In mid-1998, I started working at the toy company Tiger Electronics, a recently-added subsidiary of Hasbro.

Of all the places I’ve worked, it was definitely the most fun.  Radio-controlled cars would zip around the office, and folks would stop by my cube, give me a handheld game, and say “play with this for a while and tell me what you think.”  They also had kick-ass Christmas parties, their company summer picnics included tons of toys and games for the kids, and, each year, they’d load everyone up on a bus to attend a Cubs game.  Pretty sweet, eh?

I was hired as an assistant to a VP, but she immediately recognized I could do much more than her travel arrangements and expense reports.  Before long, I was writing press releases, trade show scripts, instruction manuals, and catalog copy.  I was also supervising online contests and answering consumer e-mail.

As soon as I started, the big buzz around the office was the new product: Furby.  If you don’t remember, Furby is an electronic “animal,” for lack of a better word (the name is short for ‘furball”), about the size of a softball.  It’s a furry interactive toy that moves its mouth, eyes and ears, and speaks in a made-up-but-understandable language called “Furbish.”

The big selling point was that the toy could “learn.”  The more you played with it, the more its speech would advance it would get more “intuitive.”  I have one of the originals and I still can’t decide if it’s amazing or creepy.

Furby was to be the company’s big Christmas-gift-buying cash cow.  And it was it ever.  Tiger saturated Nickelodeon and pretty much any other kid’s programming station or time slot with incessant and very convincing advertising.  And company reps were on a variety of TV talk and news shows.

The really bad part: demand was WAY WAY WAY higher than supply.  You couldn’t find them on the shelves anywhere.  I heard stories of people waiting for delivery trucks in the back of stores and trying to buy them there directly.

I was in charge of answering consumer e-mail.  They had an AOL account.  For the life of me, I have no idea why a major corporation would use outdated AOL and not have its own address, but whatever.

Once the Furby frenzy hit, about early November or so, the amount of e-mails was insane.  Everyone was asking where to find them.  I had a cut n’ paste response of all the stores who had it on order, which took care of most of it.

AOL’s inbox only held 500 messages, and I could rip through about 350 a day.  Each morning the damn thing would be full again, and the process would start over.  I finally had to go to my boss and say, “I’m like Lucy in the candy factory here.  I really need some help.”

In addition to e-mails, people would call and ask about its availability, and the receptionist was instructed to route the calls to about 12 lower-level employees (Tiger only had about 70 employees total).

Until about mid-December, the calls wouldn’t stop.  I’d get a call, the receptionist would say, “Furby call,” and I’d field it and read the list of stores.  I’d hang up, and immediately I’d get the same thing.  It was almost impossible to get any other work done.

Talking to the masses on the phone was more depressing than the e-mails.  I swear, I never heard so many sob stories from folks whose kid would wither and die if he/she didn’t get a Furby for Christmas.  And there sure were a lot of sick kids perishing in the hospital at that point in time whose only ray of hope was a Furby.

And gals, not to knock your gender, but it was 98% mothers doing the whining and begging and sobbing.  Guys who would call up would have a “yeah, thanks for nothing, have a nice day” attitude.

But we all got through it.  We each even got to pick an original from one of the first batches.  Mine’s a black one and is probably worth, like, two dollars or so now.


EPILOGUE: A few years later, I was laid off with several other people.  The explanation was that profits had plummeted and times were tough.  The usual “bye bye” speech.

Well, duh.  You have a brilliant product that’s in super-high demand and makes mega-millions, and no product even close to that to follow up for the next few marketing cycles.  Of COURSE profits are down.

Too bad people weren’t so interested in the later-released Halloween Furby, Valentine’s Day Furby, and Transvestite Furby.  Okay, I made that last one up.  They never took my suggestions.