Salem man turns toyland into profit

Elida S. Perez / (Salem) Statesman Journal /

SALEM — Robert Darling was known around Salem three years ago for standing on the corner of Trade and Liberty streets dressed in a Houndstooth sport coat, white dress shirt, a tie, black slacks and black penny loafers.

The well-dressed man was not waiting for a ride. He was taking his fruitless job search during the economic downturn to the streets. He stood there day in and day out holding a sign that read: “I need a job!”

Nothing solid came of his unconventional job hunting, so he decided to direct his energy into making a toy instead. The result of his labor, Slotto, is a construction set made of medium density fiberboard.

He finalized the prototype last year and started selling it locally and online. Sales trickled in, but again, a stable income from the venture didn’t materialize.

He persisted.

Then he said he caught a break with a phone call last January from the CEO of a major corporation interested in mass producing the sets with plastic instead of fiberboard, and then selling them to major store chains.

“They agreed to fund my company and told me to ‘lay low,’” Darling said.

He stopped advertising and selling the product and remained without a regular income.

He took a loan from a friend to get by hoping a deal would be made. But the company was unsuccessful reproducing the product with plastic, and no deal came.

He tried a different approach.

Darling said he contacted a radio personality for help. Reaching out led to a 48-hour Internet sale, which ultimately led to another company’s interest in mass producing and selling Slotto.

In the meantime, he went through a series of large orders which required him to periodically hire temporary help because making the construction set requires precise cuts in the materials for the sets of 260 pieces.

He rented a workspace, then had to downsize. The income he got from those orders would go back into producing. He still had no profits.

Then he struck a deal.

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.

They currently 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 himself. He said they will be sold in other stores.

Through the year of struggling to get backing for Slotto, Darling went through a divorce and remained financially unstable.

But for the first time in about three years, he sees light at the end of the tunnel after signing the agreement with MerchSource.

For at least five years, Darling will have a source of income. At that point they will re-evaluate the agreement, he said.

Until then, he said he will create more Slotto products. Although his patent is still pending, he was able to get a registered trademark from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

He also said he and his former wife are in the process of reconciling.

It’s a long way from the streets of downtown Salem.