The Story

In 1983 a guy named Stuart Anders invented a toy that would become a huge hit — one of the biggest fad toys of a generation. But the toy world can be treacherous, and Stuart’s big idea left him broke. Now he’s back with a new toy and a surprising ally.

The Facts

David Herman and Ian Scott mixed the episode.
Mark Phillips wrote and performed our theme song.
Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music.
Additional music by the band Hot Moms Dot Gov and John Kimbrough.

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Show transcript

LISA CHOW: We are back. From Gimlet, I’m Lisa Chow. And this is StartUp, the show about what it’s really like to start a business.

This season, instead of telling one business story over several episodes, we’ll be telling several stories about all sorts of businesses … entrepreneurs trying to compete with huge established brands … another whose idea has already created billionaires. And we’ll talk to people who think they’ve found the next big thing but are struggling to sell it to others.

MEGAN: There was this container of potting soil with worms writhing in it, and this does not look like food and my husband sort of took one look and was like, “Nope, I’m out, you’re on your own, this is your experiment.”

JENNIE: And he looked at me and thought quite earnestly and said “Umm, I think you need to think a bit more obliquely.” And I didn’t really know what that meant and I just nodded, and went “Yeah, definitely.”

LISA: We’ll sit in an entrepreneur’s coaching session, as he deals with fears of disappointing his wife.  

JASEN: When we started this, I kind of said look the most likely outcome is that it doesn’t become a raging success  

JERRY: And what did she say when you said that?

JASEN: She told me she believed in me.

JERRY: Oh yeah, that’s what I thought she said.

LISA: We’ll find out what it feels like to be the first company in a massive new industry.

JONATHAN: And then we get this email from somebody at the Jimmy Kimmel show asking me to be on the show. And when I saw that email I was just like, huh?

JIM: we all knew we all knew we were onto something very special. We all knew this was a 100 billion dollar idea. We also knew that we were losing.  

LISA: And we’ll hear stories about entrepreneurs who are trying to make it work, in very strange places.

BRUCE: That is definitely the most horrifying noise I’ve committed to tape I think.

JAKE: You know, nobody ever wins a race with clean shoes.

LISA: Don’t worry … those pigs, they’re fine. They’ll be featured later in the season …

LISA: Today we’re kicking Season 5 off with a story about a guy who’s been pursuing a dream for more than 30 years … it’s a dream he just can’t seem to quit … He’s trying to make it big in the surprisingly treacherous world of toys. Startup’s senior producer, Molly Messick, has this story.

MOLLY MESSICK: Every year, in February, there’s a huge trade show at the Javits Center in Manhattan called Toy Fair. And if you’re in the toy industry, it is a big deal. Manufacturers from all over the world unveil their new toys … and retailers come to decide what they want to sell. Toys are a 20 billion dollar industry in the U.S. But when I walked into Toy Fair this year, it was easy to forget that this is big business. Because everywhere I looked there was someone wearing a superhero costume, or a couple of people bouncing a massive ball back and forth. And everyone had a toy to pitch.

TOY FAIR ATTENDEE #1: One of the things right here is Rolly Be. He’s a cute little rattling rolly toy.  His ball is off center a little bit so when he rolls he goes up and down.

MOLLY: At one booth, a company that makes science kits was flash freezing popcorn with liquid nitrogen and feeding it to people passing by…

TOY FAIR ATTENDEE #2: You grab a small amount and I pop it into my hand… (chewing…) and smoke comes out of my mouth, it’s amazing!

MOLLY: There were displays of kites and dolls and drones and scooters. And brightly colored plush dinosaurs that make noise when you squeeze them…

TOY FAIR ATTENDEE #3: You push down on them and they growl… They stomp… And they roar… Come on, roar! There he goes.

MOLLY: The big toy makers showed up. Lego. And Ty, which makes Beanie Babies. Mattel had a giant showroom that was off-limits to anyone without a special pass — but we talked to this one guy who got in.

