Being CEO of a water-toy company was just a game for 13-year-old Richie Stachowski, but not for his most important partner, who happens to be his mother

The afternoon's agenda at Zephyr Design, in Alameda, Calif.: the tweaking of three swimming-pool toys in development at a two-year-old company, Short Stack. In attendance, as you might expect, were the company's founder and president, Richie Stachowski; the chief operating officer, Bob Miller; and two product-development consultants, D'Miles Salmon and De Anne Ambriz. But, oddly, Richie's mom, Barbara Stachowski, was also present. And during the discussion of the optimal distance between the two lenses of the "Bin-Aqua-Lar" underwater binoculars, Richie was not paying undivided attention. In fact, he was playing with the tool that Salmon and Ambriz had brought along to measure ocular separation, a gauge called a micrometer. But the meeting had dragged on for more than an hour, and in fairness, Richie would rather have been outside shooting hoops with his seventh-grade friends.

When you change just one variable--the age of the company president--the business equation goes kerflooey. Richie Stachowski is 13. In 1998 his company, Short Stack--owned in equal fourths by Richie, his parents, Barbara and Richard Sr., and Bob Miller--had sales of more than $3 million. Before visiting the Short Stack offices, in Moraga, an upper-middle-class community east of Oakland, Calif., I'd wondered just what it meant for Richie to be president of the company. He couldn't actually run it; he was a full-time student as well as a full-time kid. So was he a public-relations front, like a cutout figure in a record-store display? Knowing that Barbara Stachowski had had her ups and downs as an inventor-entrepreneur, I had visions of Mama Rose in Gypsy: a frustrated stage mother succeeding vicariously through her reluctant child. Was Richie a facade or, worse, his mother's marionette?

At a photo shoot for a pool magazine early in my California visit, in which Richie and his weimaraner, Abigail, were posed wearing or holding his company's toys, my suspicions only deepened. "Abby, sit, stay," Barbara was saying, and then, in the same tone of voice, "Very good, Richie, that's darling." But at the business meeting I attended--a kind of seminar, with Richie as the only pupil--I began to see Richie and his mother in a different light. Richie wasn't managing Short Stack on a day-to-day basis. However, its initial product, the Water Talkie, was his idea, and most of the company's follow-up toys were also dreamed up by him. And while his heading the company surely grabbed attention, he not only liked the attention but was using it for his own purposes. As president of a company with the slogan "Made by a kid, for kids," he was hoping to help other children realize that the goal of becoming a successful inventor-entrepreneur was as exciting as--and probably more attainable than--becoming a rock singer or a basketball star. And in just a couple of months he would have the proof when his family and Miller would cash out of Short Stack, and he would be hailed on NBC's Today show as a boy millionaire.

At the afternoon meeting at Zephyr Design, a product-development firm in Alameda (all Richie's meetings were afternoon meetings, which is simply a more grown-up way of saying they all took place after school), the first item that was, literally, on the table was a prototype of "Pool Peepers." Miller had recently brought it back from Hong Kong, where Short Stack subcontracted out its manufacturing to three factories. Pool Peepers is a mask designed to let the wearer see out but which, for those on the outside looking in, displays an image of a crab, say, or a fish. As consultants Salmon and Ambriz talked with Miller, Richie was looking through three alternative glass pieces imprinted with black dots of varying density. One with higher-density dots provided a clearer image but at the price of lower visibility for the wearer. Richie soon expressed his preference for the one in the middle.

"So what is the magic of the product?" Miller asked.

"I like being able to look out but not have people look in," Richie said. "So it's like a one-way mirror."

"It's like a Halloween mask," Barbara said. "They're lots of fun. Why not wear one year-round?"

Barbara then took out photocopies of animal designs that had been faxed to her that day by an artist. "We need to confirm the design," she said. "Oh, I like the froggie. What do you think, Richie?"

Richie, dressed in a white Nike T-shirt, Fila high-tops, jeans, and a blue-and-yellow windbreaker, looked carefully at all the drawings. "Yeah, I love the frog," he said. In a plaid button-down shirt and khaki pants, Miller, 43, could have been an older, preppier schoolmate. For that matter, in her brown sweater and formfitting brown stretch pants and boots, Barbara, who is 38, resembled a high school cheerleader.