What started as a novelty item exemplifying, to many, the worst of our narcissistic digital age—the selfie stick, a device used to take photos of yourself from a distance—has become a full-fledged phenomenon. Museums, art galleries and concert venues have had to develop rules to manage the use of selfie sticks in their institutions; the President of the United States used one in a recent Buzzfeed video, an unthinkable sentence just five years ago. In December, Bloomberg Business called the selfie stick 2014’s “gift of the year,” estimating that “hundreds of thousands of selfie sticks have likely sold in the U.S. since this summer,” with no confirmed numbers because of the item’s newness.
Its success, though, is no surprise to Wayne Fromm, the 60-year-old Toronto-based inventor who is quietly considered the inventor of the selfie stick. He holds the earliest patent for an “apparatus for supporting a camera and method for using the apparatus,” filed before social media and camera phones even really took off. Fromm isn’t some one-hit wonder, though: He’s actually a prolific inventor, dreaming up toys like the popular talking Enchanted Mirror toy from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, and helping to kick-start the Crazy Bones collectible fad in the late ’90s. But if you haven’t heard his name, it’s because he’s getting very little recognition for starting the selfie stick craze. And that’s because of the rampant counterfeiting of his marquee product, which he’s branded the Quik Pod.
Fromm and his daughter, Sage, spoke to Maclean’s from their Toronto home office about the cultural impact of the selfie stick, how it is an essentially Canadian invention, whether he’s embittered by the lack of recognition, and how his daughter has inspired most of his work.
Q: So walk me through how you came up with the idea of a selfie stick.
Wayne: My daughter, Sage, and I were travelling. She was young, and we were actually in Italy, at the Pontevecchio, and she was taking a picture of me. I was taking a picture of her, and then [we were] trying to flag down somebody who understands English, which is not always . . . [We’d] have to wait to see who might be likely, someone wearing a camera, maybe. Or I’d stabilize it on a fencepost of some sort and set the self-timer and have to run in to the shot. I kept thinking, “There’s got to be a better way.” We’d be at a restaurant and we’d want to get a picture of the two of us, and I’d put sugar packets to try to stabilize it, and then we’re taking a picture that’s kind of up our noses more. So this is where I start thinking, “OK, how do we get it so the camera would appear to be floating, as if a ghost were holding it?” And that was the genesis of it.
Q: People forget that there was a time when, if you were by yourself, you would have to get someone to take a photo of you. It seems very obvious, but there’s now this whole generation that doesn’t have that experience.
Wayne: When I first invented it, people were not taking selfies with their arms—it was just starting. We were just seeing a bit of that. It was more stopping a stranger, then asking a pedestrian to stop walking in front you, between the camera lens and yourself, which is a task in itself, because you could be at a busy location, at Times Square or at the Vatican, or something. You’ve got hundreds of people, maybe you get one picture taken. If you’re going to ask for two, you’re pushing your luck, at that point. But with the selfie stick, people are forced to walk around you. That was one of the selling features.
As far as the technical history of it, I worked on it for a couple of years starting in 2003. The mandate of my original product was to build something that would last for 20 years or more, something very well-built. There were lots of technical aspects to overcome: There were springs in there, locking pins—it’s not just a simple antenna. Of course, there are a lot of knock-offs and counterfeits out there, but mine was built with a lot of engineering integrity. I filed, finally, the patent in 2006, and it took about five years to be issued.
Q: Of course, people have been putting sticks on cameras forever. So what makes you the official, true father of the selfie stick?
Wayne: Well, people could easily have put cameras on anything: on a tripod, on a monopod. You’d have a thin leg to hold at that point, because of the way cameras mount on traditional equipment. There have been patents issued in the past. In Japan in the ’80s, there was a device that was built for a particular camera for a defunct standard that doesn’t exist. It wasn’t meant for any type of camera, it wasn’t waterproof, it didn’t have a self-image mirror. Ours has a selfie mirror, we call it, so you’re able to line yourself up, and that’s part of the patent, as well, so you can actually use the rear-facing lens of your smartphone, which is your better lens, and you can use your patented selfie mirror to see where you are relative to your smartphone.
