It’s a romantic notion: the lone inventor in the garage or basement, testing and refining their ideas into a brand-new invention. These days, they say the very idea of a Thomas Edison or Alexander Graham Bell is just a fantastic myth—but one local Peorian might say otherwise. His creation may not change the world, but it’s a fascinating success story of persistence and innovation nonetheless.
In the March 2018 issue of Entrepreneur magazine, an article about the comeback of a beloved toymaking company featured this prominent central Illinois connection. John Hinnen, a lifelong tinkerer from Peoria, had landed a deal with Wham-O to distribute one of his own creations worldwide.
You know Wham-O—they were responsible for creating the Frisbee, the Hula Hoop, the Slip 'N Slide, the Superball, the Hacky Sack and more. But following these extraordinary successes, the company spent many years in the wilderness, uncertain of its place in a rapidly changing world. Under new leadership, however, Wham-O renewed its practice of accepting product ideas from the general public—and with that injection of grass-roots entrepreneurship, found its business revitalized.
John Hinnen had designed toys and other products out of his parents’ garage for years, experiencing some modest successes, but never that big breakthrough. He eventually took a job at the Diamond-Star Motors plant in Bloomington-Normal—but never lost his passion to create, filling sketchbooks with design concepts in his spare time.
When the auto plant closed in 2015, Hinnen returned to those ideas. A scene in the movie Elf provided the “aha moment” for what became the Snow Slugger—a snowball-making, launching and batting device. Having learned of Wham-O’s revived open-submission practice, Hinnen sent off an email and to his surprise, his idea was embraced. Today, in addition to the fall release of the Snow Slugger product, Hinnen is about to release another unique toy, the Bandit Ball, manufactured right here in central Illinois.
First of all, what is the current status of the Snow Slugger?
It will be marketed by Wham-O as a part of their Arctic Force winter product line beginning this fall. The title “Snow Slugger” is what I had named the concept when I pitched it to them early in 2017. After running into a trademark issue, Wham-O decided not to try for that name. The product will still be out this fall, but I don't know what they will call it. I have a good relationship with Wham-O and am very fortunate that they chose my product to feature in their Entrepreneur article. It will also be mentioned in an upcoming book being written about Wham-O’s 70th anniversary. The concept is licensed on a royalty basis, so we will see if I ever make any money. Hope so!
What initially prompted you to email Wham-O? How did the pitch process work?
I had a toy agent (since retired) pitch them a couple of other concepts previously. Within the past couple of years, Wham-O has begun reviewing product concepts from individual inventors like myself. If you go to their website, there is a “Have an Idea?” tab. I learned of this in late 2016 and decided to pitch the snow bat concept to them. They have a cool line of snow sleds, etc. and have marketed snowball slinging and shooting toys in the past.
The pitch process went through the steps of email, sketches and narrative, photos of a model, photos and video of a prototype, and actually sending them the prototype. They moved on the idea fairly quickly and offered a preliminary contract. Then it was back and forth, with my attorney’s assistance, to get something that would work for both sides. I’ve not personally met any of the folks at Wham-O. On top of a slew of emails, I’ve had a couple of phone conversations with Olyvia Pronin, their marketing manager. I think that actually talking with her was immensely helpful in the whole process. I usually put together detailed presentations whenever I send out a product concept, and that helped as well.
Funny story: I’ve worked with the INTEGRIS Group in East Peoria on the Bandit Ball and had shown them the Snow Slugger concept before it was licensed to Wham-O. When I was in the INTEGRIS conference room, we had fun whipping a fake snowball around with the prototype. That is also what happened at Wham-O after I sent a prototype to them!
How did you get the idea for the Bandit Ball?
I got the idea in… wait for it… 1986. I was doing a lot of conceptual throwing toy designs, trying to come up with the next new thing. I cut full-length slats in a hollow plastic ball and came up with a toy you could squeeze in different ways to change its shape.
Describe the process of testing, refining and developing the product.
Back then, I used a large rubber band from the produce aisle to hold the ball in a football shape. We found out it spiraled and you could throw it a fairly long way. I used suction cups on the ends to turn it into a disc. I didn’t know how it would be mass-produced, so I put the idea on my list of “might do somedays” and moved on.
When silicone wristbands came about in the mid-2000s, that was sort of the “aha” moment. This was what to use to “band it,” and the Bandit Ball was born.
I crafted new models the same way as 20 years previous, and began experimenting with surface texture and weight. The goal was to make the ball fly as far as possible while remaining a safe and lightweight toy. That was challenging, and several iterations failed the test. This all took a period of years to accomplish. The “gripper bumps” that will be featured on the production ball are similar to the ones I painstakingly applied dot by dot with fabric paint to my finished prototypes.
After my job ended in late 2015, I began going to community startup events, such as local 1 Million Cups meetings. I started mentioning a toy I had developed and was thinking about marketing. The “Play in Peoria” saying is kind of cool when it applies to a toy, so people were intrigued. I applied for a provisional patent in February 2017 and could then start telling people about the Bandit Ball.
In the spring and summer of 2017, I did 105 interviews around the Peoria area in which I showed people prototypes and let them play and ask questions. Of the 233 people interviewed in total, 213 said they would likely purchase the ball online when it debuts. That’s over 91 percent, which is great!
The Bandit Ball changes from a round ball to a fast-flying football or disc when you "Band It" with its branded wristband.
What makes the Bandit Ball unique?
In its natural round form, the ball weighs around two ounces—safe enough for my two-year-old granddaughter to play with, indoors or out. When you “Band It,” the ball turns into a fast-flying performance toy. It is still lightweight, but can be thrown 40 or more yards in a tight spiral. When you take the same wristband and wrap it around two of the arms, the ball takes on a disc shape that you can spin through the air.
There are other shape-changing balls on the market, but the Bandit Ball is the only one we know of that is a 3-in-1 ball. Additionally, it will hold its shape as long as the wristband is around it.
There’s a constant push these days to get kids outside for physical play. Our product can do that in a fun, new way.
Who is your manufacturing partner for the Bandit Ball?Midwest Molding Solutions is our manufacturing partner—a limited “first-edition” run will be made by their partner in China. After that, production will begin at their facility in Bloomington, Illinois.
Tell me about some of your earlier inventions. How did this background prepare you to design products today?
I came up with the “Heart-Egg”, a novelty product that twisted from one to the other when I was in my early twenties—sold many of those and had accounts as far away as Marshall Field’s in Chicago. I couldn’t continue with it because it was knocked off by a large national retailer. I had a design patent and they simply changed a small feature.
When I was 26, my wife Nancy and I introduced a children’s learning center we had designed at a national educational conference in Atlanta, Georgia. Both of these are mentioned in the Entrepreneur article.
I took big steps for a 20-something kid, and I recall having gut-wrenching fear about a lot of it. But I was driven. I really wanted to be successful, to get something mass-produced, and for my products to have a positive effect on people. That hasn’t changed!
What’s different is that, then, I was younger than most of the people I dealt with. Now I am older than just about everyone! Fortunately for me, and the many others like me, most say that age doesn’t matter.
I got a good education and training in industrial design at the University of Illinois in Champaign. That continues to help in this process. A bit of wisdom from age, and especially, patience are also things which are beneficial to me now.
After working at the auto plant for years, did you ever think you’d get back into inventing products?
Yes. I never let go of the near-successes in my youth. I always had the dream. So, to that extent, I’m fortunate to be able to work on this full-time again while I’ve still got some years left. The Bandit Ball is a bucket filler. It is a fun, new toy that, we hope, will add new joy to the game of catch! iBi