Snow was falling in the form of those soft white, potato-flake chunks you usually see in films. I'd barely finished my morning cup of coffee and without that crucial mental aid, I was having a hard time finding the entrance to ThinkGeek's ranch-style headquarters in Fairfax, Va. In the blur of 8:57 AM on a Tuesday in this winter-like spring, every window of the sprawling complex looked like a door to me. So I chose one and, miraculously, was spotted by Chris Mindel, a senior buyer for the company, who let me and my videographer inside the toy-filled halls. It was then I noticed the sign on the open door and burst out laughing. It read: "This is not the door you're looking for."
I'd had Willy Wonka on the brain before, but it was clear now I needed to switch, or at least integrate, gears. This was well-informed geek territory I was treading upon -- hallowed Star Wars-quoting superfan territory -- and I'd just been granted a one-day golden ticket to explore it.
Gallery: Inside ThinkGeek | 60 Photos
Gallery: Inside ThinkGeek | 60 Photos
I'd made the trek from New York to the DC area to get an inside look at ThinkGeek's long-standing April Fools' Day tradition. The company, which normally sells meme-, sci-fi- and geek culture-infused novelty products, like its Star Wars lightsaber chopsticks, does something somewhat different for that one prank-filled day of the year. Months in advance, the gleefully mad elves (or Oompa-Loompas, I couldn't decide) of ThinkGeek toil exhaustively to create joke products, often the stuff of fanboy/girl dreams, for "sale" on its retail site; things like Mr. Beard, a repurposed Keurig that administers spray-on facial hair, or the Flux Capacitor Car Charger.
There was that one incident where the National Pork Board took issue with ThinkGeek labeling its Unicorn Meat as the new white meat
Those well-meaning jokes also tend to straddle a legal gray area with established licenses and corporate entities. There was that one incident where the National Pork Board took issue with ThinkGeek labeling its Unicorn Meat as the new white meat -- an obvious play on the other white meat. Happily though, that cease and desist ended amicably and generated plenty of publicity for both ThinkGeek and the National Pork Board. But it's all good-natured, as Ty Liotta, VP of the company's in-house product development group, or Geeklabs, pointed out to me. "We feel that for April Fools' we can take a little bit of ... creative liberties with the licenses because it's going to be fun."
ThinkGeek's never incurred the full wrath of corporate lawyerdom for its whimsical April Fools' creations. By that I mean they've never quite been sued for infringing upon a license. Somewhat counterintuitively, these one-day-a-year, well-meaning infractions helped ThinkGeek's licensing business go legit. They're responsible for establishing and solidifying the company's treasure trove of licenses and line of branded products.
In fact, the company's licensing business actually got its major kickoff from a group of Lucasfilm employees that really wanted to see the Star Wars Tauntaun sleeping bag, an April Fools' gag from 2009, made into a real product for purchase. The sleeping bag, inspired by a pivotal scene wherein Luke Skywalker is stuffed into the carcass of the beast for shelter, is a massively popular item that's still sold today. Thanks to that geek-culture enthusiasm, the proper corporate connections were made and now, Lucasfilm counts as just one of the dozen-plus big-name licenses in ThinkGeek's arsenal.
Need a collection of Game of Thrones House Sigil wine charms for your dinner party? Or perhaps a Minecraft foam pickaxe is more your speed? Both items are not only real; they're also up for order on ThinkGeek's site. No matter the niche proclivity, ThinkGeek has a little something for every manner of nerd. After all, this is a company that sorts employees into Hogwarts houses as part of a team-building exercise; that instructs newly hired employees to fill out a document detailing their geek expertise; that labels its main meeting room "The Boredroom of Doom," and its buyer floor as "Bartertown." The nerd force is strong with these folks.
