Cool Water Toys From a Teenage Entrepreneur

The neatest thing about being president of a toy company, at age 13, says Richie Stachowski, "is getting to meet really cool people, like the Kmart president."

That, in fact, was the person he was preparing to meet in Troy, Mich., last week, when the Monitor caught up with this young entrepreneur on the move via cell phone near his home in Moraga, Calif.

Short Stack, the three-person company he presides over, introduced underwater walkie-talkies, Water Talkies, in 1997 and now has two more water-recreational products on the market in the United States and six other countries.

After speaking to this reporter, Richie handed the phone over to Barbara Stachowski, who handles sales. But her official title with the company is simply "Richie's mom."

"He's a fun little guy to travel with," she says of her entrepreneuring offspring. "We're going out over the next couple of weeks to visit some accounts."

Short Stack products, named for Richie's favorite food (a small stack of pancakes), are on the shelves in 100 retail stores, including such national chains as Toys 'R' Us, Target, and Kmart.

Richie, Mrs. Stachowski says, owns one gray suit, which he packs with wingtipped shoes and a paper-airplane-motif necktie whenever he travels on business.

Normally, he is limited to spending 7 to 10 hours working each week by his parents (his dad, Rich, sells mortgage loans).

"Richie is a child and is having a wonderful experience as a child," Mrs. Stachowski says. "He's not trying to be an adult too soon. It's all very simple. He likes to make things and he loves to have other people experience his products."

The idea for his Water Talkies, Richie says, began during a family trip to Hawaii several years ago.

"My dad and I were snorkeling," he recalls. "It was really awesome. I was seeing all these beautiful fish but I couldn't tell my dad about them. That made me want to figure out how to talk underwater."

Back at the hotel he began sketching design ideas on paper. When he got home, he studied underwater acoustics to learn how sound travels underwater. Eventually he made prototypes using recycled plastic.

Such inventiveness is partly inspired by his mother, who has designed a line of health- and beauty-care products for teenagers and has brought more than 80 products onto the market, including simple toys like jump ropes and jack-and-ball sets.

Richie also gets help in refining and executing his ideas from Bob Miller, a former Mattel employee and business partner of Stachowski. Mr. Miller, Richie, and Richie's mother sit down each week in product-development sessions. "I just go on a roll thinking of new [pool] products," says Richie.

Afterward, prototypes are tested in a laboratory, - the Stachowski swimming pool. They might never reach the public, though, without help. Richie benefits from having a mother with a successful formula for bringing products to the market.

"Before he made his first presentation, I taught him four things: price, terms, delivery, and availability," she says. "I told him, 'Don't try to sell anything; try to solve these four areas, and if you do, you'll have an order. And that's what happened."

Apparently Richie has learned this lesson well. During his initial business meeting at the Toys 'R' Us headquarters in Paramus, N.J., he concluded his Water Talkie presentation by using a fish tank to ask underwater, "Will you give me a purchase order?" The answer was yes.

Since then, Short Stack has come out with the Scuba Scope, a periscopic face mask for seeing both above and below water, and the Bumper Jumper & Paddle Pumper, an inflatable upright float with a paddle that doubles as a water blaster.

Stachowski says her son's success points to the possibilities for other child inventors. "Kids are so creative, just filled with fresh ideas" she says. "Their barriers haven't been built up yet."

"Richie has seen some products that other kids have invented," his mom adds, "and he's wild about a couple. He wants to encourage other kids to invent."

Short Stack's philosophy, Miller says, is that the "pool is only half full; we want to fill it up." The company's young president is certainly helping. He has about a hundred ideas for new products, seven of which are due out next spring.

* Send e-mail to Short Stack: earthqke@aol.com

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