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Here's the True Story of How an Unemployed Tinkerer Launched a Successful Toy Company from a Shed


"I turned my home garage into a sawdust factory and spent countless hours perfecting each ... piece."

Meet Robert Darling, American entrepreneur.

A tinkerer and inventor, Darling is the creator of Slotto, a handcrafted construction set consisting of unfinished pieces of medium density fiberboard.

Because the pieces are unfinished, the parts will “absorb the oils from the hands and develop a patina over time that will give the sets character and durability that most plastic toys will never have,” Darling proudly explained to TheBlaze in an email. “There’s a warmth and a live feel to the pieces as they’re used more and more."

But Darling wasn’t always an independent businessman. In 2008, standing on a corner in Salem, Ore., with a sign that read, "I need a job," Darling was like a lot of Americans struggling to cope with the aftermath of the financial meltdown.

“I got my Real Estate Broker’s license in 2006 and went to work as a broker for John L. Scott Realty here in Salem, Oregon,” Darling told TheBlaze in an email. “2007 was not a good year to start out in real estate. I worked temporarily for Lowe’s, then traded my 2002 Toyota MR2 Spyder for trucking school and $3600.”

“I got my Class A Commercial Driver’s License and was hired by May Trucking here in Salem. I drove a Peterbilt big rig to New Jersey and back in the dead of winter with my trainer who was 26 years old, living in the cab for 10 days. I hated it. The company had over hired and let me go soon after that anyway. It was a few months later in March or April that I stood on the corner with the sign,” he adds.

The situation was unlike anything he had ever experienced.

“I was unable to find a job for the first time in my 61 years,” he said.

However, it wasn't long before the unemployed Darling decided to ditch the sign and focus his energy in a different direction. He set up shop in a tiny, cold shed in his backyard and set to work creating Slotto.

"The idea came from the 'House of Cards' that my father brought home from Charles and Ray Eames’ studio," Darling said when asked about the inspiration for Slotto.

The original shed where Darling created his invention.

“I turned my home garage into a sawdust factory and spent countless hours perfecting each cut of every Slotto piece,” said Darling. “I introduced Slotto in 2009 at the Portland Saturday Market and it was an instant hit.”

While Slotto was met with great reviews and was an immediate hit with the locals, the inventor just couldn't generate the type of revenues necessary to keep his company afloat. Darling's lack of a marketing budget barred him from reaching a wider, more profitable audience.

“I was like a toy store with one toy! The toy was selling but the store was going broke,” the toy maker recalls.

But Darling wasn’t beat. That’s when he decided to approach The Marketplace by TheBlaze.

Now, as some Blaze readers may know, The Marketplace by TheBlaze is a unique collection of some of the best and finest small businesses in the world. But more than just quality products, The Marketplace puts an emphasis on quality people -- true American entrepreneurs.

Darling fit that description.

After a couple of emails and a lot of persistence, Darling got through to The Marketplace and, together with the site, they came up with an idea: A 48-hour sale on Slotto sets.

Almost no one expected what happened next.

In September of 2011, after launching the 48-hour sale, The Marketplace sold out of all 263 Slotto sets within 2 hours. Moreover, after The Marketplace's stock ran out, Darling’s own website sold a $30 set every 30 seconds for two additional hours.

“They actually sold a number of sets over the agreed number because they couldn't shut down the sale fast enough,” said Darling. “By 9 a.m., my phone started ringing off the hook as people started Googling Slotto after all the sets were sold out. Over the next week or so I doubled the number of orders from the initial sale.”

Before The Marketplace/Slotto duo, Darling’s company had $5,000 in revenue during the first nine months of 2011. After joining the Marketplace, Darling’s company ended the year with $25,000 in revenue.

“This is one of the largest success stories to date for The Marketplace,” said Colin Balfe, a marketing executive with The Marketplace.

Darling's relationship with The Marketplace opened up a world of possibilities for his business. His product was suddenly introduced to millions of unique visitors from TheBlaze.com, millions of Glenn Beck’s radio listeners (through on-air national advertising), hundreds of thousands of email subscribers through The Marketplace newsletter and TheBlaze.com’s “Firewire,” and hundreds of thousands of direct subscribers and Dish Network viewers through ads run on The Blaze TV network.

In short, Darling went from having virtually no marketing budget to having the type of exposure that gets a young and fledgling product noticed.

“The Marketplace by TheBlaze catapulted my small business from a shed in my backyard to national distribution with three of the largest chains in America,” said Darling.

In May of 2012, the inventor signed a national distribution deal with retailers including J.C. Penney, Kohl’s and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

The Columbian gives the details:

Darling said he was able to sign a licensing agreement with MerchSource, and the sets are now being mass produced overseas by a branch of the company called TreeHaus.

The company produced 150,000 sets that will be on the shelves in time for the holiday season.

In the Salem area, they are being sold at the Keizer Station Bed Bath & Beyond. Darling said he was so excited when they arrived on the shelves, he went and purchased two of the sets.

He said they will be sold in other stores.

“I started out making Slotto in a makeshift shed in my backyard. It was a constant struggle. The opportunity from The Marketplace allowed me to get a real workshop, hire employees, grow my business – I realized how many people truly loved my product,” said Darling.

“The Marketplace didn’t just grow my business; it propelled my business to extraordinary heights,” he added.

Follow Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter

Click here to visit The Marketplace by TheBlaze. Click here to visit the official Slotto site.

This story has been updated to include information regarding the manufacturing and distribution of Slotto.

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