28 March 2014

The Pure Entrepreneurial Genius of Wham-O...

Back in the early 1948, two enterprising Californians formed a small company in one of their garages -ala Steve Jobs- then began to manufacture a powerful slingshot of Ash wood. The weapon was of their own design, demonstrated enthusiastically by the pair, and was utilized by shooting clubs for practice/some kinds of hunting, even for firing meat up to trained falcons in flight...

Richard Knerr and Arthur 'Spud' Melin were bored with their jobs upon graduation from USC, so they brewed-up the idea of the slingshot, which was a mild success and set their taste for marketing alight. Legend goes that the 'Wham-O' name was taken from the sound of the slingshot's load smacking the target.
In 1957 the partners bought the rights to the 'Pluto Platter' (a plastic flying disc inspired by Californians throwing metal pie pans at the beach) from its inventor Fred Morrison, then added the name 'Frisbee' upon learning that NE US college students who also tossed inverted pie-pans (stolen from campus cafeterias) at the beach had informally named the game after a
'Frisbie Pie Company' of Connecticut.


A dynamic guy named Edward Headrick was hired as marketing manager in 1964, and he actually came to be known as the 'Father of the Frisbee' due to his substantial reworking of the design as well as his initiative in having 'Frisbee' patented as not just a product but a whole new sport. A number of patents were issued, and today there are numerous variations of Frisbee sports, with 200 million Frisbees sold over the past 55 years.

But Wham-O had more than one iron in the fire even in the early days, and 1958's Wham-O Hula Hoop -inspired by a childrens game in Australia featuring a wooden hoop and other traditional games throughout the world- was a far more immediate hit, selling 25M units in just the first four months on the US market. When the craze was at its peak, the plastic molding company subcontracted with manufacturing the 42-inch hoops was cranking-out 50,000 units/day... 100M Hula Hoops were moved over the first two years.

A pattern of marketing low-cost, high-margin, lightweight, durable fad items out of advanced plastics had been established, and was to serve the fun-loving and profitable Wham-O well for decades. And like all good managers, Knerr and Melin were always open to new ideas from others- in fact, most of their products came from outside inventors. Their true gift was marketing and a good eye for potential.
Other Wham-O products boomers might recall: Slip n' Slide (1961),
a 'Wheelie Bar' for Schwinn and other 'banana bikes' (1966), Silly String (1974), even Hacky-Sack was popularized by the company during the Reagan era.

And Wham-O was pretty much up for anything: In the 1960s, they introduced a $119 do-it-yourself bomb shelter lid (!). In '62, there was a limbo dance kit in order to exploit that already-popular fad, and in 1975 when the movie Jaws was released, Wham-O was hawking plastic shark teeth.

Although we played plenty of Frisbee in my day, my all-time favorite Wham-O item that I greatly enjoyed when I was ten was the simple joy of the Superball... think I still got one around somewhere actually. 

It was made of a semi-hard elastomer Polybutadiene alloy that marketing whizzes at Wham-O dubbed 'Zectron', claimed to contain '50,000 lbs of compressed energy' and returned a 0.92 'coefficient of restitution' when bounced off a hard surface. They sold some 20 million of these by 1970, is still on the market today, and the NFL even named the 'Super Bowl' NFL championship game after it

And yep, the company is still around, looks like they sell a lot of snowboards these days too- Wham-O is currently owned by Sprig Toys.

This is the type of FUN, creative small business that I always admired so much... the kind that made so many American dreams come to be... and precisely the sort of entrepreneurship currently being crushed under the weight of federal regulation, Obamacare uncertainties and costs, anemic economic growth, and steep corporate and individual taxation in the United States today. 

But its no mystery why the Soviets never came up with anything that could be considered even remotely fun...

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