James Gick's world is filled with mindless babble, and he likes it that way. Gick, is not only the president of Pet Qwerks Inc., but he is also the inventor of the Babble Ball, an interactive toy that rivets the attention of pets. How? It talks and makes noises when touched, thanks to technology that is so sensitive that it can be triggered by a pet breathing on it or just by the vibration of a pet walking nearby.
This colorful ball, which seems as if it's alive to dogs and cats, has already reached over $1 million in sales in a multibillion-dollar market. It can produce up to 12,000 sounds before running out of power. "Hey, what are you doing?" or "Here we go again," the toy might announce when activated.
The three versions have their own unique series of English expressions and sounds. Gick says the ball is not only fun but also healthy for pets. "It's typical that pets, especially dogs, become quite excited with the balls. The physical workouts provide all the benefits of healthy exercise.
The Babble Balls have opened new worlds for pets that are blind or have poor eyesight, too. Pets with separation anxiety or that are chronically bored have perked up remarkably. Unlike toys that motivate activity by dropping out unhealthy treats, the Babble Balls are just good healthy fun."
AN INVENTIVE FAMILY. Gick was born in Burbank and comes from an inventive family. His dad designed metal tools for leather crafts such as belts and purses. "My dad had one of the nation's very first hobby shops, back in the 1950s. He was an inventor of the tools used today for leather craft. One day, Charles Tandy of Tandy Corp. came to visit his store and bought my dad out right on the spot," Gick recalled. The second oldest of four kids, Gick was drafted when he was 19 years old. When Gick returned from the Army, he worked for his father, who had started another company.
That business prospered and grew for 20 years. This business also was sold, leaving Gick to venture out on his own and start up a new company specializing in gift products. "Our headquarters was in the Irvine Spectrum. We initially focused on proprietary craft products and later became a distributor of products for other companies.
Pet Qwerks branched eventually into gift and stationery products with a line of oversized postcards called 'Better Than A Letter,'" he recalled. "One day, I got a call from a company in Phoenix, and they asked if my business was for sale. They wanted to buy the rights to my postcards to create talking postcards, so we met, and I eventually sold the business to them."
KOKO SPEAKS. Gick, after selling the stationery business, decided in 1997 to venture into the world of real estate, something that he said he didn’t particularly like. One day, his dog, Koko, brought Gick the dog's favorite stuffed toy, which had talked but was broken. "He had that look on his face: 'Please, fix it,'" Gick said. "The toy sat broken in the garage for a month or so, and Koko would look at it every time he saw it. One day I found a ball-shaped yo-yo in a toy store.
I cut it apart, made a little motion switch for the components of the broken toy, stuffed it inside and glued it together. Koko went wild for the new toy. He chased it all over the house until he was exhausted. It was his favorite toy by far." Gick thought he might have stumbled onto some kind of new pet toy that other dogs might get a kick out of, too.
After a year of building and testing numerous prototypes, and an initial investment of $500,000. Gick hooked up with a supplier overseas, and in July 2003, he had his first Babble Balls. "The dogs go nuts for the Babble Balls because they think there is an animal inside," he said. "This isn't just a regular plush toy, but something more high-tech. Most pets go into a frenzy with them the moment they hear them talk. One consumer said her ferret adopted the little kitty ball and carried it around like a baby. Another lady sent me a picture of her hedgehog playing with one."
MISTAKES ALONG THE WAY. However, it wasn't always smooth sailing. Gick said the first set of Babble Balls had a few glitches, like separating at the seams, which cost him about $80,000 to make right. "It wasn't easy. I ran ads in trade magazines and went to pet trade shows," he said. "I'm constantly pitching the balls to stores, and I get new customers and reorders every day, but it took me over a year to really get rolling."
A BRIGHT FUTURE. These days, Gick can be found attending pet trade shows around the country, where he exhibits the Babble Balls, adding more stores and more products to his growing pet toy empire. He is currently working on another product – a small tire-toy concept – that he hopes to introduce by year's end. "I'm still a one-man band for the moment, and things are more than busy," he said. "I'm doing sales, ordering, and everything else in between.
I've been at it nearly 24/7 for about 18 months, and it is growing in the right direction. We're in literally thousands of stores in the U.S. and many foreign countries in just a year. "When I started, I didn't know if I would be blessed or in the tank by now. I just had a good feeling about the concept, and I have always enjoyed pets. We have patents pending for more new and unique products, so the future looks very bright. I never thought it would take off as well as it did, and it's an exciting time."
---written by DEBBIE L. SKLAR, 2004 Orange County Register