Jake Bronstein is on a mission to fill the world with fun.
At the moment, he’s succeeding, one tiny magnetic ball at a time – when he’s not writing love letters to strangers, or breaking weird world records, or posting funny words (kerfuffle, discombobulated, spork) at his blog, Zoomdoggle.com.
The 31-year-old New Yorker who graduated from Central High School (255th Class) is the brains behind a new toy/gadget/gizmo called Buckyballs.
It’s hard to categorize, not unlike its quirky, loopy creator, but Buckyballs, which debuted in March, are 216 powerful rare-earth magnetic spheres that can be used to make countless shapes. Named after architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller, the novelty is attracting lots of attention, a testament to the power of YouTube and the Internet – if not to man’s desire for mindless entertainment – to launch a phenomenon.
“This is Silly Putty for the 21st century,” praised Gadget Blog. The $29.95 item sells nationwide in hundreds of gift shops and stores, including the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Franklin Institute, and Brookstone.
Mark De Lelys, director of retail and visitor services at the Academy of the Fine Arts, spotted the item at the New York International Gift Fair. “It’s so unusual,” he said. “It marries science and sculpture together. It’s a nice gift for a guy, which is a little difficult to find.” In two weeks, the museum store sold out its initial batch of a few dozen.
But perhaps the strongest sign yet of this stress-reducing plaything’s arrival as the next Rubik’s cube – as some have noted – is its inclusion in Real Simple’s and Esquire’s holiday gift guides, among others.
“We like to find the hidden gem,” said Sharon Tanenbaum, Real Simple associate editor who helped whittle nearly 500 products down to 76 featured in the December issue. “We really look for thataha! factor. The Buckyballs fit perfectly into that category. The possibilities of playing with them are endless.”
On a recent visit to his parents’ uber-artsy Fitler Square home, Bronstein – an early MTV Road Rulescontestant and former men’s magazine editor – explained his grand vision behind Buckyballs.
“There’s this hole in the world,” he said, earnestly (we think). “Everyone’s forgotten about fun.”
“Disney is safe fun for children,” he continued. “Playboy is sexy fun for grown-ups after dark. Where is that thing that is just fun?”
It started with a gallant quest worthy of Sir Galahad. He and Kristina Hoge, 27, his silly-loving fiancee, hit a tourist spot in Asheville, N.C., where a bowl of magnets entranced her as perfect for their coffee table. He thought them a little pricey.
But his mission for his lady became clear: How would he get Hoge her bowl of magnets?
Months of research later, she not only got her coffee-table curiosity, but Bronstein, with hopes of pulling in some income, also got something to sell to his blog audience. After all, he wanted to figure out a way to make a living off his true professional love, Zoomdoggle.com, which was stalled at 3,000 subscribers.
Next came the YouTube video. And as with so much else these days, it proved pivotal in Buckyballs’ success when it went viral.
“It was almost a joke off a Snuggie commercial,” Bronstein said of the famous blanket with sleeves that’s a parody favorite. But Bronstein, who pays the bills as an unconventional marketing consultant, was surely savvy enough to see possibilities.
In the YouTube clip (view at getbuckyballs.com), Bronstein – all curly, wild hair with oversize, black-framed glasses – uses his best infomercial announcer voice to declare, a la Snuggie world: “Are you tired of toys that do only one thing? Puzzled by puzzles that are hard to figure out? Frustrated by magnets that refuse to pull their own weight? Introducing Buckyballs!”
Hoge models jewelry (Earrings! Bracelets!! Necklaces!!!) made with the magnets. Bronstein shows off shapes he has concocted.
“The fun never ends,” he intones. The two high-five in a reference to the Snuggie-clad who, hands free at last, can slap palms at chilly ball games.
About three weeks later, Bronstein got 10 honest-to-goodness orders. He didn’t even have a container ready to ship the 216 magnets – or quality control to ensure he was really sending 216 magnets.
Within 60 days, the video got nearly 100,000 views, he said. The bloggerati gave the addictive-as-nicotine toy repeated boosts. It helped that Bronstein offered free samples as contest giveaways.
Nine months later, Buckyballs were too big for him to rely on his friends to help box them. Now, Bronstein has a business partner, Craig Zucker, and has sold more than 50,000 units. Zoomdoggle (which is morphing from blog to brand) has crossed the $1 million threshold in sales.
How fun is that? as Bronstein likes to say.
As a kid growing up in Center City, he was often a bit off-kilter – at 8 years old, he drew a family-favorite picture of himself pointing a gun at the head of his orthodontist.. It was so hard for him to find a niche.” (His father, Ed Bronstein, 65, is a retired architect who has reinvented himself as a fine artist.)
“I wasn’t always happy,” Jake offered. “My parents were so worried.”
They needn’t have been.
After he graduated Central and appeared on Road Rules, he went to the New School, a progressive liberal-arts college in Greenwich Village. He dropped out after a year to freelance, and by 21 he was a founding editor at now-defunct FHM, a competing magazine to Maxim. A few years later, he was fired after making an offhand comment about Howard Stern’s then girlfriend, as noted in various gossip columns at the time.
Always, he kept seeing the world through crazy, spinning glasses. He’s mailing love letters – the goal is a thousand – to strangers around the world. Why? Why not?
And he likes to set obscure records. His proposal to Hoge was the longest successful whisper-down-the-lane chain, at least according to Universal Records Database.
What will be his next big thing after Buckyballs inevitably fade?
Bronstein will only say, “I’m imagining Mount Everest-type things.”
And lots of fun.
Contact staff writer Lini S. Kadaba at 215-854-5606 or Lkadaba@phillynews.com.