Brent Waller spent his childhood crafting plastic-brick versions of characters from TV shows and movies like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Batman. At age 35, the Australian Lego fan has gotten so good at playing with the toys that the company will start selling his models.
Waller's creation - which includes a miniature of the Cadillac ambulance from Ghostbusters, the 1984 comedy starring Bill Murray - will hit shelves in June and sell for US$49.99 (NZ$58) in the United States. His set is one of six to come from a Lego crowdsourcing website where consumers can propose designs.
"It's any Lego fan's dream to have an official set they created," said Waller, a video game developer in Brisbane. "It's literally a childhood dream come true."
With the help of internet and social media, crowdsourcing is helping companies from McDonald's to Samsung Electronics boost innovation by tapping the knowledge and experience of customers to create new products. Lego, the world's second-biggest toymaker, has run its initiative since 2008 with help from a Japanese crowdsourcing website called Cuusoo System.
"Both children and adults these days are getting used to being, and expecting to be, more involved," Chief Marketing Officer Mads Nipper said in a toy-stuffed meeting room at Lego's headquarters in Billund. Lego Cuusoo - roughly "my Lego wish" in Japanese - is for finding ideas the company's 180 designers might not have come up with on their own.
Lego last month announced its full-year sales gained 10 per cent to 25 billion kroner (US$4.7 billion), outpacing US rivals Mattel and Hasbro. In 2012, the Danish company had 6.3 per cent of the global toy and game market and 63 per cent of the market for construction toys, researcher Euromonitor International estimates.
"They will continue to grow, whether or not it will be at the same double-digit growth we have seen is up for debate, but they are well positioned to do very well," said Robert Porter, an analyst with Euromonitor in London. The recent acquisition of Mega Brands by Mattel suggests that competition may intensify for construction toys, he said.
Any Lego Cuusoo project that gets more than 10,000 votes is evaluated by designers, marketing specialists and business executives to ensure it meets requirements like playability, safety and fit with the Lego brand. The review and development of Waller's Ghostbusters set took almost a year.
Users need to be 18 to submit a project and 13 to cast a vote on the website. Lego reviews projects three times a year, with the next session planned for May. So far this round, a plastic-brick bird, an Apple store, and a train inspired by the writer Jules Verne have topped the 10,000-vote mark.
Popular submissions from earlier rounds that didn't make it to stores include a set inspired by My Little Pony - a brand owned by Hasbro - and a project based on zombie comedy Shaun of the Dead, which was deemed inappropriate for Lego's 6- to-11-year-old target audience.
Successful entries include a miniature version of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Mars rover Curiosity for US$29.99, created by a Nasa engineer who worked on the actual vehicle. A set based on the Minecraft video game got 10,000 votes in just 48 hours. Lego has followed up the first Minecraft set with two more and is working on others. The initial set sells for US$34.99 in Lego's online store, where purchases are limited to two per order due to what the site calls "overwhelming demand."
"What makes an epic Lego Cuusoo product is when you take Lego and pair it with some other kind of community or some very strong idea," said Peter Espersen, who oversees the company's efforts to work with consumers on new designs.
Lego Cuusoo got off to a slow start as it was available only in Japan for the first three years and few people were familiar with the idea of crowdsourcing, Espersen said.
When Minecraft took off, he said, "it told us, oh my goodness; there is something here, something exciting."
Waller, who grew up in a small town an hour's drive west of Brisbane, submitted designs for houses, robots and Batman's Batmobile before succeeding with his Ghostbusters idea. The set, produced by Lego under license from Sony Pictures, will coincide with the movie's 30th anniversary.
"As a child I didn't really have any action figures or anything like that," he said. "So I would recreate whatever TV show or movie I was into at the time in Lego form."
While fans have given mixed reviews to some previous crowdsourced sets, like the DeLorean sportscar-cum-time machine from the movie Back to the Future, the upcoming Ghostbusters creation has gotten good reviews from fellow Lego fans online.
The DeLorean "was horrible I never bothered with it," user Shaun O'Brien wrote on Facebook on February 16. The"Ghostbusters set, by contrast, "I will get for sure. Might even get 2 and make a bit bigger."
Fans whose models are used by Lego receive 1 per cent of net revenue. While the company doesn't disclose sales for individual sets, Espersen said he is "fairly optimistic" about Waller's Ghostbusters set.
The set's sales might not matter much, according to Porter. Crowdsourcing initiatives help companies better engage with consumers and keep loyal fans coming back, regardless of how much they actually boost revenue, he said.
"Even if ideas don't take off," Porter said, "it's still very good for marketing, PR and building consumer engagement."