TOY FAIR ATTENDEE #4: I’m not sure if I’m allowed to talk about it. But you know what? What the hell. They’re coming out with a virtual reality Barbie.

MOLLY: That’s right, virtual reality Barbie.

TOY FAIR ATTENDEE #4: This thing is amazing. It’s almost like if Siri became a real life holographic girl, right? And so you say “Hello, Barbie! What’s the weather in Malibu?” And then, like, “Hey Barbie, could you dance for me?” And she’ll dance. Be like, “Hey Barbie, would you dab?” It blew my mind.

MOLLY: Out on the sidelines of this whole thing … were the really little guys. Inventors who showed up with their samples … hoping to persuade a manufacturer their toy could be the next big hit.

MOLLY: And that’s why I went to Toy Fair. Because of one of those independent guys out on the edges, trying to make it.

MOLLY: Can I have you introduce yourself?

MOLLY: This guy, Stuart Anders.

STUART ANDERS: Oh sure, my name’s Stuart Anders. I’m a midwestern boy. I have a degree in education, was an Army helicopter pilot for an extremely short period of time. And have been an inventor for the rest of my life.    

MOLLY: The thing about Stuart is that he shouldn’t be on the sidelines at all. Because once, years ago, he invented a toy that was a huge hit. It became one of the biggest toys of the 90s … and then it all went wrong. Now Stuart’s starting over, with a new idea … and an unlikely ally. What it’s like to make it to the top of an industry … and to try to make it back again after you fall. The story begins in 1983 in a little town in Wisconsin. Stuart Anders was just out of college, where he’d studied to be a teacher.

STUART: When I graduated there was really no teaching jobs, and so I came back to Sun Prairie and was a substitute teacher here and I coached track and football.

MOLLY: One day he was visiting his mom, and he sat down at this old sewing table she had. Stuart used to sew with his mom a lot; it was a thing he loved.

STUART: And this wonderful flush of old memories came back as I started opening her drawers and going through all the same tins of needles and pins, and there was that self-rolling tape measure.

MOLLY: A self-rolling tape measure is basically just a metal strip that can roll up on itself or snap straight.

STUART: And I was playing with it … [slap noise]

MOLLY: Pulling it straight and then snapping it into a curl [slap noise] pulling it straight again. And all of the sudden [slap noise]

STUART: There was one of those ah ha moments where I just went — oh wow, what a cool bracelet if someone would just put a piece of fabric on it.

MOLLY: And just like that … Stuart Anders invented the slap bracelet.

NEWS CLIP: Here’s the fall fashion statement of the pre-adolescent set. The item that’s driving them in droves to the toy stores. Slap wraps as they’re called, are selling like crazy.

MOLLY: Slap wraps were everywhere in the 90s. But getting from that first slap to toy stores all over the world — it kind of took forever. And it came really close to not happening at all.Because when Stuart had his idea, he didn’t have a bracelet yet, he just had that tape measure. He called the companies that made the tape measures, but they said they’d stopped manufacturing them years ago, and they weren’t interested in starting again. Stuart was young, newly married. He didn’t have the money or the time to set up a whole operation to make these things himself. And so for a while, that was the end of it.

STUART: I stuck it on the steering column of an old pickup truck that I was driving. Saw it every day… every day that I drove, it just sat around there.

MOLLY: And you would just look down, and it was just kind of like decoration… Did you ever take it off and play with it?

STUART: All the time, all the time.

MOLLY: The next few years were rough for Stuart.

STUART: …goodness yeah, yeah learned a lot. Hard knocks, baby. Just — a lot of stuff went really, really wrong…

MOLLY: He joined the National Guard and started training to fly helicopters. Which seemed promising… But then his wife left him. He decided to go to Florida, thinking he’d have an easier time finding work. But he didn’t. He ended up being a day-laborer, living out of his truck for months. He finally got on his feet in a way that’s sort of unbelievably mid-80s: Lycra. He liked to exercise and he liked wearing biking shorts, which were still a pretty new thing at that point. He noticed there was a local sewing industry, and that inspired him. He thought “I know how to sew. Why don’t I make my own stuff out of Lycra?” He started making shorts and pants for himself and colorful leotards for his new girlfriend Diane, a hairdresser he met at the gym. People asked about their outfits. And he started getting sales. Before long he was doing design work for a local company that made fitness gear and bathing suits. And one day a guy named Phil Bart walked through the door.

