FieldNotes: Upstarts

COMPANY: Primordial, LLC

HEADQUARTERS: San Francisco

TYPE OF BUSINESS: Creative construction toys

FOUNDERS: Michael Joaquin Grey and Matthew Brown

CAPITAL: Approximately $2 million from private investors and an investment group

KEY COMPETITION: K'NEX, Lego, Meccano

COMPETITIVE STRATEGIES: Fashioning novel brand image, positioning product in markets beyond toys

Primordial, LLC, was taking its baby steps as a new company when its founders considered a most tempting opportunity: how would they like to have their product included in the megamarketing efforts for The Lost World, sequel to the blockbuster movie Jurassic Park? To link their toy to the movie, however, might have stamped it in customers' minds as a Jurassic Park spin-off. Thanks but no thanks, replied Matthew Brown, 32, and Michael Grey, 36, creators of Zoob--a brightly colored plastic linking toy that resembles genetic strands of DNA. "Our focus is on making our own brand, Zoob," explains Brown, a former lawyer and now president of the two-year-old company.

Zoob? It may sound like a mere toy, but there's nothing simple about it. The word stands for zoology, ontology, ontogeny, and botany, all scholarly passions at one time or another of Brown's cofounder, Grey. To say that Grey is a sculptor only begins to describe him: as a student of math, physics, and genetics at the University of California at Berkeley, he veered into molecular biology and later pursued a master's in fine arts at Yale University. That led to Zoob.

Inspired by the five nucleic acids that make up the building blocks for every living thing, Zoob pieces likewise come in five shapes. With a dimpled ball, called a "citroid," on one end and an "orbit," or socket, on the other, Zoob strands can be connected in more than 20 different ways. They are sold in kits ranging in price from $6.99 to $39.99.

"We didn't just step up to the plate with a new product--we stepped up with a complete business plan and an entire strategy for brand imaging, distribution, and in-store marketing," says Brown, who, like Grey, had no previous business experience. The strategy initially avoids mass marketers like Toys 'R' Us, focusing instead on specialty retailers like the Nature Co., Learningsmith, and the Store of Knowledge, as well as such varied outlets as independent toy shops, museum shops, beauty suppliers, hardware stores, and a scientific-equipment catalog.

Early on, Brown and Grey contemplated how they might translate Zoob into film and video animation. In 1996, 10 months before they had any product, Brown showed up in the office of Nature Co. buyer Judi Toerge with a laptop in tow, which he used to show how Zoob creatures could be animated. "They were very sophisticated in their marketing approach and knew exactly where their customers were," Toerge recalls.

Selling through small or specialty retailers like the Nature Co. reinforced Primordial's branding strategy. Such retailers "can romance new products better," notes Playthings magazine editor Frank Reysen, by making use of special displays, for example, that prevent the product from becoming lost in the shuffle, as might happen among the thousands of items carried by a toy discounter. Reysen adds that the customer demographics of specialty retailers--"more discriminating shoppers than those who go to the superstores, who are looking for something creative, fresh, and preferably with an educational twist," he says--offer a good match for an esoteric toy like Zoob.

While not breaking any records, Zoob kits have been selling well since their introduction, last August. By year-end they were available in some 1,500 outlets, and Primordial was close to breaking even after just five months of sales. Breakeven might have come sooner, were it not for huge cost overruns in manufacturing the geometrically complex Zoob units. Though he won't release figures, Brown says Primordial expects to quadruple its "seven-figure" 1997 revenues in 1998 and to double revenues again in 1999.

The key to Primordial's long-term success, say the founders, is the versatility of their product, which is equally suitable for anatomical, architectural, or mechanical modeling. The company, for example, is planning to build a bioengineering curriculum around the product to teach DNA sequencing. The founders view Zoob as the launching pad for any number of Zoob-brand creations, such as animated videos that are now in the works. "This product will be infused into all the different outside distribution channels because it's much more than a toy," predicts Robert A. Sica, Primordial's vice-president of sales. One of Sica's first assignments: pitching Zoob videos to retailers like Blockbuster.