills to the product so got involved and we sold 10,000 in a week. It is our original best seller, has been featured on a British TV sitcom, has decorated the interior of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and was in an indie film, called Made in China, with Hollywood actor Matthew McConaughey.

“But Kenny and Graeme had lots of other product inventions written down in something they called their ‘Book of Truth’,” Richard says with a smile. “We had plenty to go at.”

Richard has developed his skills for business and innovation over 35 years, since leaving Regis school in Wolverhampton.

“I enjoyed sixth form but hadn’t much idea of what I wanted to do afterwards. I was dyslexic which didn’t help academically. I did have two talents though – I was a world class shooter and a black belt in karate!”

Aged 19, he wandered into the factory of Barnett International, the crossbow company, and asked for a job. Bernard Barnett had started in his garage in 1962 and built up an international company with huge sales in America.

“He’d also invented a toy crossbow that fired rubber tipped bolts, which was an introduction for me to toys. They were very interested that I was a world class shooter and decided they could use me in the company,” Richard recalls.

He learnt hugely from his association with Barnett. “He was a charismatic man, a great inventor and brilliant businessman who got people interested in crossbows as a sport.”

Richard aged 22

Older readers will recall a TV game show called The Golden Shot, which ran on ITV from 1967 to 1975, hosted predominantly by Bob Monkhouse. Contestants had to guide a crossbow at a target, in a format that reflected the growing interest in the sport that Barnett helped to foster.

“You might remember that the crossbow was loaded by a fictional character called Bernie the Bolt – the Bernie was based on Bernard Barnett,” Richard explains.

“I’ve been lucky enough to meet some dynamic businessmen over the years including Richard Branson and John Caudwell and Bernard Barnett is right up there with them.”

An inspired Richard launched his own e-commerce business in the late 1990s. “I was selling big boys’ toys – gifts and gadgets aimed at men aged 18 to 34, readers of magazines like FHM and Loaded, in which I used to advertise.”

So successful was the business that he received several attractive offers for it, to the extent that he was able to sell components off separately.

“I’m a serial entrepreneur and that was the company that set me up,” he says.

Wow! Stuff has been a huge success, from the moment its remote-controlled robotic monkey called Dave proved a smash hit. Its second blockbuster invention was Airswimmers, a remote-controlled helium filled balloon, in the shapes of a shark and a clownfish, measuring 4ft long. It sold 500,000 in 2011 alone.

“We also created a robot called MyKeepon which appeared on the front cover of Bloomberg magazine with the title of ‘small British toy company to disrupt $80 billion toy industry’. And there was our six-legged dart firing robot which we licensed to a big and brilliant toy company called Hasbro,” Richard recalls.

MyKeepon, a sound and touch sensitive robot that put Wow! Stuff on the map in the USA. It featured on the front cover of Bloomberg’s magazine.

Within two years of its launch, Wow! Stuff was making spin-off games and toys for Mensa, The Science Museum and The Natural History Museum.

Within four years it was winning industry innovation awards including ‘Best Toys and Gifts Range’ at the European Licensing Awards for the BBC’s Top Gear brand. Its demonstration team was by then top trader at several major toy stores in Europe.

Within five years of that first meeting in Harrogate, the trio had sold more than two million of their crude but practical bath towels.

The company won a Virgin Fast Track 100 award and Richard was featured on the TV show Secret Millionaire about the philanthropic wealthy.

Wow! Stuff’s 15-year history has also seen its share of bumps in the road.

“One of the problems in the toy industry is that you get copied a lot,” Richard explains. “We hired lawyers to protect our inventions but 2013 to 2015 were weird years when we spent nearly all our money, and lots of our energy, on fighting the forgeries.

“In our spare time we invented a super cool race car set called Real FX only for a company with a Silicon Valley investment of $275m to try to stop us selling it in America. We fought back against them and also launched a Fight the Fakes campaign.

Real FX – the centre of a major row in the USA

“And we won! The Royal Courts of Justice in England stood by our patents for Airswimmers and awarded us damages, although by now most of the hundreds of imposters had made their money, closed shop and gone on holiday. But we still celebrated our victory. Also, the company that didn’t want our Real FX race car set in America closed down.

“By 2016 it meant we could start getting back to innovating and re-energising.”

In 2018, Wow! Stuff signed a big deal with Warner Bros and launched a raft of Harry Potter toys, including a Mystery Flying Snitch that sold over 30,000 pieces from just one shop in one year.

The company also won Demonstration Team of the Year for the fourth time at one of the world’s great toy shops, Hamley’s in London’s Regent Street.

Like many businesses, Wow! Stuff has had to deal with the disruptions of Covid-19 and Brexit. It has risen to the challenge of the pandemic, launching the world’s first home printable face masks. The company’s scientists have devised the technology for young people to create their own masks using any image from a smartphone or other device. The kits – fully tested to meet World Health Organization guidelines for barrier masks and AFNOR (the international standards agency) guidance on filtration and breathability – were aimed at encouraging young children and young people to feel less self-conscious about wearing masks by moving away from the clinical look.

