With famous fans including Malia Obama, Kate Middleton, and Pope Francis, Rainbow Loom was everywhere in 2013 – but in Reno, Nevada, an unassuming toy retailer was about to become the most famous pair of hands on the internet, clocking up nearly 100 million views on the video-sharing platform, YouTube.
Toy fads are nothing new. Furby. Pogs. Tamagotchis. Many of them have come and gone…and come again, though Rainbow Loom was the first to truly crest the wave of the internet.
1999, Ireland, and Pokémon cards had a similar effect, exploding onto my schoolyard. I remember coming back from recess to discover that my favorite ‘rare’ holographic card had disappeared – taken by a classmate who was stashing cards under her desk. Around the globe, schoolchildren secretly traded these colorful Japanese pocket monsters at lunchtime – out of sight of teachers.
They were the social currency of the playground.
But even they paled in comparison to Rainbow Loom, which quickly became one of the de facto toys of a generation. Much of the credit belongs to Suzanne and Wade Peterson, two Silicon Valley transplants in Reno, Nevada.
The most famous hands on the internet
When I first talked to Pointy retailers Suzanne and Wade from Learning Express in Reno, I learned that Suzanne was pivotal to Rainbow Loom’s success, as one of Cheong Choon Ng’s main marketing collaborators from the early days of the craze.
Choon Ng, a Malaysian immigrant of Chinese descent, came to the States in 1991 to earn a graduate degree in mechanical engineering. It was during his time as a crash-test engineer for Nissan that he had the idea of a toy loom for rubber-band crafting. He’d seen his daughters making rubber-band bracelets and immediately saw how they could link the rubber bands together.
However, his daughters didn’t bite and it wasn’t until Choon Ng stuck a scrap board with pushpins that the idea took off with his daughters and the neighborhood kids. The next step was to develop a kit – which would eventually become Rainbow Loom.
Soon, these vibrant intricate bracelets were hard to miss on playgrounds and schoolyards around the world.
Kids would weave the bands and then trade them, sell them and teach their friends how to make them too.
Much like Pokémon cards before them, Rainbow Loom traveled the globe. Indeed, when I think of Rainbow Loom I see my younger cousins sitting quietly for hours, engrossed in intertwining these tiny little rubber bands together to make impressive intricate patterns.
They loved showing off their more advanced patterns; I still have two bracelets sitting in my room at home.
Now on the other side of a global phenomenon, I was keen to unearth how ‘Suzanne from Rainbow Loom’ (as she was known to her YouTube followers) quietly helped ignite one of the biggest toy crazes of this century, racking up millions of views on YouTube and spawning a best-selling book.
From toy store owner to YouTube influencer
Self-confessed ‘workaholics’ Suzanne and Wade Peterson met in a semiconductor company in Silicon Valley, though their priorities shifted when they had a family. Wade, an electrical engineer, had been working intense 80-hour weeks and the couple had had to cancel family vacations at the company’s demand.
After starting a family, they started to ask themselves: “how can we get back more control of our lives?”
The first step was moving out of Silicon Valley to Reno, Nevada to raise their two young boys. Naturally (like a lot of new parents), they were invested in their sons’ learning development – which, they reasoned, they could spend more time on if they got away from the rat race of corporate America.
Opening a toy store wasn’t part of the original plan. In line at the grocery store one day, Suzanne opened a Money Magazine and saw a feature on Sharon DiMinico, Learning Express Founder and CEO, with her arms wide open in a toy store.
“It’s funny, the job that put Wade and me through college is the one we fell back on,” Suzanne reflects.
Suzanne and Wade had worked in drugstores in two different franchises throughout college: Longs Drugs and Skaggs.
It isn’t until a few days before our interview that Suzanne realized that the two drugstores were related. “We’re successful because of those awesome basic building blocks,” Suzanne says. Their biggest takeaway from working in drugstores is that “the customer is always right. We’ve carried that over into what we do today.”
Suzanne also cites her Dad as her main source of wisdom for her store. Her father joined Longs Drugs after high school, working his way up to store management level until he retired. Suzanne called on him for advice about hiring, buying, merchandising and everything in between.
