When their toy company Giddy Up was sold off in 2011, Doug Cass and his business partners weren't sure what their next step was - but they knew they wanted to be in it together.
"We actually had the 'who' part figured out before we had the 'what' part," Cass says. "We had the good fortune of having the people ahead of the curve."
Cass and partners Colleen Loughman, Joe Yassay and Brent Oeschger brought decades of experience in the toy industry to the table when they formed Giddy Up in 2002. After the company was purchased by Elmer's and subsequently sold off, the partners decided to stick with what they knew. Last January they formed Kahootz Toys
, taking a soup-to-nuts approach by handling development, design, sourcing and sales all in-house. They've since gone about building the company with two initial product offerings: a collectible pom-pom toy called Pomz, and a revival of the classic 1960s Spirograph drawing toy.
"Spirograph is 47 years old," Cass says. "It's a cultural phenomenon. Pomz is a completely different project. These projects couldn't be more diametrically different. People ask, 'Are you Spirograph or are you Pomz?' And the answer is those are just two projects we're working on. And the more successful they are, the more projects we'll be able to take on."
Having just received its first shipment of Pomz
, the company has so far been primarily focused on reintroducing the Spirograph
. The toy, originally produced in the U.S. by Kenner Products in 1966, employs a set of interlocking gears and wheels to allow users to draw intricate geometrical patterns. The toy dropped off the market after Hasbro purchased Kenner in 1991. By the time the Kahootz partners pitched their services to some old connections at Hasbro last year, the toymaking giant was ready to license Spirograph for a relaunch. But Loughman says the product was due for some fine-tuning first.
"One of the problems that we identified was that the old Spirograph had sharp pins in it, which are not safe for a toy in this day and age," Loughman says. "You'd pin the gear in place on the paper, then put your other gear in and spin it with your pen. So that's why we came up with Spirograph putty, which holds the gear down and is reusable for the child over and over again."
Furthermore, Cass says Kahootz's reintroduction of Spirograph involves more than just a single toy. Kahootz has planned out a line of 12 different Spirograph-related products, including a scrapbooking set featuring Spirograph designs.
"We're not talking about just launching the toy," Cass says. "We're talking about launching a kids' arts and crafts program around the iconography and the imagery of Spirograph. To go say, 'Mr. Toys R Us, I want to sell you this item,' that doesn't really excite them. But when you show them this department or this layout or this solution for a section, then it becomes really exciting."
Kahootz's first shipment of Spirographs arrived just shortly before Christmas 2012, which Cass says was a small, pleasant and unexpected surprise. Big-box retailers, he says, are ordering now for Christmas 2013, and Kahootz's main roll-out for Spirograph is planned for this year. But Cass says the timing of that first shipment allowed Kahootz to get Spirographs into a handful of local independent retailers, where they've been warmly received.
"I came home from church [December] 23rd at 10:30 and got a phone call from a store owner in South Lyon that said 'Doug, I just sold out. Do you have any more?'" Cass says. "And I was like Jimmy John's. I got in my car and I was at her store in ten minutes."
Kahootz has worked especially closely with Ann Arbor's Learning Express
, arranging in-store Spirograph demonstrations. Store manager Mark Brakefield says the store has sold nearly 600 Spirograph units, thanks to the toy's low-tech nostalgia appeal.
"When people see the Spirograph, it hits home and it brings them back to their childhood," Brakefield says. "And the toys that were made during their childhood, or during my childhood, I think they were better-made. I honestly think that the thing that is selling it is it's a blast from the past."
The Kahootz partners are gearing up to make major strides forward in 2013, with Spirograph and Pomz making their debuts on the national market, and other new projects still in development. The four partners currently employ two other staffers—a skeleton crew compared to the 50 Giddy Up once employed. But Cass says Kahootz is just getting started and is planning on expanding its ranks.
"I think from an employment standpoint, Ann Arbor's a tremendous place to pull employees," he says. "We were able to fill all our needs right here in Ann Arbor before, so we were very much anxious to get started here again."
For now, though, the partners are all pitching in wherever they can.
"I love that we're all willing to do anything, from schlepping boxes out of the container to vacuuming the offices," Loughman says. "Everybody will do anything."
And while all the Kahootz partners have made careers in the toy business, their new endeavor is driven as much by their friendship and mutual respect as it is by love of the industry.
"I like working in toys, but joining this company was more about the people who I was going to be partners with," Loughman says. "This is more about doing something with people you enjoy working with."
Cass agrees, saying that the partners are bound together by "entrepreneurial spirit."
"When you're an entrepreneur and you start a business and you're used to being your own boss within an organization, it's something that becomes part of you," he says. "I think it would be hard for any of us to become employees at a big organization. It's just fortunate that we happen to be in the same industry. Ideally, we'd like to manage it to the point where it is still incredibly fun and we're still incredibly passionate about it. This has nothing to do with being big."
Patrick Dunn is an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer and contributor to Metromode and Concentrate.
All photos by Doug Coombe