PHIL BART: And we started talking and uh you know I told him I was in the toy business…

STUART: We’re talking about stuff and I asked him what he did. He says, “Well, I’m a toy inventor.” It was like one of those, “Seriously?”

PHIL: And his eyes bulged out and he says “I gotta go to my car for a second, I gotta show you something.”

STUART: And I don’t know that I could have ran any faster out to my truck and I pulled that slap — or that bracelet at the time off my steering column. I ran in and I remember very specifically. I grabbed his hand with my left hand and I had the bracelet stretched out in its straight form in my right hand. And I slapped it on his wrist.

PHIL: Yeah, he slapped it on my wrist, and right away I knew it was a winner.

STUART: And his eyes got really big, and that was it. It was just, he knew then that it was a great idea, and I knew then I had found somebody I’d been looking for for years and years and years.

MOLLY: Phil had been in the toy industry since the ‘60s. He started out as an independent inventor like Stuart and worked his way up to contracts with big companies. He even worked on Cabbage Patch dolls.They struck up a deal. Phil would be Stuart’s agent. He would use his connections to help Stuart break into the toy industry. And before long, Phil delivered. He got one of Stuart’s bracelets in front of a small new company called Main Street Toy.

GENE MURTHA: I knew right away. As soon as I saw it, I knew.

MOLLY: This is Gene Murtha, the company’s CEO.

GENE: I said “oh my god, that’s fantastic!” And I said “how’d you do that?” And I remember I said “We’re going to sell a jillion of these. Has anybody ever sold a jillion before?” I knew right away.

MOLLY: Stuart’s bracelet was different from anything Gene had ever seen. And Gene was a seasoned toy industry insider. He was a marketing guy and he’d worked on giant hit toys like Strawberry Shortcake and Trivial Pursuit. With Main Street Toy, he was striking out on his own and starting his own company. When he saw the slap bracelet, he thought: “This is the kind of thing I can build a business on.”

GENE: Number one it was fashionable. I knew that it was going to be inexpensive, ummm, less than $5 kind of retail. I knew that we could do a lot of them. And that kids would just absolutely flip over them and they did.

MOLLY: So now Stuart, the inventor, had a team. There was Phil, the agent. And Gene, the CEO. Phil and Stuart started working on getting a patent. And it was Gene’s job to convince major retailers to put slap wraps on their shelves. And that brings us back to Toy Fair, February 1990. Gene came down to New York from Connecticut where Main Street Toy was based. Phil and Stuart flew in from Miami.

STUART: Outside of going to South Florida I had never gone anywhere.

MOLLY: This is Stuart.

MOLLY: So it was a pretty big deal to be going up to this trade show where this thing you’d invented was going to be shown to people.

STUART: Oh my god. Just giddy. Just like — everything is new. You know, how many times have you seen movies where someone goes to New York and all they do is look up at the big buildings? It’s like — there’s big buildings in Miami, but it’s not for miles and miles and miles. You just go — holy buckets there’s just a lot going on here.  

MOLLY: He remembers walking into Toy Fair and seeing crowds of people.

STUART: You can’t navigate anywhere on any floor for any reason. Literally shoulder to shoulder. 40 minutes to get an elevator that fit like 8 people and there’s thousands and thousands of people in this toy building going up and down this elevator.

MOLLY: Gene, the CEO, also remembers those elevators. But for a different reason.  

GENE: One of the anecdotal things of Toy Fair is elevator talk. You get in a New York City elevator and there’s 15 other people in the elevator with you and you overhear somebody whispering in the corner “Did you get in there to see that uh… that new product on the so and so floor?”