However, that’s not the only crossover from drugstores into the world of toys. With a laugh, Suzanne jokes that a “one-a-day” is an item that literally sells about once a day while a “multivitamin” clocks up bigger numbers.
No pharmaceutical bon-mot could prepare Suzanne for what was about to happen with the Rainbow Loom epidemic.
Eat, sleep, Loom, repeat
Rainbow Loom first appeared in a Learning Express store in Alpharetta, Georgia. Initially, 24 boxes were ordered and they quickly sold out. Thousands more orders were placed in stores across the franchise in the weeks that followed.
Suzanne credits being part of the Learning Express franchise for getting ahead of the craze.
When Rainbow Loom first launched into Suzanne’s store, Choon Ng was facing trademark issues as it was sold under the moniker of ‘Twistz Bandz’.
“I remember Choon explaining that he’d once heard Ellen DeGeneres saying that adding a ‘z’ to something makes it cool,” says Suzanne. She still has a sample of the original product in her home.
Rainbow Loom took off like nothing Suzanne had ever seen before. “We had waitlists. It was difficult to keep the product in stock so we resorted to ordering full cases of Rainbow Loom and the refill bands just to get the product into our stores.”
It was the motivation to help out a new vendor and stores within the franchise that led Suzanne to first contact Choon. “I was doing the math. A single chain bracelet that the children were making only required 24 rubber bands. I had cases of rubber bands,” she says with a laugh.
People clearly loved Rainbow Loom, but they didn’t fully understand how to make them. Choon had released a handful of videos on the YouTube channel, but there just wasn’t enough educational content available.
Understandably, Choon didn’t have the time to make more videos: orders were flooding in for Rainbow Loom.
Instead, he asked Suzanne if she would do it.
“I immediately said yes,” Suzanne laughed, “My husband was shocked when I told him about ‘our new project’. It wasn’t long before Wade had set up a small recording studio in our home and we became a production company. We named it Hijinx, because of the meaning of the word and because it sounded like Xilinx, the semiconductor company we worked at when we met.”
Choon gave his approval to the first video and the tutorials gradually grew in complexity to meet demand. Kids couldn’t get enough of these videos as they were eager to advance their skills.
Suzanne was soon looming eight hours a day: “My fingers were raw. I was putting on weight as I was just sitting all day. Wade was getting up at 5:00 AM to edit videos.”
Today, the channel is shy of a staggering 100 million views. Her hunch was right: content is king.
Through creating content for Rainbow Loom’s YouTube channel, Suzanne was unknowingly spearheading the official Rainbow Loom method.
As part of the Learning Express franchise, Suzanne was also making educational sheets to send out to sister stores.
A request for a Rainbow Loom book soon followed.
In June 2013, Choon Ng attended the Learning Express convention in Nashville, Tennessee. It was there that Suzanne and Choon agreed to collaborate on an official Rainbow Loom book using her tutorial method, and ‘The Loomatic’s Interactive Guide to the Rainbow Loom’, a self-published manual, was born.
The book shot to number 74 on the Amazon best-seller list, quickly becoming the best-selling book in the Learning Express franchise too – a rare feat for a self-published author working in a niche area.
During the height of the craze, Suzanne fielded an unusual request: to be a child’s Christmas present. Ironically, the then-famous YouTuber became a gift within her own toy store as she spent an afternoon teaching a real-life Loom tutorial to a young fan from southern California.
Wade and Suzanne had already been regularly holding Rainbow Loom workshops in their store. Even the Governor of Nevada and his child attended one of the workshops.
When you’re a victim of success
However, Suzanne’s success with Rainbow Loom didn’t come without its challenges.
“I remember being absolutely stunned that at the height of the Rainbow Loom craze, our YouTube videos were being watched the equivalent of 73 years every day. It was weird to think that my hands had been watched over 20 more years than I was alive in only a day.”
Choon had been right to protect his daughters from YouTube, where positive comments were matched with intense vitriol. Now firmly positioned within the ranks of successful YouTubers, Suzanne found it hard not to take some of these comments home.
Choon had emphasized that, “you will have to have tough skin.”
