It began with an email I received from Nancy Aronie, who many of you know from her Chilmark Writing Workshops, but she was writing to call my attention to her husband Joel and his brother Alan’s patented science toy called Zero Blaster, and the fact that they had sold over 200,000 since 2001.
She had me at Zero Blaster, so I traveled out to the Aronies’ home in Chilmark to get the full scoop. When I arrived, Joel was off picking up his brother Alan at the ferry, but they arrived before long, and there was no mistaking the fact that they were brothers. There was the physical resemblance, but also, each wore a flannel shirt open at the waist with a T shirt underneath that read, “We’re all just crewmembers on a spaceship we call Planet Earth,” reminiscent of the old Buckminster Fuller line. The brothers answered to a higher calling.
I wanted to learn more about the Zero Blaster, but the conversation kept getting hijacked. “Let’s talk about thorium,” said Alan, redirecting me to his real passion. Thorium, he explained, could replace uranium, and solve the world’s problems. But I was determined to stay on track, and wanted to know where the idea for the Zero Blaster had come from.
Nancy explained that growing up helping their father work on his apartments in the South End of Boston had taught the boys building-trade skills, and they were always interested in science. Joel had gone to Lowell Tech, where he got his master’s degree in nuclear engineering. Alan took another path; he was a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War and fled to Belize, where he described himself as “a draft-dodging, jungle-running nutcase.”
Joel and Alan would later team up to form a couple of different companies, including an online tool company called Quikpoint that they still operate to this day, but the “Bucky Fuller” in the boys was always looking for a big idea that could make a difference. They agreed that it would be great to make a toy that could inspire kids to be curious about the world around them, and lightning hit when Joel was looking through an old book on ray guns, “old vintage Buck Rogers guns,” he said. “I thought it would be cool to make one.”
The idea would be that instead of shooting something like pellets, it would shoot smoke rings — nontoxic smoke rings. “The science part of it was that the smoke ring is technically called a toroidal vortex,” said Joel. “It’s the same principle dolphins use when they make water rings to play with.”
Joel further explains that “when I first push the trigger, it turns on a light, and when I push it further, it pushes the fluid up and makes the vapor, and when I pull the trigger again, there’s a plunger that hits a diaphragm and pushes a ring out.” He jokingly adds that he or Alan have to be there when the box is opened to show people how to operate it. The cool things about it, said Joel, is that you can put rings inside rings, or just shoot rings all the way across the room.
To provide the smoke for the rings, after much trial and error, the brothers settled on a mixture of glycerin and water, which was certified to be safe by an independent lab.
And then there’s the name, or how to call it a gun without the negative connotations of the word “gun.”
“We decided on Zero Blaster,” Joel said. “It’s like shooting zeros, we didn’t want to call it a smoke-ring gun … it’s a Zero Blaster.”
It’s one thing to design a Zero Blaster, but how do you get them mass-produced? Nancy said they went to China for production, but that experience quickly turned sour. “The problem,” Alan explained, “is it’s hard to know what [the Chinese] can do and can’t do … and when they have to gear up to manufacture, that’s when things fall apart.” The brothers’ first experience in China led to a product they couldn’t use, so they decided to start from scratch and bring in an agent who would help find the right supplier. “We told our agent to look for someone he thought could do the job,” said Alan, “and to have him go into the factory and take pictures of everything so we could see if it looked like they could handle the job. The second time around we had to iron out a couple of problems, but all in all they did a great job.”
So with 12,000 Zero Blasters on order from China, the brothers were then confronted with a problem that dwarfed their production problem: Walt Disney.
Disney had a toy gun they were calling Zeo Blaster, and they issued Zero Blaster a cease-and-desist order, saying the name was too close to their own. “We had just taken shipment on 12,000 orders with Zero Blaster written all over them,” said Joel. “We were in big trouble.” But then Joel and Alan discovered that Disney’s Zeo Blaster had been discontinued for five years; they didn’t even have any product. And it was then that the brothers decided to do some out-of-the-box thinking that would have made Bucky Fuller proud.
Joel and Alan drew up an ad and showed it to Disney’s lawyers. The ad said, “Disney destroys small company over nothing,” and they promised to run it. Disney decided that this was not a good look for their company, and promptly decided to shelf the cease-and-desist order, and Zero Blaster was back in business.
All total now, the Zero Blaster has sold some 200,000 units. I said to Joel and Alan, So that’s a pretty good showing, you guys have done all right with this.
This elicited a laugh from Nancy. “Actually,” she said, “we’ve yet to see a profit.” Apparently all the legal bills from fighting Disney and the missteps with the Chinese suppliers add up, so they’ve yet to make any money. “Forget about making money,” said Alan, “we just want to make people happy!”
Looking on the bright side, Nancy explained that they have no loans, the business is totally solvent, and always with an eye on the big picture, she said, “We’re an example of a no-growth business, which is good for the planet — everyone’s trying to grow, and the planet can’t sustain that.”
She said that someday Zero Blaster could make money, but for now they’re comfortable with the money they make from their online tool company, Quikpoint.
“Both Joel and Alan drive used Priuses,” said Nancy, “and they could go on a vacation if they didn’t care about all the CO2 that planes give out …”
“Every time you burn a gallon of gas,” said Alan, “it weighs 6½ pounds, and puts out 20 pounds …”
“TMI,” interrupted Nancy, “you’re giving him too much information.”
See what I mean about hijacking the conversation? So let’s get back to Zero Blasters. The best way to explain this cool toy is for you to actually get your hands on one and give it a try. They’re slowly but surely building up their distribution, but for now you can get a Zero Blaster at Alley’s General Store in West Tisbury or at Brickman’s in Vineyard Haven. You can also go online to zerotoys.com and for a limited time, you could win $1,000 for producing the best Zero Blaster video. There’s also a very cool video on Zero Blasters at bit.ly/zeroblaster.
So who buys Zero Blasters? Kids for one, and college kids and executives who like an interesting conversation starter for their desks. “And physics teachers,” Joel said. “They like to use them to teach their kids about toroidal vortices.” And anyone else, I might add, who realizes “we’re all just crewmembers on a spaceship we call Planet Earth.”