Youth tests the waters with invention Aquatic walkie-talkie yields profit for boy


MORAGA, Calif. -- Like many boys in the fifth grade, Richie Stachowski hates homework, loves sports and blushes when his mother teases him about girls.

It's not until Richie hands you his business card that he seems a little different from the typical 11-year-old.

A few months shy of finishing elementary school, Richie is a full-fledged entrepreneur who heads a Moraga company with several hundred thousand dollars in annual revenue and an innovative aquatic toy expected to make a big splash in stores across the country this spring.

During his summer vacation last year, Richie invented a nonelectronic, underwater walkie-talkie, using $267 of his savings. Then he patented the product and launched his limited-liability corporation, Short Stack, a name inspired by his voracious appetite for pancakes.

In the fall, Richie took two days off from school to fly to New York, where he sold Toys 'R' Us on the potential of his invention.

Richie emerged from his two-hour presentation with a deal that made him one of nation's youngest toy-makers. Toys 'R' Us agreed to buy nearly 50,000 of Richie's Water Talkies, which have a suggested retail price of $11.99 and are expected to be available at stores in May.

"We were very impressed with Richie and are very excited about his product," said Louis Lipschitz, chief financial officer of Toys 'R' Us. "We love to help out young entrepreneurs, so we would really like to see this product do well."

Since the Toys 'R' Us meeting, Richie has expanded the business. He hired his mentor, Bob Miller, as Short Stack's operations manager and chief coordinator with the Chinese plant that manufactures the Water Talkies. In his free time, Richie is developing other product ideas, including an underwater pogo stick that he hopes to introduce next year.

If the next product is a hit, Richie figures he will probably sell Short Stack next year and launch another business vehicle for his idea.

Education still comes first for Richie, although going to school doesn't stop him from making even more money. In February, while Richie was stuck in the classroom, Short Stack received an additional $4,000 worth of orders. Besides Toys 'R' Us, Sportmart, two drugstore chains and a variety of specialty stores plan to stock the Water Talkie this year.

Although he is making a tidy profit after six months in business, Richie seems unfazed by his success. During an interview, he wants to talk more about his contributions as a guard on a championship youth basketball team than about his precocious business accomplishments. To him, the vast bottle cap rTC collection he swaps with his best friends, Adam and Kellen, is far more valuable than the money he is making.

"Richie is a creative genius, but other than that he is just your basic, everyday kid," said his mother, Barbara Stachowski. "He is a total twerp."

Richie's family is making every effort to assure that he isn't spoiled by his sudden prosperity.

To help minimize the attention created by this story, Richie's mother asked that the name of Richie's school not be published.

To secure Richie's future, Barbara and his father, Richard, have limited his spending to $150 of his business profits. Richie has promised his mother that he won't touch the rest until he turns 35.

"It's all right with me," Richie said. "I want [the money] to build up in the bank."

Idea for invention

The esoteric subject of underwater acoustics captured Richie's interest during a trip to Hawaii in July. Frustrated by his inability to talk to his father while they snorkeled in the ocean, Richie decided to develop a solution.

His research on the Internet indicated that sound travels far better underwater than out of water. Yet, except for the few people willing to invest in expensive underwater phones, there wasn't an easy way to talk while submerged.

Richie's Water Talkies are fashioned from a small plastic cone, a blow valve, a mouthpiece similar to the kind found on a snorkel and a protective membrane to keep water out of the device. It took Richie about 30 days to perfect the product.

Now, Richie says, he wishes he could invent a way to get out of doing his homework.

Pub Date: 3/10/97

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