“In fact, in 2020 50 per cent of our toy company made PPE (Personal Protective Equipment). We were looking to meet demand and support the NHS rather than make profits out of it,” Richard adds. “Toys have to go through stringent safety testing for children so there is already a synergy with protective equipment.”

Richard with wife Karen and daughter Josie who co-created we the ‘world’s first home printable facemark’ and raised £10,000 for the NHS and various small charities last year.

Though he has missed foreign travel – particularly to the USA and Germany – Richard admits he has enjoyed the switch to more home working over the past 12 months.

“I’ve never liked the 9 to 5 routine. As long as the work gets done, it doesn’t matter when. I think people will still get together for the odd meeting but day to day work in an office might well be a thing of the past.”

An added bonus has been more time spent with the family. Wife Karen has been a huge support as Richard built up the business and 23-year-old daughter Josie is a talented member of Wow! Stuff’s development team. Son Harry, 21, is reading psychology at Birmingham University and wants to go into the music industry, 19-year-old daughter Jen is a singer-songwriter and Georgina, who is 14, is at school. They are a close-knit family and all will pitch in to help with the business, such as when there was an emergency communication issue involving a new game one Christmas Day.

The next big challenge for the company is dealing with Brexit, which is already creating ‘red tape’ problems not only for the food and fishing industries but for firms like Wow! Stuff, who manufacture in the Far East and sell across Europe.

“These aren’t teething troubles, as ministers keep saying. It has added to our costs and it could be at least a year before we get it sorted out.”

Wow! Stuff’s 2020 launch of Peppa Pig in Europe saw Richard set up an initiative with a friend called Toy Aid. It raised £150,000 for small charities in the UK

When you consider it can take four years to return a profit on a new toy – during which you can be losing between £200,000 and £2million a year on it – Brexit is an added challenge Wow! Stuff could do without. Still, you feel Richard will take it in his stride, for one quality he is not short of is a sense of perspective, shaped partly by life-changing personal events.

His brother Jonathan – four years older – suffered a stroke at the age of five which left him disabled.

“He was super cool and learnt to drive and build car engines with my Dad and his friends. I knew, though, because his brain had been damaged by his stroke I would likely have to look after him when he was older so that was a motivator for me to make money. He very sadly passed away at 28 from a brain aneurism in March ‘92.

“He was really proud of what I was achieving. He probably never really knew how proud I was of him, for how he had to battle against discrimination for being disabled and bullying throughout his school years,” Richard reflects.

In 2007, the family home was smashed into by a particularly vicious gang, who robbed Richard and Karen at knifepoint, while the children slept upstairs.

Richard, with his karate skills, was ready to fight back, even though they were masked and screaming death threats.

“Initially there were three of them. They were yelling at me and I was shouting back. I was pretty angry. But then it became clear that there were nine of them altogether so there was no chance.”

In this case, crime didn’t pay. The villains, who had targeted a series of wealthy households in Wolverhampton, were rounded up and heavy prison sentences handed down.

The terrifying ordeal, though, prompted the North family to move out of Wolverhampton to Bridgnorth.

“I’ve managed to overcome it psychologically but, even after 14 years, it still affects my wife,” he says softly.

Richard’s approach to life, though, was defined by another horrifying experience, this time at Compton, in the suburbs of Wolverhampton, 20 years ago.

His Porsche Boxster soft top skidded out of control on an oil spill and crashed into a lamppost. Richard was trapped in his vehicle and a fire crew were set to amputate his legs in a last ditch bid to save his life.

“I had broken both legs and my pelvis and had internal injuries. I was conscious but in severe pain. They thought I was going to die,” Richard explains.

“I could feel myself drifting into unconsciousness and convinced I was about to take my last breath. I started counting from 10 down to zero to keep myself conscious then, when I got to zero, I started all over again.”

Meanwhile a well-built firefighter, with a mighty roar ripped away the mangled metal that had pinned Richard down and pulled him out just as the amputation was about to start.

Lying in hospital, he feared the rest of his life could be in a wheelchair.

“A doctor told me he would get me walking within six weeks. I held onto that thought; he got me to believe it would happen and, sure enough, within a few weeks I was walking with the help of a frame.”

Richard took up swimming to build up his strength further and gradually his health and fitness returned.

“I made a full recovery, thanks to our wonderful NHS and my amazing wife. There was a time in the early days when Karen had to do everything for me, even wipe my backside. She is fantastic,” Richard says, his voice breaking with emotion.

He is grateful to be here to tell the tale, and tell it he does in a bid to help others.

Richard North in a publicity shot for the Secret Millionaire

“If ever you are in a situation that you feel is impossible, hold that thought and say you’ll go 10 more seconds. When you’ve counted down to zero, try 10 more seconds. Repeat this until you are out of the situation. For me, 10 seconds was two hours! But it worked,” he adds with a gentle smile.

Richard North has clearly, like all of us, had to confront demons in his life, but in our 90-minute zoom interview he laughs and jokes a great deal. It doesn’t surprise me to learn that he’s the one who writes the offbeat comic copy for Wow’s website.

He clearly has a great sense of humour. And that’s probably what you’d expect of a man whose toys and games put smiles on millions of faces.


On Key

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