MOLLY: That year, everyone was talking about slap bracelets.

GENE: We were elevator talk. And then people are walking around with our samples. And they’re doing the slap wraps at the elevator. What’s that? Oh you haven’t seen this! And that’s how you — how you make it happen.

MOLLY: That ah-ha feeling that Stuart had when he first imagined the slap bracelet … it was contagious. At Toy Fair, buyers for big stores saw Stuart’s slap wraps and wanted them on their shelves right away. Gene remembers when the first order came through.

GENE: Shortly after Toy Fair, I went up to Pittsfield, Mass, which was the home of KB toys.  

MOLLY: KB was a big player at the time. They had hundreds of stores in malls across the country.

GENE: The buyer had been in to see us at Toy Fair. And I had given him a sample. And he flipped over it like everybody did and said — come and see me right after Toy Fair, I went up right after Toy Fair. And I sat there in his office and he said, “okay when can you ship this?”  And I said, “I think we should be good to ship in April.” So he’s typing on an old computer with a daisywheel printer and then the zzz zzzz and he pulls off this huge piece of paper and he looks at it and he looks at me and he says, “Take this and make sure you ship.” And I see he’s ordered 250 thousand pieces.

MOLLY: And that’s a huge order.

GENE: It’s an unbelievable order. That’s a huge order for Mattel or Hasbro or anybody. To get a 250 thousand piece order is huge. There’s three or four of us that are doing this little Main Street Toy company. And the first order was for 250K pieces. And that’s not his forecast for the year, that’s his opening order.

MOLLY: Walking out of that meeting, Gene didn’t just feel happy. He felt ecstatic. His company, Main Street Toy, was young. And now it looked like it might take off.Back in Florida, Stuart was excited, too. He started hearing about orders in the millions, and he couldn’t help doing the math. He’d signed a licensing deal and he was looking at more money than he’d ever had — hundreds of thousands of dollars, possibly more. He began to daydream about what his new life would be.And then at some point he more than daydreamed. He started making plans.

STUART: There’s these islands just to the west of, ah, Miami. In Biscayne Bay. They’re just small little manmade little dots where people with a lot, a lot of money owned places.  

MOLLY: Stuart was living with Diane by this point, the girlfriend he’d made leotards for. One day they took a little bridge from the mainland to get out to one of those islands he’s talking about, called Hibiscus Island.

STUART: I drove across and I was just driving around, it was kind of a circular drive. And there was this place for sale. And it was a very, very large place, pretty decrepit, though. And so um I crawled over the fence and we’re kind of looking around. And this is on the water with the dock, with the boat, everything, huge huge lot. And it would take just huge amounts of money to buy the place but I called an architect, we had an architect come out and we started talking about what it is that I wanted and how we were going to do. The gentleman that owned it, he showed me around, and he had a helipad out back. And this place was it.

MOLLY: It was all going just right. And Stuart still remembers the thrill of seeing his own invention show up in stores.

STUART: Literally every store you went into had some. Every grocery store, every place that sold anything anywhere had them there. Gas stations. Every place.

MOLLY: Problem is … they weren’t Stuart’s slap bracelets. They were knockoffs. Before Main Street Toy’s first shipments had even gone out to toy stores… imposter slap wraps started showing up for sale.

GENE: I don’t remember how I first heard about it…

MOLLY: Gene again, the CEO.

GENE: …but I remember seeing one. It might have been from Phil? It was like “Oh my god, how did they beat us to market? How did they beat us to market?” It was devastating.

MOLLY: Phil and Stuart had an idea of how they’d been beaten. They blamed Gene. See, when slap wraps were at Toy Fair, Stuart and Phil still hadn’t gotten a patent. And they also didn’t know how to manufacture their bracelets yet. Those samples that Gene gave away? Phil and Stuart made them by hand, working together in Phil’s kitchen. They scrounged up some tape measures like the one that inspired Stuart in the first place and they painstakingly wrapped them in fabric. They say they told Gene not to give them out, because they were worried about being copied. But Gene says no one ever told him any of that. Before long Gene, the CEO, and Phil, Stuart’s agent, were arguing about more than the knockoffs. According to an article from the time, they fought over all kind of things. Like who was supposed to manufacture the slap wraps … and what the wholesale price should be … and who would pay Stuart’s royalties. Pretty soon, there were lawyers involved.And Gene says all of that was a huge distraction from their business at a moment when they really needed to focus.

