Andy Musliner was sitting on the floor playing cars with his then-3-year-old son when it occurred to him that the cars needed roads.
"It's an obvious pairing — toy cars go with toy roads," Musliner said. "If you have a toy car, it needs a road to drive on, yet the toy industry had not created an opportunity for kids to make roads."
That idea more than a decade ago led the Crofton resident on a quest to start a home-based toy company and ultimately create a new category — tape as toy. Musliner started Crofton-based InRoad Toys, which makes PlayTape, rolls of tape printed to resemble roads fit for tiny vehicles. The tape sticks to walls, floors, tables or any flat surface, and is designed for small hands to easily tape down and pull up without damaging surfaces.
It appears to have filled a need, meeting demand from parents who want to encourage creativity and from retailers looking for something new in the toy category. It's also a twist on the consumer tape industry's growing decorative and crafting segment.
Since PlayTape was introduced three years ago, distribution has mushroomed from a few small toy stores to 12,000 outlets in 35 countries. Wal-Mart sells it at 3,500 stores and online. It's also available online at Toys R Us, at international toy retailer Imaginarium, select Target stores and the 4,900-outlet O'Reilly's Auto Parts stores.
This year, the U.S. Small Business Administration chose the company as its Maryland Home-based Business of the Year. InRoad projects sales this year of between $2.5 million and $5 million.
"PlayTape is the world's simplest toy," and therein lies its appeal, said Musliner, InRoad's CEO. "Kids who play with toy cars can make a road anywhere they want. Parents are really interested in enabling their kids to use their imaginations and enabling them to develop their motor skills, to really play and get off the screens."
Toys R Us began selling InRoad's Bachmann's Road and Train Track PlayTape on its website last year.
"Vehicle play is an evergreen category that kids have naturally gravitated toward for generations," said Joe Contrino, a spokesman for the retailer, in an email. PlayTape "takes a simple, but unique spin on the category."
The tape caught the eye of 5-year-old Ben Barbaran late last year when it was displayed for sale at a Crofton karate school.
Christy Barbaran, who'd brought her son for a lesson, bought him a small roll. She later spotted it at Wal-Mart and bought more. The 5-year-old and his 21-month-old brother Brooks both play with the tape, driving Hot Wheels cars over roads and Thomas the Tank Engine trains over the version with printed tracks, Barbaran said.
"My kids love it," she said. "We went on a road trip in March, and that saved us a few times. They created elaborate tracks over wood floors in the hotel and entertained themselves. They run their Hot Wheels over it for hours and hours."
In 2014, Parents Magazine listed PlayTape among its best toys of the year, calling it "such a brilliantly simple idea. ... We had a young tester create a highway in seconds."
Musliner, who started InRoad in 2002 when the youngest of his three sons was 3 and a car fanatic, spent years creating PlayTape, all the while continuing a career as an executive for multiple technology startups. The tape idea stemmed from his own experiments trying to create roads with masking tape, which proved impractical. He found no tape for toy cars in stores and decided to create his own.
By February 2014, he was ready to show off his invention at the International Toy Fair in New York. The product was picked up by small toy stores at first, then sales started to grow.
About two years ago, Musliner pitched his product to Wal-Mart during the retailer's annual Open Call event at its headquarters in Bentonville, Ark. The event was part of the retailer's initiative to purchase $250 billion worth of U.S.-made products by 2023, said Scott Markley, a Wal-Mart spokesman.
"They're looking for new and exciting products to bring customers" that are either made in the United States or could shift production to the United States, Markley said.
A Wal-Mart buyer spent about a year working with the company to refine pricing, packaging and size. Two PlayTape items are now sold at Wal-Mart online and in stores next to Hot Wheels cars and are "doing well," Markley said.
Besides rolls of tapes in road and rail designs, InRoad sells stickers that create curves. The company also sells Hot Wheels PlayTape through a licensing agreement reached just over a year ago with Mattel Inc.
Musliner still runs the business from his home in Crofton. He has six full-time employees, but the company supports another 100 jobs by outsourcing manufacturing and distribution.
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The company's latest boost came when it entered into a partnership with one of the nation's largest consumer and industrial tape makers, North Carolina-based Shurtape Technologies LLC, which makes sealing, packing, duct and masking tapes, as well as other products.
The privately owned maker of Duck Tape, FrogTape and T-Rex tape had acquired a company in February that was manufacturing PlayTape. Shurtape, with 1,500 employees globally, is expected to offer InRoad the manufacturing capacity to support growing demand.
Shurtape has become an investor as well. Last week, InRoad announced that it had finalized a round of funding led by Shurtape for an undisclosed amount.
"We kept expanding beyond the capacity of our manufacturing and now have infinite capacity," Musliner said. "This substantially expands our ability to explore new product opportunities."
Before being approached to invest in InRoad, Shurtape had expanded into the craft category with duct tape printed with patterns and licensed characters.
"As a tape manufacturer, and that's virtually all we do. We love ideas that expand the category of tape, which is to say, see tape used in places where it beforehand had not been used," said Stephen Shuford, CEO of Shurtape. "From our perspective, we see the toy aisle as an interesting and potentially lucrative expansion opportunity for tapes in a totally new market."