Ever wonder how flowtoys came into being? Conceived in 1998, born in 2004, incorporated in 2006, moved out of garage in 2008 - these dates mark certain chronological milestones, but they don't tell the story of how a spark grew to become a flame that has illuminated the lives of countless people around the world, brought people of all ages together in focused play and joyful practice, gotten them into their bodies, lifted them through trauma and addiction, helped them receive standing ovations from inspired audiences, and inspired many other glow propmakers to launch enterprises ...
This background is part chronology, part campfire story, part lessons learned, and lots of gratitude to all who have inspired and supported us through our continual evolution. Get comfortable, grab a drink, and learn a little more about the innovative company that makes the world's favorite glow props.
Timelines and milestones
Brief insight from Sean's partner, Prisna: The story of flowtoys is a lot about the story of Sean von Stade. Sean is a compulsive problem solver with boundless productive energy and a great desire to serve the world. He finds solutions with whatever resources are available around him, and generally does not see impossibility as an obstacle.
Pre-flowtoys: Late 80s, Sean saw Beastmaster and was awed by what he called the "infinite strike" (figure 8 weave). Growing up, he was drawn to extreme sports and martial arts, but the lack of mountains in Connecticut was inconvenient, and the need for attack and defense did not motivate him.
In 1998, Sean traveled the world, discovered fire dancing at a festival in South Africa while visiting family, and had an "aha" realization that changed his life forever: that the beauty of moving light is *the* motivation; that reacting to moving light is deep-seated in our human DNA, and that the movement of light is compelling to everyone. He went into the woods and made a fire staff-poi-club set out of a sapling. Once back in town, he made an aluminum prop set that was collapsible and modular, enabling him to play with his newfound hobby, while backpacking around the world. While in Australia, he developed his first LED poi combining LEDs, batteries, a switch and semi-soft tubing. He set up a simple assembly line with some friends, and made and sold 40 pairs at a local "doof" party - Australian slang for rave. The response was positive, people loved them, but he knew nothing about running a business.
In 1999, he met Prisna, muse, organizer, and love of his life through firedancing. They had many adventures, performing, hosting the early San Francisco spinjams and sparking flow communities around the world. Together with their fire troupe, they co-created an underground community warehouse of spinners and artists. During this time, Sean made custom performance props for himself and his friends, while working as a handyman.
Flowtoys is born: In his pursuit to make the best light staffs for himself, Sean tested the few available LED lightsticks and found the Coltronix "streetlight" to be the best option in terms of price and quality. In 2004, after years of experimentation, Sean sourced stock polycarbonate tubing to hold the streetlights, and a protective mesh sleeve originally produced for protecting industrial parts in transit, to hold and cushion the lightsticks within the tubing. He sourced 2 different caps that could be assembled together to produce an effective capping system that would retain the lights, dampen impact and be easy to interface with. However the stock caps only came in black and red, and in order to get them in clear, Sean found that he had to custom order a minimum of 4500 caps. He thought "Well, all my friends want them." Despite not having over 2000 friends at the time who spun staff, the cost was not huge, so Sean figured even if he only sold a small percent of them as complete staves, he could cover it. His parents and Prisna encouraged him, and a company was born.
After considering several different names, Sean and Prisna decided on “flowtoys”, a name originally suggested by Sean’s sister. Sean brought his first prototype Flowtoys Modular System to Burning Man in 2004. They survived the harsh conditions of the playa, and he knew they were ready to share with the world. The original Flowtoys logo came to our friend Kris Northern in a dream. Working with Kris, Sean and Prisna launched the first Flowtoys website at the end of 2004, selling a range of streetlight-based flowtoys and the flow-wand.
The early years: In 2005, Prisna joined Sean full-time to help bring Flowtoys to the next level and better serve the world. We decided to spread the flow via a west coast summer festival tour in Appleseed - our VW minivan - that brought us to cities throughout California, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Alberta. Following an inspirational summer, we concluded that in order for Flowtoys to fulfill its mission, we would need to move out of our community warehouse to focus, and that we needed to develop our own light source, designed from the ground up to meet the durability needs of active flow equipment and the sustainability requirements that underpin our lifestyle commitments. We were also encouraged by and given the blessing and mentorship of Colt and Bob Briner of Coltronix to create our own LED lightstick.
In August 2005, Sean and Prisna serendipitously met our product designer at a friend's birthday party/ spinjam, and thus began a lifelong friendship and inspired work-relationship. Together with another friend and electrical engineer, we worked on our first manufactured product - the flowlight. We thought it would take less than a year to produce. It took two years before our pilot run arrived.
