Wallet Envy

Duct tape and deft fingers

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On a recent afternoon, my son Henry and one of his best buds, Oren, gathered for a business meeting on the third floor of our house. A nosy reporter (me) had requested the meeting to find out about the boys’ new company, Zazogratiffi, a maker of finely crafted duct tape wallets.

The first order of business was to set the ground rules. One, no somersaults on the bed when responding to the reporter’s questions. Two, no take-back statements along the lines of, “I know I said this, but I want you to say that.” And three, no ukulele playing by Henry during the interview.

The questions were fast, sometimes furious.

Me: “How did your company get started?’’

Henry: “Well, everybody was making companies in school.’’

Oren: “Except it wasn’t duct tape companies.’’

Henry: “Jason was making sticky notes with cool lettering.’’

Oren: “Everybody would put them on their desks so they knew exactly who they were.’’

As so it went for nearly an hour, the words tumbling out in all their existential glory, revealing what I had suspected from the beginning – that Zazogratiffi was a start-up destined for greatness, at least in our neighborhood.

It’s encouraging to see a small business thriving in our sputtering economy. In bad times, customers usually bypass the mom and pop shops and head to big box stores like Target. A pity; small businesses have so much character. The owners are usually convivial people pursuing their passions on a modest budget with no guarantee of financial success. Take Oren and Henry – they work long hours, taking conference calls late into the night, and they just barely break even, what with duct tape going for $5.49 a roll.

Unless you’ve been living in Modesto for the last decade, you probably know that these imaginative 10-year-olds have been hanging out with each other for years. They like to make stuff. After one of Oren’s visits, our kitchen table is usually piled high with rubber bands, orphaned LEGO pieces, twisted paperclips, broken pencils and the sliced-off tips of erasers.

On the way out the door, the latest creation, maybe a slingshot or catapult, is usually deep in a little boy’s pocket. That creation makes its way into a school backpack and onto the desktop of a fifth-grader who is equally enchanted by the bones of things. Classroom chatter ensues: Did you see Henry’s thing-a-ma-bob-ber? How did he make it? I want one.

This fall, Henry’s class was abuzz with the capitalist spirit. Jason’s handmade sticky notes were a huge success, and there was talk of making friendship bracelets. Henry wanted to get in on the action.

One night he was “traveling through videos’’ on the Internet when he came across a site about how to make wallets and other items with duct tape. Duct Tape Stuff, created by a college student who likes taping himself to trees with duct tape, was soon on favorites. Night after night, Henry would retire to the computer room with a roll of duct tape and a pair of scissors and watch Ducttapestuff YouTube tutorials, rewinding on the hard parts.

His first wallet was the “magic,’’ a no-nonsense black-and-green wal- let the size of a baseball card. He showed it to Oren one day after school, and the rest – as they say – is history. Oren was wildly impressed and bought his own roll of duct tape.

“I was so amazed that you could take something that seemed so dull and stupid,’’ said Oren, “and then make something so cool out of it.’’

A company – not to mention, personification – was born. Oren settled on the name. “Zazo’’ stands for the first letters of four boys’ names and “gratiffi’’ is what happens when you are 10 years old and typing the word graffiti really fast. Company titles came next. Oren was appointed CEO; Henry, president and creative director. The board’s vote of two was unanimous. Jeffrey was soon hired as a worker and others got jobs as designers and marketing reps.

“I consider myself more of a business person in this company,’’ said Oren. “When I grow up I want to be a CEO or the general manager of a baseball team.’’

Like all innovative entrepreneurs, the boys started exploring how to sell their goods online. Henry was skeptical at first, but Oren convinced him otherwise, especially after Henry’s big brother wowed middle school kids with a purple and green wallet customized with the initials of the buyer, still a mystery.

“After that, we pursued the idea of a website,’’ said Oren.

With Henry’s help, Oren worked feverishly to create a site that was both functional and attractive. He took photos of the wallets, and together the boys wrote captions to entice customers. The “skateboard’’ wallet is a “singular square with a flip-up part,’’ the “staircase’’ wallet “just keeps on going like a staircase.’’

The company’s site, www.zazograffti.webs.com, debuted on the web in mid-November. Sales are expected to climb as word gets out. Yes, there was another spelling error while selecting the domain name.

“My orthodontist is interested,’’ said Oren.

“My dad is interested,’’ said Henry.

Expansion plans are in the works. Seven rolls of duct tape in various colors – purple, green, red, orange, black, yellow and, yes, zebra print – are stacked in a corner in Henry’s room, awaiting deft fingers. Henry has also upgraded to an X-Acto knife and portable plastic cutting board that allows him to make house calls.

Since Zazogratiffi is a mouthful, the owners are mulling over a name change.

“Our name’s a little cheesy and corny,’’ said Oren. “We might hire a phrase director.’’

“No, Oren, we don’t need a phrase director,’’ said Henry.

“OK,’’ said Oren. “Never mind.’’

“We can do it,’’ said Henry. “What about something French?’’

Elizabeth Rau is an East Side resident who can be reached at erau1@verizon.net.