With the work that I did, I know where this all came from, because I have actually found packaging from Asian factories that have my picture on it. So I know they were studying my websites; they were studying everything about the Quik Pod. If you go to Alibaba [an online Chinese marketplace that deals in counterfeit goods], years ago, you could type in Quik Pod, and they were using my trademark, my term, my photographs. Sage’s photograph was even on all the Alibaba pages. So they were sucking all of our business; people were thinking they were buying an original Quik Pod.
I know the history of it, and the paper trail. So whether or not anyone had been using a stick in the past, that’s not the question. I created the selfie-stick craze that people are using after 10 years of hard work. That’s where it all started. They stole everything, not just the product, but the pictures. It’s not a coincidence. The pictures on all the packaging, they were taken in this room on a photo shoot, or it was of me diving in a pool. My picture’s on all these packages. Talk about a direct link to where it all started: It doesn’t get much clearer than that, when you see your own pictures on the packaging.
Q: You’re talking about the counterfeiters who took your product to a mass market, particularly in Asia. How do you think they got their hands on it?
Wayne: It’s anybody’s guess. We used to have high-resolution pictures for the media on our website—that’s one possibility. Another possibility is there could be something going on in the factories. A worker in the factory overseas liked it, and showed his uncle or brother or something, who knows?
I will say: I made a mistake. I love all countries in the world—I mean, I travel all over and respect all the cultures—but I did sell them at the Beijing Airport during the Beijing Olympics, and I probably shouldn’t have until I had established the brand more.
My factory office in Hong Kong said, “Don’t sell those,” but I was too proud as a Canadian; I said, “Wow, we’re going to be at the Beijing Olympics; people will see it.” But in retrospect, I should not have done that.
We have a legal team and we send letters of infringement, and we had, in fact, a large chain in the United States that was selling an infringing item, and we have a large pharmacy chain that was selling items with my picture on it over Christmas. We’ve put them on notice, and they’re now willing to buy Quik Pods. It’s like at a picnic with ants. You can’t stomp on every ant at your picnic. I can’t shut out everyone who wants to make something that’s very popular, but I can use it to my advantage for business purposes.
Q: You were well before your time, given that you invented the selfie stick initially for digital cameras; you invented it before the first iPhone hit the market, and before social media really took off. But now, when people are buying selfie sticks, they’re often thinking of the cheap knock-offs, not your Quik Pod brand. How does that make you feel?
Wayne: We’re after the sports market, professionals. We supply the GoPro media teams with the product. We want the users who appreciate the difference; we’re after the high-end market. We want to be the Mercedes and the Rolls-Royce.
Sage: If you look at any of our premium versions, they meet all the salt-water testing standards. We’ve put them in Dead Sea water for over 30 days, and they’re rust-proof. So we really make sure they meet all weather conditions; they’re durable and versatile. There’s a lot of thought that goes into them.
Wayne: They’ve been on Arctic expeditions. Anderson Cooper took it on a search-and-rescue on 60 Minutes. They were looking at the downed fighter jets during the Second World War, and we saw them, Quik Pods, underwater—original Quik Pods. I manufacture for other companies, so a lot of the poles people see that aren’t Quik Pods are still mine. I’m still manufacturing them; we just don’t talk a lot about that.
My goal was to capture the biggest accounts, then all these other ones, these ones you can buy for $6.99, they’re going to be in and out of the market within six months, and if you have a problem with it, where are you going to go? And if it doesn’t work, or a part breaks, it’s a little bit of a fad. The companies that are making those, I believe, in a year’s time, they’ll be making e-cigarettes. They’ll be on to the next thing.
None of the knock-offs are doing anything legitimately; they’re just cranking out as quickly as they can. That’s why South Korea banned them, because their radio transmitters aren’t approved in any way; it’s the same thing in the United States. We only deal with all FCC-approved stuff, our remote controls—everything is high-quality, high-end chip sets.
Q: Some people might say that the mark of a truly successful invention is to really breach the mass market, for yours to be the big name everyone knows. Quik Pod, as a brand, remains this kind of niche, still unknown to most. Did you feel like the counterfeiting forced you to go premium?