Flowtoys grew steadily as an online business and through sharing our passion at various festivals in California and Oregon. Sean and Prisna worked out of their rented apartment in the Mission district of San Francisco, fueled by Philz coffee before Philz became a thing. Sean made jigs, sourced materials, managed suppliers, cut tubes and fiberglass; Prisna sewed handles, made leashes and flow-wands, filled orders, developed a new website, answered emails, and balanced the books. Together we converted oggz into oggpoi, and dreamed up a long list of ways to spread the flow. Our operations slowly took over our landlord/housemate's living room, laundry hallway, backyard and garage. When our awesome landlord and friend, who incidentally did effects work on that epic scene in the Matrix where Trinity fell out of the window - decided to move back to San Francisco from LA, we knew we had to find a little more space to grow our dreams.
Flowlights and the Flowtoys Modular System: In 2007, with the support of Prisna's parents, we migrated across the San Francisco Bay to a live-work loft in Berkeley, where we set up shop in our very own living room. Complete with industrial shelving, chop saw and drill-press, workstations and a shipping station, our living room even had room for a couch - at 500 square feet, it seemed enormous at the time. It took two years of design, development and prototyping before the first pilot run of the flowlight – our first manufactured product – was launched in the summer of 2007, with success and a lot of challenges. The flowlight's unique design and focus on quality and sustainability gained a cult following around the world. Back then the concept of a durable, rechargeable LED lightstick with a lifetime warranty was as alien as the flowlight looked. While designed to stand on its own as a lighting product, the flowlight was created to serve as a pixel in a comprehensive system of props - the Flowtoys Modular System.
During these years, we learned many lessons in manufacturing, production, shipping, and making difficult decisions. We also learned how long everything takes. In 2008, we outgrew our living room and moved operations to a run-down warehouse 4 blocks from our home, spending 8 months converting it into a beautiful flow mecca that hosted countless flow artists and inspired flowspaces around the world. Meanwhile Sean made more jigs to streamline production, and continued to improve processes and develop products, including the crystal case, flowmass, flower cap, bridge cap and staff connector.
In 2009, the Flowtoys Modular System was launched at EJC in Germany. Comprising the flowlight and a series of click-in caps, connectors and tubes that are all interchangeable, the Flowtoys Modular System enabled the affordable creation of many props with just a few easily replaceable and serviceable parts. We sold out of everything at EJC, even dismantling our booth, which was made out of modular system parts.
The birth of Kiro and Podpoi:
In 2010, Sean and Prisna had a beautiful baby named Kiro, our greatest creation yet. Our list of products and ideas to bring to the world grew longer, while the challenges of ensuring the quality of existing products did not seem to dissipate. Our first sketches for the podpoi were made in 2006, but the constant demands of the flowlight and modular system, and starting a family did not allow us to focus on podpoi development until 2011. We worked with our brilliant product designer and electrical engineering friends, who put a lot of passion into this project. We even built a robotic spinner so that we could obsessively tweak the modes and patterns until they were perfect.
Podpoi were launched on Thanksgiving 2012. They sold out in 6 hours. The next few batches released in December 2012 and January 2013 sold out within a day or two. Podpoi have become the world's favorite glow poi, and their success has steered the 2012-2014 phase of Flowtoys, pushing us to evolve; enabling bigger dreams, creating bigger challenges for us to learn from, and at the same time requiring us to move into a bigger flowspace.
Flowspace 2.0: In 2013, we found a new home for Flowtoys in Emeryville. Following months of planning and construction, we moved to our new home on 1 May 2014. The new flowspace has evolved to house a gorgeous movement studio, a flow arts and juggling retail shop, a fabrication hub, and a space dedicated to hosting visiting artists and co-conspirators in the creation of more awesome in the world.
While building out the flowspace, we also got involved with an ambitious project to create a suite of DMX-controlled props for a large entertainment company based in Anaheim. We can’t say the name, but they own all the princesses, our favorite animation studios, superhero franchises, and a bunch of parks and resorts all over the world. We were up to our eyeballs, and flowtoys product development slowed down considerably. Although we lost a lot of time and didn’t make money from the project, we learned a lot.
While flowtoys development slowed, we were still able to develop the Flowtoys Composite System, stoking out staff spinners and baton twirlers around the world by introducing the prop world with space-age materials like carbon fiber with new technologies like 3D-printing to bring about a high-performance line of batons and staffs that are lightweight yet durable, thin yet rigid. Following the delivery of the abovementioned corporate project, we were freed to dream again and turn our attention back to developing props for our community.
2018 - connect technology, capsule 2.0 and the vision system: This was a year of new beginnings, with some of the most exciting advances in flow arts and juggling equipment. We launched a whole new paradigm in LED props with the beta release of capsule 2.0, podpoi v2, and flowtoys “connect” technology. This wireless technology connects many different flowtoys props, and is designed to encourage interaction and community.
Mid-2018 saw the public beta launch of the new flowtoys vision system, first with the release of the vision clubs followed by vision poi and staffs. The vision clubs are a milestone in LED juggling clubs - the world’s first glow juggling club that feels and handles like a regular practice club with a suite of modes and features to provide the juggling world with the best in LED prop technology, and with the amazing warranty and customer care that flowtoys is honored to provide. 2018 also seeds the beginnings of our line of open-source props - more on this to come!
