Stephen Key, the Man Who Refreshed the Guitar Pick Industry

Inventor and entrepreneur Stephen Key left San Jose State University without a degree, work experience, or savings. Uncertain that anyone would hire him, he decided to create his own job, starting out by selling his handmade products on the street and at craft fairs. He taught himself to design and make plush animals and characters, subsequently landing a freelance gig with Dakin Toys. Later on he got his first real job at a startup called Worlds of Wonder (WOW), where he was tasked with heading the design group. While at WOW, his interest in new products grew. Believing that he can come up with better product ideas than those that were being submitted to the company, he left to establish his own toy invention and licensing firm.

In 1995, Key came across a newspaper article about how container labels never had sufficient information or had print that was too small to read. He set out to solve that problem and invented the Rotating Label or Spinformation, which resulted in several industry awards and a great fortune. The royalties stopped coming in one day, however, as the product had eventually become too pricey for companies to afford.

While taking a break from Spinformation, Key was told by one of his childhood friends how guitar picks had remained the same for the past eight decades. Seeing an opportunity to personalize the guitar pick, Key started HotPicks, turning the basic piece of plastic into the shape of a skull. To see if people would actually want to buy his product, he asked a local gas station to display some on the checkout counter. To Key’s surprise, the skull-shaped picks were a hit and sold out within a day. HotPicks now has more than 100 designs and can be found in 10,000 stores around the world. Key ran HotPicks for five successful years and is currently pursuing other projects.

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