Sage: That depends on whom you ask, though. We’re well-respected in the diving communities and in the GoPro communities. If you go online, we’ve had tons of celebrities and athletes use them; they’ve been taken to the Sochi Winter Olympics. I mean, maybe the entry-level cellphone users don’t know Quik Pod, but definitely the pro users do, and that wasn’t really a marketing angle. We just wanted to go after the pro market. We just felt that was what our brand represented.
Wayne: We just didn’t want to be a dollar-store item, because that would dilute the brand. I’m not interested in stores calling me and saying, “Hey, I just got 50 per cent of the returns. They broke, and people wanted their money back.” That’s not the market I want. Just like my training with Disney, doing Disney products, I want a product that I feel is high-quality. It’s a race to the bottom if you do it the other way. Do you know how many factories I hear of now that are sitting with so much inventory they’ve cranked out that they can’t sell? That’s why, when you go to certain places, you’ll see these things selling for $6.99 or less. They’re being closed out. Same thing with Bluetooth remotes. You can buy them for $3. The chip sets we use are $6 just for the chip.
I like what’s happened, because it gives me leverage with the factories. I say, “Hey look, if these knock-offs can come out and sell for such a low price . . .” It helped me to negotiate better pricing on what we’re doing. And the fact that there was such a proliferation, that it became so ubiquitous, people now are looking for selfie sticks, and then when they start seeing good reviews in the Wall Street Journal and on Amazon and all the other stuff with Quik Pod, they migrate. The people who’ve bought the entry-level are unhappy with it and they want a little better one. So I look at it as a positive.
Q: Do you feel any kind of bitterness about the counterfeiters?
Wayne: I don’t feel any bitterness about the counterfeiters, other than when I see my own picture and Sage’s picture on the packaging. The photographs are the tipping point. That’s when I feel like this is just wholesale theft.
Q: In this global economy and this digital time, when counterfeiters are just a fact of life, is there still value in being known as the original?
Wayne: There’s more value in having the best. As an inventor, I would prefer to have a strong brand than a patent, because a patent expires. After 20 years, you no longer have a patent, whereas you can have a brand for the rest of your life, and longer. My goal is to create the brand. We have so many line extensions coming out for Quik Pod this year, next year; we’re already planning into three years from now. It’s a brand we’re investing heavily in.
Sage: I think it depends on your business ethic and business culture. I feel like being the original pushes us to be the best in what we do, and because we know we were the original, we keep going, whereas, if we didn’t have that within us, maybe it would change how we push our brand and our products. I also think people throw around the word “original” very loosely these days. Everyone’s putting “original” on their package, so maybe the word’s lost meaning in way, but for us to know we were first to market, I think it just gives you a boost.
Q: Take away all the money and the business—isn’t this also a matter of legacy for you, Wayne?
Wayne: It gives my mother bragging rights. People joke now: “You corrupted youth at your video arcades, you got CrazyBones banned at schools, now you’ve got the selfie sticks banned at museums.” I say, “It’ll be the fall of the Roman empire. You can’t take your picture with the statue of David anymore with the selfie stick.”
Q: I’m struck by the fact that this is a Canadian invention—that is, there’s this spectrum of quintessentially Canadian inventions like maple syrup, or the BlackBerry, and then you have . . . the selfie stick. Is there something essentially Canadian about it?
Wayne: It’s interesting. I don’t know that it’s typically Canadian in any way. I’ve always been a gadgeteer. I invent things that I want. Even as a child, I was into photography, I bought my first used camera at Henry’s when it was a pawn shop on Church [Street in Toronto], before it was the big superstore that it is. I’ve always taken things apart and tried to reconfigure them.
Here’s an answer that might make sense: I try harder as a Canadian. I’m proud of companies that I’ve witnessed grow out of Canada, and I feel it’s harder for us to get a product into Chicago or into the New York market. It was more at a local level, and I slowly built my way into the United States, and then with the Disney toys, of course, it was like, wow: Things really grew and blew up for me. So maybe it was because I was Canadian that I had to work harder, and I just didn’t give up on it.