No matter the niche proclivity, ThinkGeek has a little something for every manner of nerd
Willie Yonkers, ThinkGeek's industrial designer, is the maker force behind the company's fanciful creations. He's the sawdust-covered employee, oftentimes cloaked in protective goggles and face mask, who figures out how to bring these fake products from the smoke-and-mirrors style of production to a solid prototype that could be shown to clients. It's his dedication to bringing a level of polish to ThinkGeek's overall product lineup that's helped the company not only rely less on Photoshop to achieve its April Fools' vision, but also get those products closer to a "pre-engineered CAD state" for actual manufacture should they make the cut.
The NERF Nuke, one of ThinkGeek's standout April Fools' creations this year, is something Yonkers would love to see go from joke concept to retail product. The familiar-looking, orange and yellow nuke is an extreme take on NERF's history of foam-based artillery. It's a nuclear bomb outfitted with suction-cup darts and, unfortunately, it's not a working prototype -- not now, anyway. "It could be done," Yonkers admitted, "but we'll have to see if there's enough interest in making that one into a real thing." To gauge that April Fools' interest, ThinkGeek looks to metrics like page views and referrals, but also lets customers directly vote from each gag product's order page.
Among this year's April Fools' crop, about four products owe their existence to 3D printing, of which the Unicorn Drinking Horn and Das Can-in-Stein (a beer-can holder in the shape of a stein) are two prime examples. It's a practice that began with, unsurprisingly, Star Wars. Although this time, it was lightsaber popsicles, and not the comfortable innards of a deceased beast of fantasy, that kicked off a new method of production. ThinkGeek does have its own 3D printer -- a 3D Systems CubeX Duo -- tucked away in a closet of its "Room of Requirement," aka the maker office that's home to Yonkers and electrical engineer Hilary Hoops, the lady responsible for the incredibly popular Technomancer Digital Wizard Hoodie. But since that 3D printer can only handle low-res, low-quality parts, ThinkGeek's design team usually turns to companies like Shapeways and Quickparts for production.
Among this year's April Fools' crop, about four products owe their existence to 3D printing
Liotta told me that the bulk of ThinkGeek's core customers are, by now, well aware of the company's annual April Fools' joke, saying, "They're just waiting to see what we're going to do just because they want to be entertained by whatever it is." It's the element of surprise and invention, sometimes helped by piggybacking on a borrowed license, that keeps people coming back. But those customers also have an end goal in sight: They're returning to see if any of these products make it to retail.
That anticipation's great for the company's morale (and bottom line), but it also makes this two-month race to April Fools' production all the more stressful for ThinkGeek's staff of affable, renegade elves. It's an admittedly good problem to have, but one that's compounded by the level of noise generated by other companies that participate in that day of tech tomfoolery. "Originally, when we were doing it, it was really easy to stand out," Liotta explained. "And over the years, it's become much more challenging because people do amazing things for April Fools'." That may be true, but judging from this year's lineup, I'd say Liotta and his crew have a sure shot at cutting through the clutter and bringing a smile to even the most cynical of April Fools' observers. Myself included.
By 5 PM, the snow had stopped falling, leaving the slippery asphalt beneath my feet and the piles of accumulated fluff on nearby cars as the only remnants of that dream-like morning. Somewhere inside the ThinkGeek office, there was a Tauntaun sleeping bag that needed drying off -- we'd used it for an outside shoot earlier that afternoon since the surrounding environs loosely resembled Hoth. But that fond moment of playtime was firmly in the past. My all-access pass to ThinkGeek HQ had come to a close and it was now time to return to my comparatively less magical, less fun life in New York.
On the train ride back, I couldn't stop reflecting on the day I'd spent submerged in ThinkGeek's think tank of nerdcore creation. How could I easily explain to my friends that special environment, that zany day care where the adults get paid to play and create? The best I could come up with was this: "It's like what would happen if Santa's elves, who all knew the entire history of Doctor Who, decided to go rogue, jump ship from the North Pole and set up a boutique shop just outside of D.C." Even that, though, couldn't quite capture and convey the magic contained within ThinkGeek's halls.
But that wasn't all I had on my mind as I watched the scenery zip by from the train's quiet car. I had Willy Wonka on the brain... again and in particular, this sing-song quote: