My son has 38 fidget spinners! In fact, his collection of fidget spinners practically doubled on Christmas day because my wife and I bought him a large box full of them as Christmas present. About a year ago, purchasing a box full of fidget spinners and not breaking the bank, would have been impossible. Now, every store we go to there are piles of fidget spinners everywhere and the stores can’t get rid of them, even at significantly discounted prices. Fidget spinners are now selling for $1.00 (or lower) when they used to be priced at $10 to $20 a pop. What?!? Did the utility of a fidget spinner suddenly decline overnight? No. Did fidget spinners all of sudden stop spinning because of bad bearings? No. Then what happened?
I’d like to briefly discuss what is a fidget spinner, who created it, who uses them, what venture-backed companies were like fidget spinners, and what we can learn from the fidget spinner phenomena.
What it is
In its most basic form, a fidget spinner is a small, handheld, three-armed device, with a central hub that rotates when it is spun. Each of the three-arms is equally weighted at the tip, which helps the fidget spinner to rotate in a smooth and balanced manner. The centrifugal force exerted by the weighted tips of the fidget spinner enhance its ability to rotate for an extended period of time. The center of the spinner is circular and contains ball bearings similar to those found in the sprocket of a bicycle. They are usually made of plastic or metal and come in a wide variety of colors and shapes. It is a remarkably simple toy that is basic in its construction and design.
Who created it
According to most news outlets, the original fidget spinner was created and patented in 1993 by Catherine Hettinger, a chemical engineer by training. Catherine’s motivation to create the toy came after seeing young children throwing stones at passing cars. She then thought it would be a good idea to create something that was fun, entertaining, and occupying. In the mid to late 90’s, the original fidget spinner was a lackluster toy that never gained market traction. Catherine sold a few spinners at trade shows and the like, but her attempts to woo commercial toy manufacturers were unsuccessful. In the mid to late 90’s, the fidget spinner was a lackluster toy that never gained market traction. As such, she allowed the patent on the fidget spinner to expire in 2005 and pressed pause on making the fidget spinner a “thing.” Unfortunately, in doing so, she forfeited any rights to partaking in the incredible profits fidget spinners have enjoyed in recent years. Twelve years later in an interview with NPR, Scott McCoskery claimed that he invented the fidget spinner in 2014 to cope with his own fidgeting while in meetings. Scott started selling them at a premium after numerous requests for the gadget.
Who uses these
As a parent of a nine-year-old boy, I can confidently say that I’ve seen my fair share of fidget spinners. About a year ago my son first asked me to buy him one because everyone at his school had one. I remember being thoroughly confused about what a fidget spinner was and why he wanted it, and when I asked him to show me what it was I still had a hard time understanding its purpose. Many people say that fidget spinners are good for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or autism because it’s a good mental distraction that soothes the nerves. When Catherine (or Scott) created it, the goal was to help relieve stress and anxiety associated with being bored or nervous. But somewhere along the line fidget spinners became widely popular as toys and took off like a rocket in the Spring of 2017.
I would define the fidget spinner’s popularity as the Kardashian Effect. According to Urban Dictionary, the Kardashian Effect is when someone or something becomes famous despite (or because of) a lack of skill, talent, or ability. No one knows how fidget spinners became so famous, but now they’re everywhere. Last night I asked my son what he likes about these things. After a brief pause, he said he thinks they’re awesome, they look cool, you can collect them, and you can spin them and trade them. All great reasons, right?
What venture-backed company is like a fidget spinner
As I was thinking through the list of companies that are analogous to fidget spinners, the first company that came to mind was MySpace. MySpace was created in 2003 as a social networking site. It quickly gained in popularity with teenagers and young adults. I personally remember when MySpace came out. I was 23 years old and just graduating from college and at that time everyone was using the platform. You could add friends, photos, music, and customize your page to make it look and feel any way you wanted. MySpace was admittedly a bit clunky, but it was the best option out there and if you didn’t have a MySpace page you were considered a loser.
MySpace sold to Rupert Murdoch’s, News Corp, in July 2005 for $580M. Some critics say the purchase by News Corp stifled MySpace’s creative growth and led to its inability to compete with Facebook, which overtook MySpace in April 2008. Facebook was innovative, all-inclusive, and provided a cleaner, clearer, and simpler platform. MySpace failed to open its eyes to the changes happening around it, and as a result they lost significant market traction and relevance. MySpace’s image as a “wholesome” site suitable for all ages, took a dive when it allowed (or didn’t prevent) users from posting obscene photos and videos to the site. In a final attempt to achieve relevance, MySpace tried to mimic many of the things Facebook was doing, but it was not successful. On June 29, 2011 News Corp sold Myspace to Specific Media for $35M. Sadly, this resulted in hundreds of people losing their jobs, and over a $500M loss for News Corp.
What can we learn
Was MySpace like the fidget spinner craze we experienced in 2017? Yeah, probably. MySpace shot to stardom and from a business standpoint, fell very quickly. Fidget spinners are likely headed for the same fate. My son still likes them, but he doesn’t pine for them like he used to. He now knows that if he wants a new one (which is not likely) we can buy one anywhere as they’re practically giving them away at the store. Sadly for Catherine Hettinger, market timing was not in her favor when she first introduced the fidget spinner in the early 90’s. In Catherine’s case, she released a good product at the wrong time, and in the 90’s there was no such thing as viral marketing, which I believe greatly contributed to the fidget spinner’s success when it was re-created in 2014. In the early 90’s YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, LinkedIn, SnapChat, and Vine did not exist. I’m not sure how the fidget spinner rose to dominance so fast, but my guess is that viral-marketing technology had a lot to do with it. And while viral-marketing is great for accentuating and capitalizing on trends, it also creates a negative opposite effect of ignoring basic economic principles and accelerating supply far beyond market demand.
The fidget spinner craze is emblematic of our desire to have the next best, popular thing, even if that thing provides no functional utility or purpose in our lives. We’ve seen this so many times before with things like beany-babies, chia pets, video rental stores, guess jeans, doc martin shoes, MTV, and social networking platforms. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against fidget spinners or anyone who likes them. Fidget spinners are obviously cool to a lot of people and they may have even helped a lot of people deal with the stresses of life (including not having enough fidget spinners J).
It has been interesting to observe the evolution of the fidget spinner across a full economic cycle in such a short amount of time. If I were a business school professor I would use the fidget spinner story to teach students about the importance of marketing, patent protection, market timing, behavioral economics, and supply and demand. With these lessons in mind, maybe fidget spinners did serve some beneficial purpose after all. Cheers – KM