Serial entrepreneur Craig Zucker is best known for creating Buckyballs, the most famous brand of rare-earth magnet toys that users can stack into geometric shapes, or mash around like a modular metal stress ball.
As a pre-spinner fidget device, Buckyballs have gotten many adults through a long conference call. They're definitely not for children - swallowing two Buckyballs is like shooting yourself slowly from the inside. A safety scare led to a long legal fight with the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, and Buckyballs shut down in 2012. But eventually the US government loosened its regulations on magnet toys, and Zucker is back with a Buckyball sequel called Speks.
We talked to Craig about the history of his controversial toys, how he manages a remote team, and what it's like to work in an office full of little magnets.
Current Gig: Head of Speks
One word that best describes how you work: Intensely
Current mobile device: iPhone 7
Current computer: MacBook Air
First of all, tell us a little about your background and how you got to where you are today.
I can tell you this, as a kid I didn't dream of selling desk toys - or of most of the other things I've worked on over the years. I'm just a Cleveland kid who moved to New York City after university at Miami of Ohio and then leapt at pretty much every opportunity or weird inspiration that came my way. I've had a few entrepreneurial ventures in my time here, one of which was bottling, branding and selling NYC tap water. You can imagine how that turned out … (But what I can say? We have great tap that doesn't need to come from Fiji.)
After several of those ventures, I joined up with another guy to start Buckyballs, a desktoy made of rare-earth magnets, and man, was it something to watch Buckyballs take off. All of our efforts and growth were organic. There was no strategic marketing firm or PR team behind it. It was truly unbelievable - people latched onto our balls and we just kind of blew up. We rode that for a bit and then got hit with some serious regulatory issues on the federal level. We put up a great fight and stuck it out for a long time, but eventually we had to close the business at its height of $US25 million ($32 million) per year in sales.
Four years later, the legal decision against Buckyballs was overturned. With a former competitor (the guy behind Zen Magnets), I launched a new evolution of the rare-earth magnet desk toy: Speks. Speks is a set of smaller magnets than Buckyballs that are 100 per cent compliant and meet all safety regulations no matter how you slice it.
Take us through a recent workday.
It's something new every day. I have a small team and we juggle around 30 different things a day. Lately my days have been starting with an early-morning yoga class with the team, usually followed by a coffee shop meeting before we head to our shared office space in Brooklyn. Speks still operates more or less like a start-up, and I have so many moving pieces right now that I'm constantly sending emails or on the phone with distributors or my remote team members.
What apps, gadgets or tools can't you live without?
What are your favourite toys?
A tennis ball to play fetch with my Aussiedoodle, Theo.
What's your workspace setup like?
We're in a co-working space in Williamsburg. There's Speks everywhere because we shoot photos and videos ourselves. (Oh, can you please share our new stop motion video… we're really proud of it.) I bring my dog in during the week and he hangs out under my desk. My MacBook is set up wherever there isn't product strewn. Thai delivery boxes make daily regular appearances.
What's your best time-saving shortcut or life hack?
Meditation, hands down.
Who are the people who help you get things done, and how do you rely on them?
Like I said, I have a small team so we all have to hold each other accountable and work together seamlessly. Our Slack channel is the real star player. More than half of the team members work remotely outside of NYC so it keeps us all connected. We're a collaborative team - our web manager will throw out ideas for an email; our operations manager may let us know if something we post is funny or just bizarre; and our designer, well, she designs a lot. Speks is built around helping adults lighten up, reduce stress and have fun, so that seeps into the way we work.
How do you keep track of what you have to do?
Still taking suggestions for this one. There are so many Slack channels, email addresses, even whiteboard scribbles that have my to-do lists on them. I'm pretty good at putting things in my Google calendar, but I'm not perfect (apologies to anyone still waiting on a call or email from me).
What's your least favourite thing to do, and how do you deal with it?
Probably tradeshows or being on Fox and Friends talking about government regulation. I'm more of a behind-the-scenes brand and design guy so any forced sales-y activity puts me a little out of my comfort zone. I love the design process, but talking with Steve Doocey, managing 100 sales reps and 3000 retail accounts is still something we're looking for help on. Anyone out there want to talk?
How do you recharge? What do you do when you want to forget about work?
I'm not above spending an entire weekend only walking my dog around Brooklyn and watching Netflix. I'm not sure I ever forget about work, but I at least can put the phone down for a few hours a day.
What's your favourite side project?
I'm actually working on a meditation product start-up right now. It's still in early stages and I can't say too much about it yet, but I try to devote some time to it every morning, and I'm hoping to launch it sometime next year.
What are you currently reading, or what's something you'd recommend?
Anything by Chuck Klosterman. I also got into Ayn Rand and George Orwell during the Buckyballs v. The Man days.
We've asked heroes, experts and flat-out productive people to share their shortcuts, workspaces and routines. Want to suggest someone we should feature or questions we should ask? Let us know.