January 22, 2017

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Duncan YoYo


This entrepreneur found his fortune on a California street corner during the Great Depression. Learn how an ancient toy became an American sensation. The story of the Yo Yo.

This entrepreneur took an ancient toy and turned it into an American sensation.

ancient-yo-yoIt’s one of the world oldest toys – It was in Greece as early as 440 BC. And the rest of Europe in the 15th century. But it got its name from another part of the world – the Philippines, where locals claimed it was an ancient hunting tool.

It’s the Yo Yo – and just so you know, its Phillippine name means “come back, come back.”

The Yo Yo made its way to California with Philippine immigrants. And one of them, Pedro Flores, patented it, and in 1929 began making Yo Yos out of wood in Santa Barbara. It became a good sized business too — by November 1929, Flores was operating two additional factories.

And it was there, on a Califronia street corner, that entrepreneur Donald Duncan saw it in use.


Duncan’s genius turned the folk toy into a sensation. He recognized the Yo Yo for what it was – a perfect toy for the times. The Great Depression was on, and the Yo Yo was inexpensive to buy and inexpensive to repair. Yet it could be harnessed to do an incredible array of tricks.

Duncan not only embraced the Yo Yo – buying the patent rights from Flores for a quarter of a million dollars – he also embraced Yo Yo culture — hiring Flores and scores of Filipino performers to demonstrate Yo Yos at candy stores, movie theaters and playgrounds.

With contests, demonstrations and newspaper promotions, the Yo Yo became a runaway success. Flores was instrumental in setting up many of the promotions in the cities where Duncan contests were held, and Duncan considered Flores “instrumental” in the Yo Yo’s early growth.

After World War II, Duncan harnessed TV advertising to promote his toy, and by 1963 he was selling 33 million Duncan Yo Yos a year.


In 1957 Duncan hired the Flambeau Plastics Company of Baraboo Wisconsin – a maker of frog fishing lures – to start manufacturing colorful plastic Yo Yos. Wave after wave of Yo Yo innovations followed, including the famous glow-in-the-dark Duncan Imperial, which became something of a sensation.

Then legal complications ensued. In a trademark case, brought in 1965 by a Duncan competitor, a federal court ruled that “Yo Yo” had become a generic term, an element of common speech, so the Duncan no longer had exclusive rights to it. Due to legal expenses and other financial pressures, the Duncan family sold the company name and trademarks Flambeau Plastics.

Today – despite the web, mobile games, video games, Yo Yo competitors, and a host of other distractions for kids — the company still makes as many as 70-thousand Duncan Yo Yos a day! Yes – even in this digital age there are still Yo Yo champs! And Donald Duncan’s name lives on – synonymous in most people’s minds with the toy he popularized.

Donald Duncan exemplifies one of our Axioms For Entrepreneurs: Open your eyes to new trends. On a street corner in California, he saw a toy that would make him his fortune. The Yo Yo.

Now why didn’t I think of that?


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