In our series Brought to you by, we dive into the stories behind ordinary seasonal items: that grill you fire up for the Fourth of July or the fruitcake that you dig into (or regift) over the holidays. Where did they come from, and why did they become so popular?
If you’ve got a kid, you’ve probably seen self-tying water balloons in the store, or maybe at a neighbors party. They’re called “Bunch-o-Balloons,” and they’re sold by Zuru, in countries around the world. The toy looks like a couple dozen balloons on long skinny tubes. You attach the device to your garden hose, the balloons fill with water, and when you shake the hose they fall off, all tied and ready to toss. Marketplace’s Adriene Hill called up Josh Malone, the inventor of “Bunch-o-Balloons,” in Plano Texas, and they talked about how the idea came to be. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Adriene Hill: Where’d the idea come from?
Josh Malone: Well it came from thousands and thousands of water balloons that I filled one at a time and tied with my fingers. So I just spent many hours thinking there’s got to be a better way to do this.
Hill: How did it come to you? How did you figure out to do it like this?
Malone: Well, I would just develop concepts in my in my head about how can we do this differently and I tinkered around some different things. At one point I was stuffing many marshmallows inside the balloons…things like that. And then eventually I thought, can I just put a small elastic ring around the neck of the balloon to seal it? And, started working on that idea, wasn’t satisfied and set it aside for a year or two. And then, it was the middle of winter, but I had some free time and I pulled back out the concept of this elastic ring around the neck of the balloon and I was able to get a ring around a balloon. And then I realized I got to figure out how to get the water into because it was closed. So I thought if I put a small tube in there I can pry it open and then insert the water through the tube and then I looked at the other end of the tube, and I had to figure out how to get the water into there, so I found it — one of the caps that goes on the end of a garden hose. I put a hole in it put the tube in it. And then I looked at it and I thought, that tube’s really lonely, there’s all this room for more tubes. And rather than to test it, I immediately filled the end of the cap with holes. I calculated you could fit 37 holes in the end of that gap and glued the tubes in and took it outside and connected to the hose and filled it up and it was magical. They filled up and fell off and sealed themselves. It just worked. And I thought, maybe this solves the problem for a lot more people than just myself.
Hill: I mean at that moment, was it a little bit like winning the lottery? Did you just feel like you figured it out, you got it?
Malone: No it was more like cautious optimism because I’ve had plenty of ideas and some of them turn into products and boy, the road ahead after that is just fraught with peril.
Hill: In your experience, what’s harder — is it actually having that idea and bringing it to life, or is it getting through the production and marketing process?
Malone: The production and marketing process is always harder. And I think most inventors come to realize that pretty early in their careers.
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Hill: Why is that?
Malone: The idea is that the 80/20 principle so 20 percent is the idea and the 80 percent is the production and marketing and finance and everything else.
Hill: What’s it like broadly to be an inventor in the U.S. today?
Malone: Well there’s aspiring inventors, and they enjoy it, and there’s always that potential and that hope. And then there’s those of us who’ve been moderately successful and gotten a product to market and maybe sold a business to business or sold it on a few retail shelves.
Hill: This has got to count as more than a moderate success, right?
Malone: Yeah this was just the homerun times 100. I mean this was, yet this was just unbelievable, overwhelming. I have no expectation of being able to do is again. There’s just too many things that had to fall into place that were out of my control. And I could have screwed it up in a lot of different ways but, still, a lot of things went my way to be this successful.
Hill: What’s the production like now? I mean if you can just ballpark it for me, how many of these things are you guys making in selling?
Malone: It’s a little over two million packs per month. We’ve produced over two and a half billion balloons in the last two and a half years.
Hill: Do you still go out and throw water balloons these days?
Hill: Yeah, You’re not over it, like, “I could never see another water balloon and it’d be OK?”
Malone: No, you know, we take a break for a while but it’s always fun to do when you’re hot and you want to throw something. And if there’s at least one other participant, it’s still a fun time.