When I first went to New York, I felt intimidated by the city; all this action was going on. So when I started to break products into the U.S. market, I felt very proud as a Canadian. Maybe an American would have thought, “That’s just the way it’s done.” So the bar was higher, in my mind, as a Canadian. I took my selfie stick to the most professional camera store in the world, which was B&H Photo in New York City. It’s a city block; everybody buys from B&H, the studios and whatnot. I got them to buy the stick. I met with the buyer. I had to show their customers, in their store, professional photographers, why they would ever want this sort of thing. I came up with all these different uses for slave lighting, I had all these different reasons for it, and I wanted it to be the best in the world. I think that is the Canadian in me, doing that. I wanted to show the world that we really think carefully about what we create. I wanted this to be something somebody would hold for 20 years or more, because I grew up with tripods and other camera accessories that I still use. So this was my mandate: that this would be a strong product that was well-engineered.
Q: It seems to demonstrate an inferiority complex Canadians have. As an inventor, you must deal with this: The moment you know you’ve made it is the moment you break into the American market.
Wayne: You’re absolutely right. I totally agree. As a Canadian, seeing it in foreign markets, actually walking around and seeing it in stores, and people using it in public, I felt proud . . . with maybe an inferiority complex, as a Canadian. Even getting U.S. patents to meet, when I got my very first patent, I was in awe, thinking, “Wow, the U.S. government gave it to a Canadian.” I mean, it’s common for people to get this, but I didn’t have a lot of experience in that area at first.
Everybody in Canada used to say, “You can’t do this.” I remember once I developed these Little Mermaid bubble pens. We sold almost a million of them, all over the world. People were buying them, and I showed somebody in Canada on a trip up to Algonquin [Park], and they said, “Oh, do you have the Canadian rights to this?” And I said, “Well, I created this.” But that was the Canadian attitude. “Oh, you got the rights to something.” They don’t think that you created it, you manufactured it, you had the vertical integration to do all parts of it. That’s not a typical Canadian attitude.
Q: Sage, you obviously were there at the genesis of the idea. You’re in your mid-20s now, so you’re of the generation that’s using these selfie sticks en masse. Is it kind of weird now, seeing your friends use them?
Sage: When I was at Western University, I’d bring the Quik Pod over there and I’d take it to parties, and everyone thought it was so cool. But at the time, the word “selfie” didn’t really exist; it wasn’t popular, so we had to create names. We called it a monopod, a hand-held monopod, and then the evolution, it just kept going, the selfie craze hit, and everyone started calling it a selfie stick. I’ve always loved it. I’ve always thought it was really fun, but it’s really nice that people are recognizing that it’s a really fun accessory.
Q: Teens can be pretty wary of their parents’ wild-brained ideas. So were you wary at 13 when your dad said, “Let’s make this thing that can take photos of yourself”?
Sage: No. He has a really good track record. My whole life, I’ve been around for meetings and brainstorming sessions, so I know that when an idea really sinks in with him, and we all approve of it, it’s probably going to be a hit. This one was a bit different, because, as I said, the selfie craze hadn’t picked up yet. I always thought it was a winner. I thought it was really fun, and I thought it was fun that it had to do with digital cameras; that’s when digital cameras were becoming so popular. Facebook came out after this invention, so it was just foreseeing before all these trends started to hit. I thought it was a winner at the time, but I’m glad everyone else sees it as a winner now.
Q: What do you think was the tipping point of the selfie stick becoming a major phenomenon, especially among your friends?
Sage: My friends aren’t self-conscious, but I guess, for a self-conscious type of person, yes, they’d maybe feel a little bit awkward holding something like that, but once they realize how cool it actually was—I mean, you’re at a concert, [you can take] high-angle overhead shots, you can get in small places, you’re in your own footage with the background behind you. Once you explained it like that, I think they became a little less self-conscious, and they started realizing this was a great camera accessory that they can bring with them anywhere. It was kind of just explaining that to them.
Q: I also want to talk about your father-daughter relationship; Wayne, you’ve said before that a lot of the stuff you make is for Sage.
Wayne: The history of my own inventions, they were always inspired by Sage as she grew up. So there’s an evolution of invention as she grew up, starting with toys, and then I had things like Tie-Dye Teddy, to teach her the art of tie-dye, which became a very popular toy, and it became tie-dye doodlebear and tie-dye Barbie, all sorts of different variations. And then there was the Magic Mirror; when Sage was a kid, I took her to see Beauty and the Beast, and it had great animation. I remember taking Sage with me to a Disney meeting at Glendale in California—she was four, running around.
