In 1993, Stephen Poreda was just a guy on a beach, playing with a toy he had made in his bedroom. Gripping a stick slightly longer and chubbier than a magic wand in each of his hands, Poreda would juggle a third, thinner stick and execute mind-bending tricks for all who dared to watch at Venice Beach. He attracted beachgoers like a magnet, and that interest in his product gave him the confidence that it had potential to sell.
This product was Mystix Juggling Sticks, and it became Poreda’s first product when, in May of 1994, he started his own company, Infiniti (changed to Mystik Toyz (ToyDirectory) in 2003), with his mother. In July of that year, the company began manufacturing the patented juggling sticks, and Poreda soon took to the road to sell his product. He traveled 40,000 miles that year, covering nearly every inch of the country (multiple times). En route, he was featured on the Today Show and MTV’s “The Grind,” as well as various local talk shows. And all everyone wanted to know about was his toy.
The juggling sticks’ craze lasted two years, but knowing that, like all good things, it couldn’t last forever, Poreda went back to the vault to find another unique product. He popularized the Diabolo, a Chinese yo-yo, soon after, and began selling a Sand-Filled Footbag, but it was the introduction of the Zuni Poi – according to Poreda, the “most popular brand name of toy in the world” – to American children in 1999 which started a craze equal to that surrounding the juggling sticks. A fourth item, Acrylic Contact Juggling Spheres, a hypnotic toy which is lighter than glass, nearly impossible to break and used in sphere play, became the first product introduced by the newly-dubbed Mystik Toyz, which makes its home in St. Paul, Minn.
Four years ago, Poreda began organizing Spin Jam sessions, “mature” dance parties that feature an assortment of his toys, such as juggling sticks and Zuni Pois, as well as other items like staffs and flags. To this day, the dance sessions occur every other Thursday evening, and on a particularly rhythmic night can attract as many as five dozen people.
In his own words, Stephen Poreda describes skill toys, good retail and letting loose.
The Art of the Skill Toy
It was the nature of the [Mystix juggling sticks], not the marketing strategy, that made them popular – the play, rather than the hype of the toy. Skill toys are unique. It doesn’t take fancy TV or magazine ads to popularize them. It takes people playing and interacting, a hands-on approach in selling. That’s what we’ve been doing with our retailers since the beginning of our company. We have known that they key to success is getting our toys played and demonstrated in the stores.
In the beginning we would send combination TV/VCRs to stores so that they would play our video. If you saw it, you would want to do it. At that time, 1995, nothing was hot on the market - sort of like it is now. When the economy stinks, companies aren’t trying to create a boom but just trying to survive. The smaller the company, the more creative it has to be, and do good things when the economy is tough – just like how the best music comes from bands that are struggling. In all facets of all industries, the hungrier you are the better your work.
Mystix and Zunis are our signature toys. Over the last five years, we have been promoting – sending videos to stores, hiring demonstrators, teaching the toys, paying players to go out in the stores.
We have tried to empower retailers with ideas and action that will make them successful in light of hard economic times and a growing mass-market culture. We have been encouraging retailers to have demo items out, to have a hands-on approach in their store and to make a demo area in their stores. We know that space is sacred, but if they utilize it in a creative way they will be able to fill it with activity that will help sell stuff in their store.
Become your own store; become a resource in your community more than just a retail outlet. Be an outlet for fun, a place for kids to learn and play and grow. If you do that, you’ll survive and thrive.
Spin Jams basically started in San Francisco five years ago. There were raves going on there for years – raves were an immature version of what could be – and when dance parties matured, there were older hippies who found something very real in the dance scene. It was very spiritual for them, a blending of new energy with old wisdom that made dance culture very full, wild and bizarre.
My marketing director at the time went out to San Francisco to shoot a Zuni Poi swings promotional video, saw what they were doing and thought it was amazing and brought it back to Minneapolis. We started Spin Jams four years ago. The focus is on dance and play, to create an environment that allows people to feel free – you’re in another world, we create a bubble or a space of our own.