If you haven't spent time in playgrounds recently, you might not know about Silly Bandz, the colorful silicone rubber bands that come in hundreds of styles. Shaped like animals, numbers, letters and a range of objects, Silly Bandz have become a schoolyard craze.
Kids wear them as bracelets, collect and trade them. Some schools have even banned Silly Bandz, claiming they distract students.
The man behind Silly Bandz, Rob Croak, knows something about spotting a trend. His journey to success, which wasn't a straight line, holds lessons for entrepreneurs looking to hit on the next big thing.
Croak had been in China in 2007 on a trip to visit suppliers when he saw some thin animal-shaped wristbands that sold in Japan for years.
He says he had a hunch they'd be popular, given people's tendency to fidget, what he calls the "idle hands" theory. And he thought that unique designs could make them conversation pieces. He saw their potential as collectibles only later.
"The tradability aspect was really a byproduct of my initial thought process," he says.
Upon returning home, Croak asked his team of in-house designers at his Toledo, Ohio, novelty maker BCP Imports LLC to create a series of prototypes. By the summer of 2008, Silly Bandz products were selling at retail locations across the Eastern U.S. Today, they're found in an estimated 30,000 stores in 15 countries. More than 1 million people from around the world call themselves fans on Facebook. Revenue is expected to reach $200 million or more this year.
BCP, short for Brainchild Products, already had seen success with the "Livestrong" wrist bands popularized by bicycling champion Lance Armstrong, which it marketed as custom products.
What's the key to Croak's trendspotting talent? Luck, he says. Trendspotting, in his view, is more an innate ability than a learned skill. But paying attention plays a big part.
"I keep an eye on what people are wearing, the websites that they visit and where things are going," he says.
He credits a past career in concert promotion for helping him hone a sense for what works. "Other than the mall, there's no better place [than a rock concert] to spot trends in fashion and accessories," says Croak, who is 47.
Croak's road in business hasn't always been a smooth one, and he has made his share of mistakes.
In 2002, Croak was convicted of forging a check, which he says he signed as a favor to a business associate. Two years later, he ran into trouble with the taxman. He served probation for the forgery count and paid about $45,000 in overdue taxes and penalties. He says he has learned to avoid taking unnecessary chances as a businessman.
"The lesson for me was and always is to make sure you align yourself with good, respected people, and do everything by the book," says Croak.
These days, Croak is focused squarely on the future. Sustaining his company's profitability is what holds his attention now.
"For us, it's about not being a one-hit wonder," he says.
To keep the hits coming, he established an incubator within BCP to develop new ideas from other inventors. Two or more from the pipeline are expected to reach market in early 2011.
Croak also has tapped customers' ideas. "A lot of our packs are driven by the letters and fans of Silly Bandz. We put a tremendous amount of work into listening to our fan base to give them what they want," he says.
For example, several 8- to 11-year-olds asked for a band shaped like a narwhal, an Arctic whale with a single long, spiral tusk that has been a fixture in adventure fiction. The Silly Bandz Arctic Pack went on sale in November.
In addition, BCP changed its marketing. Everything it designs or licenses related to Silly Bandz -- from custom silicone bracelets to a new videogame developed in conjunction with Cincinnati videogame publisher Zoo Entertainment Inc. -- falls under the Silly Brandz moniker.
"The ultimate goal is for Silly Brandz to be the brand that high-school kids, tweens, mothers and grandmothers look to when they're looking for an inexpensive, fun, lighthearted product that's between $5 and $10," Croak says.
Marshal Cohen, chief industry analyst for The NPD Group Inc., a Port Washington, N.Y., market researcher, says it's a good strategy, but BCP must move quickly to develop a portfolio of products.
"Silly Brandz has to become the Ronco of its industry," Cohen says, referring to the company made famous by its founder Ron Popeil's infomercials for its line of kitchen gadgets such as the Chop-O-Matic and Popeil Pocket Fisherman.
First up in the list of would-be Silly Bandz successors is the Silly Slapz Slap Watch, which launched last month. A related product, Rad Bandz, emblazons trendy sayings such as "Drama Queen" and "Epic Fail" on a thicker wrist band.
"We've really stayed true to what we're good at," Croak says.
But when it comes to fashion, time to market matters. Fads don't last long.
Accordingly, Croak built BCP for speed. The process begins with Croak and a small creative team. They debate function, price and marketing strategy until there's a product concept. A design team then creates logos and branding before handing off the idea to in-house engineers who create a pre-production silicone molding. Mix in a modest amount of internal testing, and the product is ready for retail.
"We can get an idea from my head into production in 30 days. That's unheard of," he says.
His advice to others seeking a fortune in fads?
"If you believe in yourself and your idea, don't ever give up," Croak says. "Because if you do give up, you're never going to know what could have happened."