2019 - flowOS 2.0 and a year of many updates: 2019 saw many transitions in our products as we incorporated feedback from our community into our designs and updated materials and parts to be more durable and user-friendly. Some of the shifts included the transition from flowcord to smithy cord, and updates to all our connectors - cord, composite, tube - to new 3D-printed ninjaflex parts. We also released crystal case v2 and capsule handles v2, replacing decade-old designs with new 3D-printed parts.
End of 2019 also saw the launch of flowOS 2.0, a big leap in our operating system with much-needed improvements to the grouping paradigm, and significant updates to kinetic awareness 2.0. We continued development of vision props with the creation of new boards that enable us to make terrific vision batons, staffs and levitating wands.
Meanwhile the "creators" system of open-sourced props moved forward with the first prototypes presented in the Jonglissimo show at the European Juggling Convention!
2020 - vision props out of beta & kaizen prop rack system: 2020 was a singular year in many ways. Despite our world being turned upside down, we kept plugging away. The most notable developments were officially launching vision props and getting them out of beta, overhauling our homepage, and launching the kaizen modular prop rack system, which we're very excited about :)
2021 - global microchip shortage and supply chain disruptions: In some ways, 2021 was more challenging than 2020, which was a rollercoaster ride of a year, but at least it felt like we were all in this together and embarking on a journey to make the best of crazy times. 2021 felt more like the middle part of the quest, where Frodo is doubting everything.
The global microchip shortage hit us in a big way. We usually order capsule lights and vision boards on an annual schedule, enough to last for the upcoming year with a bit of cushion. During the spring of 2021, our factory said they might not be able to get the chips necessary for our 2022 order, and that they might not be able to get chips for anywhere between 6-18 months. That's a long time. If we don't have capsules and vision boards for 18 months, we would essentially have to shutdown.
Those were some scary months. We're a small business and everyone aboard the flowship is akin to family. We rolled up our sleeves, tightened our belts and hunkered down. We had to axe our plan to wholesale vision props, cut off our Amazon shop for a few months, limit web sales and put the brakes on product development, all while scrambling to find microchips that would work for our purpose. After months of searching, we finally found enough for our next order. They cost 20% more while all our other costs were also increasing.
Adding to the microchip shortage challenges, were the other global supply chain disruptions that affected our ability to consistently get parts and materials, and where shipping took twice as long and cost 3-5x as much. There was a lot of triaging to make things happen, and we're grateful for our crew's ability to adapt and adjust as the tides of manufacturing reality kept changing.
Despite all these challenges, we kept going, bringing 3D-printing back inhouse, which helped a lot with more agile product development and were able to release some significant new products like the trikon dragon staffs.
2022 - flowtoys app launched and podpoi 10th anniversary celebration: After years of development and starts & stops from the challenges of the pandemic, we launched the flowtoys app! With supply chain issues mellowing out and our operations finding a new equilibrium, Sean was able to focus more on designing new props and parts, fixing and updating existing jigs and making new ones to handle all the myriad of assembly steps it takes to make each flowtoys prop. We released a significant number of new props this year, including the allium wand, day hoops, vision freehand, pod sleeves, triads and more.
And we celebrated podpoi's 10th anniversary with loads of podpoi related art, media and a commemorative sticker :)
2023 - Prisna works remotely from Southeast Asia & pop'n flow modular system released: Prisna moved to Southeast Asia to spend time with her family in fall 2022, and 2023 was the year she was fully away. Somewhat of a strange update to add here, but it was a big event in our figuring out how to make the ship run smoothly with a remote captain. The crew stepped up in a big way, though we did see fewer social gatherings, collaborative media projects, and product releases. Prisna returns to flowtoys HQ in June 2024 and the crew will at the very least be enjoying birthday cakes again.
Despite this disruption, Sean made major headway in our new sphere - almost got it in time for the holidays, but we're looking at a spring 2024 release. He also resumed working on the LED knob, which had to be put on the backburner in recent years. The most exciting release of 2023 was the pop'n flow modular system! This hub & spoke system takes us back to our modular roots and provides us all with the ability to make many props on the fly with just a few parts.
The future: Flowtoys has a never-ending list of new products and offerings to bring to the world.
The process of product development is 5% idea and inspiration, and 95% execution, overcoming challenges, learning and course correction. We are in service to bring our products and ideas to life, and propagate them as consciously as we can.
The growth and evolution of Flowtoys comes from the hard work and dedication of people behind-the-scenes, from a belief that what we are doing brings positive lasting impact on many lives, and from the continued support of our family, friends, community and customers.
To date Flowtoys has been fully self-financed and has not had to compromise on its long-term vision. We might have been able to get some of our products out faster with external investors or racking up credit card debt, but our organic growth has to date enabled us to grow at a pace that feels healthy, honest and fulfilling.