For John Barbour, the success of OddzOn Products Inc. and its enduringly popular toys could be summed up with a single word: Wow!
"We have this thing that in the company is called the 'Wow! effect,' " said Barbour, the toy maker's president. "The first time someone picks up and plays with a Koosh Ball, they go, 'Wow! This is really neat.' "
OddzOn has propelled the popularity of its Koosh Ball--a squishy orb of thin, colorful rubber strands created nine years ago--into a family of 50 toys sold in as many countries.
It does not disclose sales figures, but in Koosh terms OddzOn is doing well. The firm has sold "millions and millions" of the Koosh Balls alone, Barbour said. Koosh Balls come in various sizes, but the basic price is about $5.
OddzOn's success and the potential for its Koosh toys have not gone unnoticed. Oakland, N.J.-based Russ Berrie and Co., which makes gift items, bought OddzOn from its private owners last fall for an undisclosed price.
The company, which had estimated revenue of $30 million a year at the time it was acquired last October, operates as an independent subsidiary of Russ Berrie.
Industry observers credit OddzOn's success to its skillful expansion of the basic Koosh into a whole line of toys, such as finned footballs, lawn darts and flying rings, as soft and diverting as the original ball.
"It's unusual that they took something most people thought would be a fad and were able to see it as a brand rather than seeing it as a single product," said Paul Valentine, an analyst with Standard & Poors in New York.
In a business marked by products that become wildly popular only to plunge into obscurity, OddzOn's soft, touchable toys remain favorites--appealing across generations from preschoolers up.
"I've seen them being played with by teen-agers," Barbour said. "In fact, all around the world, I've seen [them] sitting on the desks and computers of adults."
The Koosh Ball was born nearly 10 years ago when engineer Scott Stillinger wanted a safe and practical toy to play catch with his two young children. Foam balls bounced out of their hands, and beanbags were too heavy.
So in 1986, Stillinger designed the Koosh Ball--a colorful sphere made up of 2,000 rubber strings joined at the center. The following year he founded OddzOn with his brother-in-law, Mark Button, who was a marketing manager for Mattel Inc.
The irresistibly touchable ball was a hit.
"It is one of the most unusual things to come out of the toy business in a long time," said John G. Taylor, an analyst with Arcadia Investment Corp. in Portland, Ore. "It's fun to hold. It doesn't break anything. It's something kids of all kinds, kids of all ages, can enjoy."
Variations soon followed, sparked by what Barbour called the company's determination to continually improve its products.
Koosh Balls grew more varied in hue and size over the years. One version replaces the wiggly rubber threads with fine, silky strands of Lycra. A new ball boasts glow-in-the-dark filaments.
The balls also appeared on key chains and as jiggly adornments to pencils and zipper pulls. They became yo-yos and missiles for the "Flingshot" catch and paddle games. One fast-growing line adds animal and cartoon-character faces to the squirmy globes.
OddzOn did not stop with the ball. One of its most popular products is the Koosh Vortex, a soft football with tail fins that give it a long, spinning flight. Another easy-to-use product is the Koosh Woosh, a flying ring that Barbour said is easier for youngsters to manage than a Frisbee.
"Many of our products allow kids to achieve things they've never been able to achieve before. That's really important to us because it builds confidence. It builds self-esteem. Achievement is good," he said.
Barbour, who headed marketing for Matchbox U.S. before joining OddzOn in 1990, thinks Koosh ranks with such toy classics as Barbie, Slinky, Legos and--of course--Matchbox cars.
"My belief is my grandchildren will play with Koosh," said Barbour, whose sons, 5-year-old Jack and 3-year-old James, are fans. "We want to develop something where the real value of that product is seen by generations."