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Creators Put Their Finger on Miniature Toy Market

Entrepreneurs: Guided by a 12-year-old and local experts, former marketers design tiny, authentic-looking skateboards.

August 09, 2000|DENISE GELLENE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some kids doodle when they are bored. Middle-school student Steven Asher fashions scraps of paper into miniature skateboards. And in the hands of his business-minded dad, Steven's finger-size creations have evolved into a thriving $50-million line of toys.

It helped that Steven's father works in the toy industry. A former sales rep who appeared in Wham-O Inc. commercials as a youth, Peter Asher, 50, co-owns small toy distribution and display companies in Escondido.

Guided by 12-year-old Steven, Asher and his partner, former toy merchant Tom Davidson, designed tiny, authentic-looking skateboards of wood and die-cast metal. Two years later, their popular Tech Deck toys are inspiring a slew of knockoffs--as well as an ever-expanding line of Tech Deck shirts, stickers and stationery.

Tech Deck is more than a lesson on the benefits of listening to kids. The corporate landscape is checkered with kid-inspired flops. A recent example is EParties, an online service conceived by the 9-year-old daughter of Internet entrepreneur Jake Winebaum. EToys acquired the failing company in June.

Behind Tech Deck's success are shrewd licensing deals that Asher and Davidson struck with such top skateboard brands as World Industries and Birdhouse Projects, the alter-ego of superstar Tony Hawk. They've forced most competitors to settle for second-tier licenses or to make do with generic toys.

"They've locked up the skate market," said Carlsbad agent Steve Astephen, who represents many extreme-sports athletes.

It wasn't easy at first. Firms in the clubby skateboard business ignored repeated calls from the Tech Deck outsiders. Through a stroke of luck, Asher and Davidson got in to see the owners of influential World Industries. The meeting was arranged by professional skateboarder Chet Thomas, a former classmate of Asher's administrative assistant. Thomas is sponsored by a sister company of World Industries.

Asher learned he had an inside track to World Industries by coincidence. His assistant mentioned her old high school chum after spotting Steven's Chet Thomas signature skateboard in Asher's office.

"It was meant to be," Asher said.

A deal with World Industries paved the way for pacts with other premium skateboard companies. Tech Deck currently has rights to 19 top labels for an average of five years. In return, the skate companies receive an undisclosed royalty on sales. Steven also receives a royalty, according to his father.

Toy companies that market miniature BMX bikes and motorcycles are reluctant to challenge Tech Deck's supremacy in tiny skateboards. Malibu-based Jakks Pacific Inc. plans to round out its extreme-sports lineup with a small collection of mostly generic skateboard toys.

"I have to hand it to them," said Stacey Pauly, director of new business development at Jakks Pacific. Referring to Tech Deck, she said, "Their execution has been terrific."

Some critical elements to Tech Deck's prosperity are beyond its control. A drop in the popularity of skateboarding could be disastrous for the brand. And experts believe that knockoffs aimed at younger kids may damage Tech Deck's appeal among preteen boys.

"When it starts going younger, that can kill a buzz," said Bill Jensen, executive editor of the trade magazine Playthings.

But Asher challenges that notion. A recent McDonald's Happy Meal giveaway of generic miniature skateboards seemed to help Tech Deck sales, he said.

"Kids get the McDonald's premium and then they want the real thing," Asher said.

Despite their many years in the toy industry, Asher and Davidson knew little about the skateboard business before they started Tech Deck in early 1998. Premium skateboards are sold through specialty skate shops and sporting goods stores, outside mainstream toy channels.

Asher had spent most of his career as a sales rep for a number of companies, including Toy Biz, Playmates and now-defunct Marshon. As a youngster, he appeared in commercials for Wham-O, where his father was a sales rep. Davidson, 53, was a co-founder of the San Marcos-based PlayCo Toys chain.

Steven and local skate shop owners helped them identify popular brands. And nudged by his father, Steven prepared a two-page memo making a case for the toy.

It should have "metal trucks and real grip tape on the top and graphics on the bottom that look real," Steven wrote. Because it fits in a pocket, kids would use it "at school, with friends at home, maybe in an airplane or car."

Steven's memo left no doubt as to why boys his age would play with it. "Bored," it said.

Asher and Davidson also listened to their licensors. They changed the location of the wheels and the shape of the skateboard at the suggestion of skate company bosses. The hardware and wheels are removable, as with actual skateboards. Children use their fingers to simulate ollies, grinds and other skateboarding tricks.

Pro skater Thomas, 27, came up with the Tech Deck name.

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