December 8, 2023

The Boss: He’s Got Magic to Do

I started doing tricks for the kids at school. My father, an executive with a consumer products company, said I should start putting on magic shows and charge for them. I needed to stop asking my grandfather to buy me tricks.

At the time, I was delivering shopper newspapers. My dad suggested I go through the paper, see what performers charged for birthday parties and discuss with him what I found. He was really having me do some market research. Then I developed a spreadsheet and called likely prospects for my shows. When people would ask how old I was, I’d tell the truth. But then I’d say: “Age is nothing. I do it with proficiency.”

I started performing at bookstores, V.F.W. and church halls and retail stores. At 16, I was conducting direct-mail campaigns. I designed an ad that looked like an invitation; it was aimed at corporations and trade show planners, among others.

During my junior year at Boston University, I studied in Spain. I’d perform magic tricks at Retiro Park in Madrid, attract a crowd, then make balloon animals and give them away. Then I’d say I was a poor college student and ask for donations.

After graduating with a business degree in 1983, I worked as a sales representative for an audio and video company. Then I created a company called Fantasma that incorporated technology like holography into consumer products that I licensed. I sold the products to mass merchandisers and retailers.

At a consumer electronics show, I caught the attention of a Disney executive and interested him in a watch with a hologram. Soon I was creating private-label products for several Disney entities.

We were in the process of going public when a consumer products company bought us. Then I worked briefly for an international toy company.

In 2001, I started Fantasma Toys with Mark Setteducati, a friend who is now a consultant to the company. Today the company has four divisions. We’re known for our magic sets and our remote-control toys. Top-selling toys come along infrequently, so all toy companies need an evergreen product. Ours is magic, which allows us to experiment with technology in our other divisions.

Our Manhattan store, Fantasma Magic, is my playground and a place to share my collectibles with visitors. I sometimes perform magic in the store, and we have a Houdini museum there. Houdini has been a big influence in my career. I’m fascinated with him — not as a showman, but as a marketer. We also have 20 concessions around the world, in stores like Toys “R” Us and F. A. O. Schwarz. I hire magicians to perform at these locations and to sell our products.

The key to my success has been passion. I get paid to play. My friends compare me to the Tom Hanks character in the movie “Big,” about the young boy who wakes up in an adult body. I even have a fortunetelling machine in my office; I’m an antique toy collector.

If I could have done one thing differently, I would have aligned myself from the start with an accounting firm that had access to venture capital. Initially, we grew more quickly than our working capital could support. I was fortunate to have an angel investor who’s a magic collector.

As told to Patricia R. Olsen.

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