Off-the-wall fad turns inventor into mentor for future faddists
Detroit — While the Book of Ecclesiastes may say that there's nothing new under the sun, Ken Hakuta begs to disagree. Mr. Hakuta, who admits to a childish sense of humor, is the Washington, D.C., entrepreneur who foisted the Wacky Wallwalker on an unsuspecting public four years ago.
The Wallwalker is a plastic, spiderlike creation that you toss at the nearest wall, and which then proceeds to walk, rather than fall, to the nearest floor.
When he began importing the curiosities, Hakuta expected to sell 100,000. So far, the total has reached 100 million, making Hakuta, a Harvard Business School graduate, a very wealthy person.
Since then, fad products have become more than a way of business: ``I told my mother they're my hobby, and she said that's OK, as long as I do my exercises.''
The Wallwalker's big success came when it was packaged as a novelty inside children's cereal boxes, and the Japanese-born businessman's company, Tradex Corporation, is always looking for new ideas to sell to American cereal manufacturers.
Meanwhile, Hakuta has become something of a mentor to other budding fad creators around the country. He likes to go by the name ``Dr. Fad,'' and recently began operating a toll-free hot line (1-800-USA-FADS) where creative types can call for free advice. Hakuta also sponsors an annual Fad Fair, the second of which was held in Detroit on a recent cold and snowy morning.
The gathering drew 10,000 curious visitors and about 75 budding faddists from across the United States. And if nothing else, they proved that fads can come in every size, shape, color, and even taste.
From a small booth in the corner, overlooking the half-frozen Detroit River, Alan Reed, a farmer from Idaho, was giving away sample cones of ice cream.
``Good, aren't they?'' he would ask, quickly adding that the product is all natural, with 40 percent fewer calories than regular ice cream because he uses potato flakes, rather than sugar, as a sweetener.
A sign of the times: Several budding faddists offered do-it-yourself home drug tests.
And two ``inventors'' had a running battle going over who was first to develop the Pet Peeve. Both versions are small, overstuffed dolls that are supposed to represent a person's biggest frustrations.
What drives someone to try to create the next Pet Rock or Hula-Hoop? For some, it's simply the creative outlet, but Melody Swetland, whose husband was marketing a fake leg that could be left trailing out of a car door, summed it up for most of the Fad Fair attendees, explaining, ``The reason for making a fad [is] we would like to make a lot of money.''
In fact, not many people make much money off their ideas. At best, only a few fads click each year. One reason is that few inventors have access to the technical and legal help they need to market their products. That is precisely what Hakuta says he was hoping to provide with his Fad Fair, which he terms ``a jump-start kit for fads.''
``He is the guru of fads,'' says Diane Carty, a California inventor whose company, New Rage Creations, will soon begin marketing Owie-Wowies, children's stick-on bandages that come in more than 100 cartoon character shapes. ``Hakuta has been extremely helpful to me.''
Hakuta says there are two types of fads: those, like the Pet Rock, that are little more than one-shot jokes; and those, like the Frisbee and Slinky, that seem to last forever.
Hakuta says the odds are not good that he will ever be able to match his success with the Wacky Wallwalker. Only a few people seem to latch on to more than one big hit.
At the top of that rarefied list is Richard Knerr, founder of Wham-O Products, which, over the years, has introduced the Hula-Hoop, Superball, and Frisbee.
Appropriately, Mr. Knerr was honored at the Fad Fair with a ``Faddie,'' the fad equivalent of the Oscar. A small statue modeled after a classic Greek discus thrower, it is, in fact, tossing a Frisbee while dribbling a Superball with the other hand and twirling a Hula-Hoop around its waist.
Even Knerr acknowledges making mistakes - such as rejecting the idea of the Wacky Wallwalker. He says, however, that Americans have a place in their heart for fads, ``because we break most traditions. Most Americans are a little bit crazy.''
Being a little bit crazy, Hakuta adds, is a prime requisite for designing a good fad: ``You can't be an inventor trying to figure a better way of changing the spare tire. That's boring. We need someone who figures out how to hit a button and turn the entire car upside down.''