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Lawrence Berger, South African born and Canadian reared, spent 1996 chasing an entirely American Dream. Using our national pastime as his vehicle, no less.
Berger, now 25 and living in Arlington, is one-half of the Gen X battery behind Ballboy, a tethered-ball contraption intended to help parents teach their youngsters that most complex athletic chore—hitting a baseball—without ever having to chase the little bugger (the ball, that is) into neighbors’ yards. By the time the first pitch is thrown for the 1997 season, all your favorite sporting goods establishments and toy stores should have the mousetrap in stock.
This year Berger and friend/partner Jonny Mars have devoted virtually all their time and money—and a good bit of Ivy League-culled insight—toward ensuring that the $19.95 brainchild of which they jointly share custody made the big leap from chalkboard to marketplace.
Berger and Mars, a 24-year-old Dupont Circle denizen, were already in the same social circle and had similar academic pedigrees—Berger is a recent Wharton grad, Mars a Columbian, Class of ’94—before deciding late last year that the best way to pursue their shared rugged-individualist aims would be as a team.
“We both went into this really wanting nothing more than to just have our own business,” says Berger. “Obviously, we were hoping to have a really viable business, something we could both live off of right away. But to be honest, there was also a sense of, ‘If we’re ever going to lose $10,000, now’s probably the best time of our lives to do it.’”
Necessity, in other words, was never the mother of Ballboy: At the time they founded their first corporation, Renaissance 21, neither Berger nor Mars had kids of their own in need of hitting tutelage. What’s more, only Berger is even a baseball fan. (The recent acquisition of Roger Clemens by the Blue Jays makes it likely Berger will make more frequent treks to his parents’ Toronto home the next few summers.)
But whereas Berger is the company’s baseball booster, Mars is clearly its idea man. Mars laughs about being a compulsive practitioner of “chindogu,” which he explains as “the Japanese art of creating useless inventions.” At Berger’s wise counsel, many of Mars’ brainchildren were aborted long before reaching full term. Among the rejected concepts was a dual-function aerosol dispenser that doled out breath freshener from one end, air freshener from the other.
“It could cause problems if you confuse the two,” explains Berger.
Another plan to devise an escalator you could sit on was similarly discarded after only limited discussion. “No matter how crazy an idea you think it is, I still think it’s an idea you can make money on,” Mars argues. “I mean, how many escalators would you have to sell to turn a profit? Not many!”
“That clearly wasn’t really a good idea for a ‘start-up’ product,” Berger laughs. “We didn’t have much money. Almost none. We couldn’t think about building an escalator.”
Thinking big, however, eventually paid off for Mars: It was in talking with academics and technocrats about some of his more costly concepts, in fact, that the colleagues stumbled upon the Ballboy idea. A local engineer with a 5-year-old baseball nut for a son helped put the design together and convinced Berger and Mars that the idea was a winner.
A prototype Ballboy was fabricated, and—using the engineer and his swinging son as models—Berger and Mars began showcasing the toy at public parks and shopping malls. The reaction from the huddled masses suggested they were on the right basepath.
“We’d go to the Mall and just start showing how to use the Ballboy and how it could teach a kid to hit,” says Berger. “And it never failed that these big crowds would stand and watch, and parents would ask us how they could get one for their own kid.”
Back then, they couldn’t: The demonstrator model was the only Ballboy. Berger and Mars traveled together to Atlanta for Supershow ’96, the largest annual sporting goods exposition in the country, to make sure no corporate giants were already putting a Ballboy clone on the market. Berger at the time was unemployed; Mars had just been furloughed from a job at the Holocaust Museum. The pioneering aspects of their quest became clear on the trade show trip.
“This show was absolutely huge, and here we were, two guys without any money at all,” smirks Mars. “I mean, we flew ValuJet to Atlanta.”
None of the booths sponsored by the Wilsons or Rawlingses or Louisville Sluggers at Supershow ’96 contained anything remotely resembling Ballboy. Just as gratifying was the entirely positive feedback the industry’s established players gave to Berger and Mars whenever discussions of the product came up.
Back in D.C., the pair began assembling a manufacturing team to forge Ballboy’s individual components—basically just parachute string, bat-shaped wooden handles, and a childproof baseball. Packaging designs were conceived and produced. Total cost for the initial batch of materials for 100 Ballboys came to just under $1,000. In the comfort of Berger’s apartment, the Renaissance 21 men and their significant others got together and converted the raw parts into retailable units.
“That was probably the nicest moment for us in this whole thing: seeing a pile of 100 Ballboys just sitting on the floor after we put them together,” recalls Berger. “It sounds silly, but there was a real sense of accomplishment in the room. Because for the first time we had something more than an idea. We had a product.”
Getting Ballboy off the floor and onto store shelving was the next chore. Last spring, Annandale Sport and Hobby became the first retailer to succumb to Berger’s plea to stock the product. Many from outside the Beltway have since followed, something that he attributes to the contacts and goodwill generated during Supershow. According to Mars, his and Berger’s relative youth made it easier, not tougher, to convince vendors to stock the company’s only ware.
“We wondered going in if people would take us seriously because of our age,” says Mars. “But what we found was that the sales reps we’ve dealt with treat us better because we’re so young. It’s like everybody’s tired of dealing with the exact same group of old men in their 40s or 50s. We’re new; we’re different.”
But not yet rich. So far, about 15,000 units have been moved, enough for the pair to pay off all their debts and eke out a meager living. (Mars, a newlywed, occasionally temps to supplement his income.) But the first full baseball season with Ballboy on shelves throughout the U.S.—oh yeah, and Canada—is coming up, and Berger and Mars are hopeful that baseball moms and dads across North America will be willing to take a crack at their product. If not, well, the journey has been its own reward for the young capitalists.
“I was visiting some friends in Connecticut a few months ago,” says Berger. “And I happened to go into a sporting goods store, and I nearly walked right into a Ballboy display. I don’t know if I was feeling like, ‘Well, we’ve made it now!’ but it felt nice.”