Toy Story

Staff Writer
Columbus CEO

Carl Zealer may sell googly-eyed Squirmles, DIY bouncy balls and Magic Cards, but make no mistake—for him, toys are serious business.

In a short time, Zealer, 30, has gone from a pitchman hawking Squirmles at fairs and flea markets to CEO of the multimillion-dollar Nowstalgic Toys. The company sells the “magic pets”—think a fuzzy worm on fishing line—along with other childhood favorites of the 1970s and ’80s, such as Wacky Wall Crawlers, Ball Wizards and Mystiflyers.

Nowstalgic Toys is headquartered in Canal Winchester; the 20,000-square-foot space includes a fireman’s pole and tube slide from Zealer’s lofted office. A “Bat Cave” houses a 1989 Batmobile, and another room is devoted to periodic Nerf gun battles among staffers.

In addition to nine local workers, Nowstalgic Toys has a showroom in Hong Kong and an office in Shenzhen, China, where its products are assembled. It employs 15 there, including three engineers who can take a concept from idea to working prototype in a week’s time.

Business growth hasn’t been easy. Things took off initially after Zealer paid $5,000 for the rights to Squirmles. In 2010, he projected $9 million in gross sales—up from $4 million in 2009—but that didn’t pan out. “It’s been a crazy ride,” Zealer says, speaking from China. “We had the orders in-hand, and it just went totally south. I hired the wrong person in Hong Kong.”

After that setback, “I found the right guy, and he really helped me build this whole China operation.”

Nowstalgic Toys posted $5.5 million in sales for 2011. This year, Zealer expects sales of $30 million through the company website and in stores such as Bed, Bath & Beyond, CVS, Michael’s, Old Navy, Urban Outfitters, Walgreen’s and Walmart. The company’s products are sold in 40 countries.

But Zealer’s not a one-trick pony: He has developed disposable 2-inch video monitors that can be integrated into store displays to demonstrate the products as many as 700 times. He owns the rights to the term “Instoremercial” and has patented the technology to place such screens into a DVD case; he envisions they could be used to show movie previews or for video game demonstrations.

“We’re morphing,” says Zealer. “I always said … I don’t think we’re just going to be toys, I think it’s too limited.”

Reprinted from the April 2012 issue of Columbus C.E.O. Copyright © Columbus C.E.O.