GENE: The fad is going to pass. So, you got hot because the market is receptive to a fad, and you’re going to get cold for the same reason.

MOLLY: And the only way to turn a fad into successful business is to build on it.

GENE: If you don’t know what you’re going to do next, you’re in trouble. There would have been opportunities to take slap wraps and do other kinds of things with slap — ponytails, slap anklets. Other things that you do that you look to extend it.

MOLLY: But they didn’t do any of that stuff. Because they were too busy fighting.

GENE: And retailers basically said I don’t want to be part of any kind of dispute. And this thing isn’t hot enough any longer for me to stick with it. So there was no follow-up to the product and the basic product just ran its lifecycle.

MOLLY: Slap wraps debuted at Toy Fair in February. Main Street Toy managed to sell a few million of them … but by the end of the year, sales bottomed out.As all of this happened, Stuart watched from the sidelines. He’d sparked a fad that swept elementary schools nationwide, but by the end of the year, Stuart still hadn’t been paid. All the things he’d dreamed of — the island home, the helipad — they were slipping away. And for all of that he blamed one man: Gene Murtha.

STUART: You can’t overstate the amount of disdain — hatred — that I had for this man. It can’t be overstated, there’s just nothing… Everything — he thwarted at the time everything that I understood my life was going to be in the future.

MOLLY: The legal battle between Gene and Stuart’s agent, Phil, dragged on for a year. In the end, there were penalties on both sides. But Gene was ordered to pay Phil and Stuart more than 750 thousand dollars. By that time, though, Main Street Toy was dissolving. The slap wrap put Gene’s little toy company on the national stage. The legal battle killed it.

GENE: It was done, it was finished. It was closed up shop. I’ve always used the analogy, a startup company is this tiny little seedling that you plant in the ground and if you’re lucky you see the little bit of sprouts coming up and you just want to protect it and nurture it and — as these little things are starting to push through the soil we just trampled all over it. And that’s what happened.

MOLLY: Gene had a mortgage and three young kids. He thought he might have to declare bankruptcy. He never paid Phil and Stuart. Phil, the agent, says he lost a million dollars on slap bracelets. He put up money to get them manufactured, and when the market died, he had a lot left he couldn’t sell. All these years later, he says they’re still sitting in a warehouse in Hong Kong. And as for Stuart, he’d quit his job to work on slap wraps. He had nothing to fall back on.

STUART: I had no income coming in. We literally — we just literally couldn’t pay rent. I brought the truck in there with the trailer and middle of the night we moved out of our apartment. Just left. At the time, I had rented a small warehouse. One of these strip warehouses where little tinkerers go, where small businesses start. Old, decrepit, nasty, nasty place but it was all mine and it had a little office and an air conditioner and that’s all I cared about. And then when bad things happened, we ended up moving into that warehouse. We lived there for years. Years in that dank, nasty, ugly, hot warehouse.Coming up, how Stuart eventually got himself out of that nasty, ugly warehouse in south Florida. That’s after the break.

[BREAK]

MOLLY: Welcome back to StartUp. So the slap wraps fad was over … and Stuart … the inventor … was broke, even though millions of his bracelets had sold. It was a huge disappointment for him, but it also made him realize some things about himself. He loved the act of inventing. He loved seeing his creations in stores, on shelves, in people’s hands. So that was one thing. The other thing he realized after all those months of legal fights over who was supposed to do what … was that if he was going to get into the business of inventing things, he’d better understand how to make it less risky for himself. And the way Stuart decided to do that was to totally control the manufacturing process. He signed up for night classes to learn about computer aided design. He started learning about injection molded plastics. And he kept trying to come up with an idea of any kind.

