There’s no doubt that long, long ago on some grassy African plain, some astute ancestor of modern man stubbed his toe on a round stone alongside some riverbed, scratched at his unibrow, and envisioned a future where humans would try to hurl such objects past rival club-bearing warriors, maybe even wondering if the whole affair might go down better with a hot dog.
Sure, pure accidents may have yielded some of our greatest innovations. Mold on bread gave us penicillin; an apple to the head led Newton to gravity. But you have to know greatness when you see it, otherwise, well, it’s just moldy bread.
Otherwise, a few errant stitches on a school crocheting project for Chapel Hill’s Emerson Waldorf School might have gone completely unnoticed, and we might not now have the worldwide phenomenon that is the now-ubiquitous Pocket Disc.
“It really was a lightbulb-like moment,” said Patrick Groft, who originated the Pocket Disc line of products with his daughter Savanna and friend Chris Larsen in Hillsborough.
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According to pocketdisc.com: “In 2005, 9-year old Savanna had to crochet a doily for her third grade school. While she did a very nice job, she added a few too many drop stitches at the outer edge of the trivet causing it to curl and form a small lip.” About a year later, Larsen picked it up and tossed it across the room to Groft.
Larsen said the woven disc “mushed into my hand. We both saw the way it floated and it was completely evident: it wasn’t going to break anything.”
Soon thereafter, Savanna’s mom Mindy painstakingly made a few prototypes, which were shipped to different village-based production groups in Guatemala. What the Mayans sent back – the colors, patterns, and varieties – was breathtaking.
“For the first six months, it was more of a feasibility project, and we were all making them ourselves,” Groft said. “We learned that you can’t make these with a machine, so we asked ourselves, ‘Where do hacky sacks and hippie hats come from?’ We sent a few samples (to Guatemala), and what they sent back blew our mind. After going to four or five producers, we eventually found our guy in Guatemala, who has been a pillar for us.”
For a few years, Groft and Larsen kept day jobs while developing a production base in Guatemala and working trade shows and festivals like those at Bonnaroo, the Hangout Festival, and Telluride Blues and Brews.
We tried introducing it to various segments of the population, and everybody loved it,” Groft said. “There was demand on all fronts.”
The potential wasn’t lost on Groft’s daughter Savanna either.
“Savanna actually now puts it on her resume,” Groft said. “She got into some great colleges (including UNC and Duke), and she put it on all of her applications. She actually worked for me on summer two summers ago, doing a lot of administrative help. It’s been a neat experience she’s proud of along with some valuable practical experience.”
Less than a decade later, the Pocket Disc is now being sold at stores throughout the U.S., Canada and Japan – including L.L. Bean, Eastern Mountain Sports, Learning Express Toys, and over 1,500 specialty toy, gift and outdoor retailers.
“You can shop for them online at our website,” Groft said, “or you can also get them locally at the Outdoor Provision Company, Townsend, Bertrand, and Company, Twig, Play it Again Sports.”
Despite moving from humble roots in Hillsborough to a world stage, the business growth has been slow but steady, Groft said .
“We never realized it was going to be so much work,” he said.
Sightings across the country was a sign Groft and Larsen were on the right track.
“We’d have friends call or email from all over the country and say, ‘Hey, I saw your Pocket Discs in a store,’ and then they’d email or text a photo,” Groft said. “The first trade show we went to was a specialty toy show in Connecticut, and the response was so great, we logged 25 orders, and a lot of those accounts are still with us.”
“Also, when you get into some of the bigger-name stores, you’re like, ‘Holy crap, I’m in L.L. Bean now’ or ‘I’m in Dicks Sporting Good: Wow!’” Groft added. “Still, the best personally for me is when I sell one to some little kid out at a festival somewhere and that kid just lights up.”
Over the past few years, the Pocket Disc catalogue has diversified to include dog collars, hacky sacks, crocheted footballs and tailgate items, and more, all the while emphasizing Fair Trade practices and an eye toward sustainability.
“Overall, we’re wanting to create a lifestyle experience that enhances the outdoor experience for kids and families,” Groft said. “The Pocket Disk is just the anchor item.”
In fact, the Pocket Disc itself is so practical, the website lists a tongue-in-cheek list of alternative uses, including pillows, pot holders, berets, and dust rags.
Groft said games featuring the Pocket Disc are built into future plans, including a game in development that would be a cross between bocce and cornhole.
“You could do variations on bowling or skeet shooting or a variation on ultimate Frisbee with a circular field, where there’s a tree target like a hockey goal,” Groft said. “I’d really like to bring these games to life more and more.”
Proof that the uses for the Pocket Disk are virtually unlimited may lie in its varied applications. School physical education instructors are beginning to incorporate the items in their curriculum.
PE teachers, YMCA counselors, Boy Scouts and countless camps are putting the Pocket Disc to use in their activities and in their camp stores, the Pocket Disc website said. “The same tales have been shared with us by activity leaders at geriatric care facilities.”
Groft said he’s constantly looking forward in terms of potential for new applications in recreation, therapy, and fun.
“I’m fairly driven, so when I achieve something, it usually feels good for a moment, then it sort of fades into the background,” he said. “I’m like: What’s next?”