She’s grown up in this industry, and she was always, she and her friends, my test market. I’d never show strangers. I’d have little focus groups of these kids and their parents, getting their opinions. The Quik Pod is really an extension—no pun intended—of that whole inventing for Sage, as a family. I thought it’d be nice for us, and for other families, to be included in the photo on the packaging. It wasn’t meant for someone to sit there taking 600 of their own photographs; it was so that the photographer wasn’t left out of the picture—that was the original intention.
Sage: Starting at age four, when Crazy Bones came out, I would go wear the Eggy costume at Blue Jays games. We had some popular arcades in Toronto, and I would do the token counter stuff, give tickets and prizes. When Quik Pod first started, I was helping, then I went back to school. Then, when I got my degree and came out, I was doing some marketing on the side, and then I realized, “Why am I doing anything for anyone else when we have amazing products here?” So I decided not to finish my master’s, and I started doing Quik Pod full-time. So my dad and I, we do everything: trade shows, meetings, conference calls.
Q: The selfie stick has become a crucible of what a lot of people don’t like about the digital age and the Millennial attitude. Wayne, you’re in an interesting position, because you’re an outsider to that, yet very essential to it. What do you say about the criticisms of the selfie? Obviously, you’ve heard them all.
Wayne: When I grew up, there were 12 pictures on a roll of film, or 24, or 36, if you pushed it, and you had to be very particular. I travelled to Europe when I was 17. I went backpacking, and I came back with 24 pictures of my whole trip. I was there for three months, and I wanted every picture to be a keeper. Today, of course, that’s gone out the window; you can just take thousands and thousands of pictures. I think it might, in some way, have improved the pictures, because people choose selectively which ones to save. That’s what a professional photographers did; what set them apart was that they would take a lot of pictures until they got the best one. So now, it’s a level playing field; everyone’s able to do that. So if that’s one of the purposes of digital photography, to take so many that you come up with some you really like, then that’s great.
It’s archiving our life, which is not bad. If it captures history and people’s lives, and they’re able to reflect on them and have nice memories, it’s great. They can take them themselves in the privacy of their homes, or wherever they want, I think it’s a good thing.
Q: What about the name, “wand of Narcissus”? You’ve heard that, right? What do you think about the narcissism of the selfie?
Wayne: How is that different from putting a camera on a tripod, or looking in a mirror? I don’t think the selfie stick, or the word selfie, has created narcissism. That’s just human nature; people like to see what they look like, how other people perceive them, as well, what their makeup might look like, what their clothes look like. It’s just a tool. I don’t think the word selfie or the selfie stick has changed narcissism. It’s just a human interest to want to look our best.
Q: So you’re never embarrassed about the term selfie stick? For some people, that’s a bad word.
Sage: We didn’t call it that at first, though. To us, it’s called so many different things.
Wayne: I called it the world’s first hand-held extendable tripod. Isn’t that catchy?
Sage: Then it went to hand-held monopod.
Wayne: Then people called it a pole, a selfie pole. We go with the flow. If people want to call it a selfie stick, you know what? Let them buy a Quik Pod selfie stick; I’m happy to sell them.
Q: Sage, what’s your reaction to the narcissism criticism, that the selfie is a thing essentially of your generation?
Sage: I think it’s overly excessive. It does become a little bit frustrating and annoying, for lack of a better word. Platforms like Facebook and different ways of sharing things online have made your friends aware that you do stuff like that, whereas before, your photos were a little bit more private, and only if you chose to share them would friends see them. Now, any photo you take, you have this addiction, or automatic response to upload it, and then it gets shared with everyone who knows you, and I think that’s how people start viewing it as narcissistic. But I don’t think anything’s really changed. When I was young, I bought a little prize in my McDonald’s happy meal. It was a little camera, an orange camera, and I would go around and take photos of myself, take photos of things—I just thought it was fun. So I don’t think much has changed. I know other kids who did stuff like that. It’s just that now, we have digital cameras, we have smartphones, we have platforms we can upload videos and photos to that other people can see and share. It all just depends on how you look at it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.