STUART: Coming on spring, late spring summer, I remember sitting in the warehouse in a chair in the middle of this place. I was projectile sweating. It was just incredibly hot. It was 104-108 degrees in the warehouse. I’m looking at my tool crib where all my hand tools are and I’m just going “You have to invent something, Stuart. You have to bring something to market. Do it now. Ready, go.

STUART: And I’m just looking, and I’m just looking. What can I invent, what’s not out there? And the Sears project came to me.

MOLLY: The idea he came up with actually wasn’t a toy at all. It was for a tool.He invented a thing called a socket holder. Sockets are the attachments that go on the end of a socket wrench. They come in a lot of different sizes, and for a long time there wasn’t any good way to store them. Stuart invented a special plastic rail that keeps them organized. And this might not sound particularly exciting, but to people who know tools, it’s ingenious. Unlike with the slap bracelet, Stuart figured out how to make every bit of the socket holder himself. He invested thousands of dollars in equipment so that he could totally own the manufacturing process, and he got a good sense of his costs. He sold it to Sears. He started a company and before long, the socket holder was bringing in more than 2 million dollars in revenue each year.

STUART: I still get giddy when I walk into a Sears store and see my stuff on the shelf. It — it’s just an amazing feeling.

MOLLY: Stuart moved back home to Wisconsin. He built a big house there, and a new production facility in Florida, where he still has employees. And just when it seemed like he’d finally found success …  everything unraveled again.The ribbon-cutting ceremony for that Florida building was September 29, 2008. Also known as the day the stock market crashed. Suddenly, all of Stuart’s property was underwater. And pretty soon, the recession hurt Sears, too. Revenue from his socket holder was cut in half. And then, totally out of the blue, Stuart got a note from someone he hadn’t heard from in 20 years.

STUART: So the date is 1-5 of 2012, at 0732.

MOLLY: Stuart’s sitting at his desk, looking at a message he got on LinkedIn.

STUART: It says “Gene Murtha has indicated you are a person they’ve done business with at Main Street Toy Company.” And it reads “Hi Stuart, I have retired from toys. Will always recall your invention as one of the most brilliant creative insights I ever saw. Don’t know what happened after we lost contact, but time heals. I would love to reconnect if okay by you. Maybe we can fill in some blank spots together. Best, Gene Murtha.”

MOLLY: And so what did you think when you got that note?

STUART: I didn’t know what to think. You know, what’s his intent. What does he want, what does he want, what does he need, why is he contacting me. Just trying to dig through it, drill a hole in it, turn it inside out. What is it about, why. You know — that’s just who I am.

MOLLY: So you were a little suspicious, you’re saying, at first.

STUART: Oh absolutely.

MOLLY: What he’s saying there is not insignificant, right, “I’ll always recall your invention as one of the most brilliant insights I ever saw.”

STUART: And that seemed — for me at the time it seemed over the top. It’s like “What does he want?” It’s like, “Why would you be saying that?” It was a nice product, but you know — brilliance, I don’t equate brilliance with the slap wrap. I just was the lucky one who saw a bracelet before someone else did, and so I think his choice of adjectives just was like, “Really?”

MOLLY Stuart has invented a bunch of different things over the years — a line of promotional goods for college sports teams, a couple of plastic chew toys for large parrots, a colorful beach shovel with holes in it for collecting shells. But ever since the slap wrap, he’s never sold another toy. Which is weird because when I visited Stuart in his office, he showed me all these toy prototypes…

STUART: Oh one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, 9, 10, 12, 14 maybe?

MOLLY: Fourteen toys? On a shelf of how many things?

STUART: 30 or so? 35?

MOLLY: So half of your ideas here are ideas for toys.

STUART: I guess they are, aren’t they? (laughter)

MOLLY: Why is that?

STUART: It’s where my brain goes. I have no idea why.  

