It started simply.
In 2002, Adam Carson got a magnetic building toy for his 10th birthday.
“He was really enthralled with this simple toy and played with it all weekend long,” said his dad, Mark.
With birthday money to spend, Adam searched online to buy additional sets, but couldn’t find any. So he turned to his dad, a website developer.
“Dad we should build our own website to sell these,” he said.
And that’s how Fat Brain Toys began.
Founded by former Scribner residents, Mark and Karen Carson, the Elkhorn-based company is a manufacturer and retailer of educational toys.
The toys include brain teasers, building, bath and teaching toys, puzzles, books and arts and crafts — to name a few. Children can play with Squigz — a brightly colored suction cup building toy — or Waddle Bobbers Bath Toy.
There are even toys like PictoMazes for adults, and Tangle Relax Therapy and a book of 399 puzzles designed to keep the brain young for senior citizens.
The company has retail stores in Omaha, at Village Pointe, and Overland Park, Kan., a website and a catalog.
“We sell about 3,000 different products through those retail storefronts,” Carson said.
The company also has designed and developed 130 of its own products.
Recently, the Carsons showed their products in Spielwaremesse in Nuremburg Germany, the largest toy show in the world. They have distributors — who sell products the Carsons developed — in roughly 15 different countries such as Poland, Germany, England, France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, South Korea and Japan.
The Carsons have about 50 year-round employees, a number that swells to 300 during the holidays.
“There’s days, we’ll ship out 10,000 packages in a day,” Karen Carson said.
Now, they and some of their employees will go to the Toy Fair in New York City, where companies come to research their products to sell in their stores. The Carsons plan to introduce 40 new products.
Looking back, the Carsons consider the work ethic and other things they learned while growing up in Scribner. Mark’s parents, the late Kenley and Eao Carson owned a car wash and laundry mat. Kenley worked full-time at the post office as well.
Karen’s parents, Dennis and the late Jeanne Baumert, own Scribner Grain and Lumber.
Mark delivered the Fremont Tribune newspaper in Scribner. Karen helped her sister and brother with their Tribune route.
“Growing up in Scribner, we developed a great work ethic from our parents and the community,” Karen Carson said.
Both see the value of attending a small-town school.
“You can’t afford to specialize in one thing,” Mark Carson said. “Anybody who plays sports in small schools — they’re usually playing three or four sports. They’re not just playing sports, but they’re playing in the band during halftime. They’re in the one-act play. You learn to do a lot more.”
Before Fat Brain Toys, Mark and Karen had full-time careers.
“I always had a little bit of an entrepreneurial bent to me and always wanted to have my own business at some point, but didn’t know exactly what that would be,” Mark said.
Then Adam got the magnetic toy called a Geomag from Mark’s sister, Pam, and birthday money from his grandparents, Dennis and Jeanne.
“It was such a family thing,” Karen said.
After Adam suggested building a website to sell the toys, Mark challenged him to do some research. He asked Karen to find the manufacturer.
Within a couple of weeks, they had a website online. They turned it live on the evening of Halloween in 2002. Mark took Adam and his siblings out for trick-or-treating. When they returned an hour later, an order was waiting for them.
“There was a lot of demand for that product the first season and we were one of the first ones to be marketing it online and that really got us off the starting line,” Mark said.
In February 2003, Karen said they flew to New York City for an international toy show and fell in love with the industry.
The couple had grown up playing with Legos, Lincoln Logs and Tinker Toys, but the toys they were seeing on the market were promoting a character or an image.
They wanted products that were more open-ended and which a child could play with in multiple ways — toys that required thought, exploration and creativity.
During the first year, they had to decide if this would be a hobby or a business. When they decided it could be a business, Karen quit her job and began working on it full time. Mark continued at his full-time job, working on it at night.
They had steady success for several years and the business began growing faster. After a few years, they began to diversify, designing and manufacturing their own toys and games.
“That was a whole new world of learning,” he said.
The first product they designed was Dado Cubes, a set of geometric stacking cubes with bright, modern colors.
About 12 years later, they have 130 different products they’ve designed and developed.
This year, Adam developed Dimpl – a brightly colored sensory toy for babies and toddlers.
“It’s a real simple concept, but really well done and it’s been a huge seller for us in just its first year,” Carson said.
Grandparents are a big customer population, wanting quality toys they can keep at their houses for the grandchildren.
“We call them ‘Evergreen Products” — products that last the test of time,” she said.
They developed the Squigz line of products, too.
“It’s been one of our most popular products for a number of years,” he said. “I think it’s popular because it is open-ended. It’s a set of little suction cups. You can stick them together and build something abstract. Just the act of sticking these suction cups to a window and hearing them pop off or if you have them in the bathtub — they’re great for play there.”
These toys make fun sounds and many ages — from 3 years old to teen — can find Squigz interesting, he said, adding that they love when siblings of different ages can play with the same toy.
The toys engage the parents, who enjoy sitting and playing with the children.
On the website, https://www.fatbraintoys.com toys are divided into different age groups, best sellers, new releases, different interests and other categories.
Mark also said moms, grandmothers, aunts and uncles — who care about the products and can provide shopper guidance — are hired to work in the stores.
The Carsons have three children, Adam, now 26, who works for the company, Makenzie, 22, who will graduate from Bryan Health with a bachelor’s in nursing degree and start work at the Buffett Cancer Center, and Jenna, 19, a freshman at Nebraska Wesleyan.
Karen’s sister, Sharon, manages the two stores. The Carsons believe work ethic and customer service are important — and something they learned growing up in Scribner.
Growing up in the agricultural world, Karen learned about seasonal businesses.
“We were used to the harvest world with farming,” she said. “There were late nights and long days and you worked seven days a week. It’s a small time and you have to get your crops out.”
She relates that to staff when talking about the harvest of the toy world — which is Christmas, the biggest time for toy sales.
“From mid-October to the third week in December, we’re in Toy Harvest,” she said. “My family chuckles because when their harvest is winding down, the toy season is winding up.”