Suzanne thought, “I’m an adult. I have tough skin,” but she wasn’t prepared. “I had people threaten to sue me, threaten my life and write that they were going to come and find me… it was weird.”
And the knocks kept coming.
With Loom Band sweeping the globe, Suzanne knew she had international followers – but she hadn’t considered the downside until she received a call from Choon to say that copies of her book had been found in containers of knock-off Rainbow Loom made in China.
Many of the books that were being distributed into Europe were counterfeit – which opened up a conversation about the danger of the distribution of unauthorized toys from the East within the toy industry.
This was a particular blow for Suzanne and Wade, as toy safety is very close to their hearts. Every product in their store must be compliant with the Consumer Products Safety Improvement Act.
“I have to face my customers every day in the grocery store,” she says. “I don’t want to have that difficult conversation with a parent about why their child got hurt from a toy we sold them.”
“While working with Choon, I learned about the inferior plastic materials used in counterfeit products and the risks of those materials to consumers. More recently we learned about the risks of magnetic counterfeit toys being sold online. When our customers shop in a specialty toy store, they are shopping in a secure environment,” explains Suzanne.
She’s not so sure the same consideration goes into toy selection in big-box stores or with big online retailers where customers can often be little more than an order number on the screen.
For Suzanne and Wade, buying from a local toy store with knowledgeable staff means helping to protect kids. Simply, Rainbow Loom wouldn’t have made it onto her store shelf if she didn’t think it was safe – a school of thought that was also very important to Choon Ng.
Life after the craze…
While dedicated ‘Loomers’ still practice the craft, much of the hype has fizzled out – though there was a royal resurgence in August when Princess Charlotte wore a Loom bracelet on her first day back to school.
Indeed, Suzanne still feels the impact. Recently, she came across a comment on one of the videos on YouTube that said, “I spent so much of my childhood watching these videos that Suzanne could honestly be my mother.”
“You never know the impact you’re having until you see something like that,” Suzanne explains.
YouTube fame and a best-selling book later and the Petersons are still keen trend-watchers – though they know that they can’t rely on crazes alone to ride the ebb and flow of business success.
Paying close attention to phone inquiries and listening to kids that come into the store is Suzanne’s main source for spotting toy trends.
Case in point: a week before an eclipse, three people came into the store to ask for eclipse glasses. Suzanne initially put in an order for 500 glasses. Wade said, “500! Are you sure?”
They sold out in one day.
On a hunch, Suzanne made an express order of 10,000 glasses overnight, posted about them on social media and advertised them in-store.
“It was nerve-wracking but as our phones continued to ring off the hook and local media began promoting our store, I was confident that we would sell them all,” Suzanne remembers.
Sure enough, before the delivery truck driver even turned off the ignition, a line of people enveloped the store.
10,000 pairs of glasses sold that day.
“People walk in and you act on it,” Suzanne says. “I’m not sure a big-box could react that quickly.”
Being in a franchise gives Suzanne and Wade the power to be reactive with product trends – speed is the crux. A trend might live and die in a day.
Of course, a customer-friendly online presence helps to ride the tide as a store owner. All Suzanne’s in-store inventory is online for people to find and she promotes her best-sellers using express ads with Pointy.
More and more customers are starting their shopping journey online, and putting their in-store toys online has increased the number of calls where people begin with, “I saw on Google that you stock…”
It’s the same reason a parent drove over three hours one way to bring their child to Suzanne and Wade’s store. The emphasis is on experience, and the little boy was determined to try a particular toy – so his family made it happen, embarking on an epic road trip to Reno.
These little moments are just as vital as riding the crest of a viral product.
When I ask Suzanne what makes a toy go viral, she says that the red thread that connects them is their collectability and exclusivity. She thinks that this is what will define the next huge toy fad – much like Pokémon cards and Pogs before it.
Our chat wraps up when she realizes the time.
“I have to get ready to go to work now,” she says – and I wonder if the customers walking into her store know that Suzanne has almost 100 million views on YouTube. Chances are, their kids may have watched some of the videos.
As she does every day, Suzanne will go into her store and listen – because she knows that any moment could see the discovery of another big toy craze.