MOLLY: After thinking about it some more, Stuart says he likes that toys are 100 percent creative. They don’t need to have a practical purpose, they just have to be fun… and that makes them exciting to invent. But even Stuart is surprised when he looks at how many toys he’s made.

STUART: I knew there was a lot of toys over there, but when you start counting them in comparison to all of the other stuff — well that’s really interesting. “But why aren’t you selling any of those, Stuart?” I don’t know, why am I not selling any of those things Stuart. You know, is it, did my hand really get burnt that bad?

MOLLY: So when Stuart got that note on LinkedIn from Gene, his old slap wrap partner, he was torn. On the one hand, he thought Gene was responsible for a lot of bad things in his life. For slap wraps going wrong. For his move into that dank warehouse where he lived for years. But on the other hand, Stuart really wanted to sell another toy, and Gene might be able to help him do it. The toy industry is really difficult to break into, even for a guy like Stuart who once invented a huge hit. Stuart actually took a couple of his inventions to Toy Fair himself just a few years ago — but he didn’t get any traction. He could see on LinkedIn that Gene had gone on to become a pretty big deal. A top executive at Mattel and then the President of GUND, the teddy bear company. But something else he noticed convinced him reach out. He saw that Gene volunteered for a business mentoring organization he admires. It made him question his understanding of who Gene was, made him think — maybe I should give him another chance. This is what Gene says about hearing from Stuart again.

GENE: It was — like going to confession and having absolution. It was forgiveness. I felt so good after that. I really did.

MOLLY: Late last year, Stuart flew to Pennsylvania to meet Gene in person. They met at a restaurant, and one by one Stuart took his toy ideas out of the suitcase he’d brought with him. The thing that caught Gene’s eye was a round 3D puzzle. It has chunky pieces that are oversized and a little bit flexible, like firm Nerf material but with a smooth surface. Stuart showed it to me when I visited.

MOLLY: What I’m looking at here is just like a — it’s a plastic ball. And if I were looking at it I would actually guess that’s it’s just like hard plastic.It’s all one color, red, with jigsaw lines all over it. When you pick it up you can tell it’s hollow inside — and that turns out to be important. Because it’s designed to crash into pieces.

STUART: So the idea when you throw it — in order to blow apart it has to collapse on itself. And when it collapses on itself then the pieces hit each other and it kind of takes on a life of its own. And so that’s what I’m going to do here, I’m going to take this puzzle, make sure it’s together. And then I’m going to throw it against the wall.

STUART:  Ready? … [Bang] and it just…

MOLLY: You look really delighted when that happens.

STUART: It’s just fun, how could it not be? You throw something against the wall and neither it or the wall is broken. It’s just fun. And then you put it all back together.

MOLLY: When Gene saw this toy, he liked it. There’s no question: it is not the second coming of the slap bracelet. But he thinks it has a chance. So he and Stuart hammered out an agreement. Gene would be Stuart’s agent at this year’s Toy Fair.

MOLLY: When I met Stuart in Wisconsin, Toy Fair was just a week away. He was thinking about it a lot — wondering whether Gene would be able to strike a deal. Stuart was on edge. This was the closest he’d come in decades to having a toy made. And there was a lot at stake for him. Not just because socket holder sales are down and he needs money — but because his health isn’t good. And it hasn’t been for a while. Stuart has degenerative arthritis. He’s had three spinal fusions and a hip replacement. He’s an athletic guy who went to college on a football scholarship, but now he can’t turn his head or nod up and down.

STUART: I know what my future is medically. There’s there’s a timeline in there. I know that I have a limited number of years that I will physically be able to work.

MOLLY: How old are you Stuart?

STUART: 57

MOLLY: And by your calculation how much time do you have before you don’t think you’ll be able to continue to do your day to day work?

STUART: Based on my familial history, at 65, I will probably not be walking. I will probably be in a wheelchair by then. And so, you know, that doesn’t necessarily speak to what my mind is capable of. But because I physically do everything here my abilities, you know… And I’m doing my best. It’s just, you know, this inventing thing it’s kind of a hard gig. You know.

MOLLY: The very first slap bracelet — the one that spent years in Stuart’s truck — now lives on a shelf in his office, just above his computer. If he looks up during the day, it’s right there, where he can see it. There’s no fabric on it anymore. It’s just a flimsy piece of metal that you can pull straight or snap into a curl.

MOLLY: So this is it?

STUART: Yeah, so this is the original.

MOLLY: Do you ever take it down and fiddle with it?

STUART: All the time. I think about how much time it spent around my steering column, and how many times I rolled it up and down, and tried to figure out how to make it.

MOLLY: I mean this thing has had… a lot of influence on your life.  

STUART: Oh yeah yeah. It has shaped much of the decisions I have made as an adult. Absolutely. Not it exactly, but … yeah, pretty much it exactly. It did.

STUART: Good morning, Gene, how are you?

GENE: (laughter) I’m doing great. How are you today?

STUART: I’m doing well (duck Gene’s response under next track)

MOLLY: This is Gene and Stuart talking on the phone earlier this month. The news out of Toy Fair was good. A well-known toy company had gotten excited about Stuart’s toy.

GENE: So a couple of updates I want to share with you, and let me just put it in perspective for you…

MOLLY: We can’t say the name of the toy company… but they’re big enough that they had meetings coming up with major retailers.

GENE: The first customer meeting is with WalMart.

STUART: Oh, outstanding!

GENE: Yeah, it’s starting at the top of the heap. So the ask is, we don’t have a deal yet but we love the product and we’ve put it on a fast track for spring of next year. Can you give us permission to show it? We know that you have rights to tell us we can’t show it, but is it okay for us to show it?

MOLLY: Gene’s telling Stuart — the company wants to show his prototype to WalMart, even though they haven’t committed yet.

STUART: And you would understand that causes some natural trepidations. In the whole scheme of product design and intellectual properties — this is not a patentable item.

MOLLY: Stuart’s basically saying: how do we know someone won’t steal it, just like they did with the slap wrap.

STUART: …while you can say for your eyes only, the reality is a lot of other eyes see it. How is it that we manage that?

GENE: Well, it’s not easily managed…

MOLLY: Gene doesn’t really give Stuart an answer. He says he thinks Stuart should take the risk.

MOLLY: The last time Stuart trusted Gene … his toy became a huge hit … but then the whole thing failed, and it wrecked his life for a while. Stuart has learned a lot since then. He’s no longer the guy making ends meet sewing Lycra leotards. He’s built a multimillion-dollar company and made himself an expert in product development and manufacturing. But when it comes to toys, he’s still on the outside looking in. And he needs Gene’s help. So he tells Gene, okay they can take it to WalMart, show them the prototype. And then he hangs up, and he waits.

[MUSIC]

LISA: Molly Messick is senior producer of Startup.  After the break, we’ll be back with scenes from the next episode. Next week on StartUp… what it’s like to pass up a huge offer from Google.

KENT: the moment that Jonathan turned that down. He really set himself on a path. He really set aside millions- tens of millions. Probably hundreds and millions of dollars. To build something.

LISA: And what happens when that gamble doesn’t pay off. That’s next time on StartUp…

[MUSIC]

[CREDITS]

StartUp is hosted by me, Lisa Chow. Our show is produced by Bruce Wallace, Luke Malone, Simone Polanen and Emanuele Berry. Our senior producer is Molly Messick. We are edited by  Caitlin Kenney and Pat Walters. Production assistance and fact checking by Alvin Melathe. Special thanks to Eric Mennel.

Mark Phillips wrote and performed our theme song. Build Buildings wrote and performed our special ad music.

Additional music by the band Hot Moms Dot Gov.

David Herman and Ian Scott mixed the episode.  

To subscribe to the podcast, go to iTunes, or check out the Gimlet Media website: GimletMedia.com. You can follow us on Twitter @podcaststartup.

Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next week.  

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