Sam Passenger admits he was skeptical when he first saw a fidget spinner. The ubiquitous spinning toys were only beginning to emerge as one of the nation’s hottest new toy crazes, and the 30-year-old engineer and father of three assumed the trend would be short-lived. Still, as the owner of a small machine shop outside of Grand Rapids, Michigan, that made gun parts, he had both the machinery and the metals. Why not build a weapons-grade spinner?
His first design was a half joke. “Big and awkward and goofy,” he says. But it sold. As did the next one. And before he knew it, half of Passenger’s business at Venom Defense & Design was coming from fidget toys. Now, Venom’s high-performance spinners aren’t the kind parents are buying their kids. No, these spinners are targeted toward collectors and are made from heavy and exotic metals like titanium, tungsten, and niobium. They start at $30 and top out at $750. Crazier still, their top-of-the-line model spins for more than 20 minutes ⏤ which may be an unverified record. Venom’s sold several thousand to date and business shows no sign of slowing down.
Fatherly spoke to the Allendale, MI-based Passenger about his foray into fidget toys, the transition from making machine-gun parts, and why he isn’t the least bit worried about the fad finally spinning to a stop.
As its name suggests, Venom Defense & Design primarily makes gun parts.
Yeah. We started out making after-market firearms accessories about two years ago. They’ve always been a passion of mine. We have a couple of main product lines. The ones that have been big have been our grips and our muzzle devices. In fact, we make our pistol grips out of solid carbon fiber ⏤ not laid up hollow carbon fiber. It’s a solid block that we machine into what ends up being the lightest pistol grip on the market. That’s our claim to fame.
How did you get into the fidget spinner game?
My professional background is in the firearm realm so it was a good starting point. From there, we’ve been branching out and getting into other things. the fidget spinners being a big one as of late. I was first introduced to spinners about a year ago. A couple of friends of mine who also run small machine shops were getting into them, and I saw what they were doing and some of the interest they were getting. Honestly, at first, I thought it was going to be a short-lived thing. I was, like, yeah that’s cool, sort of looks like fun, but it’s probably not going to go anywhere. Then it started to pick up a little steam. And I was like, eh, I’ll throw something out there and see what happens.
Did you immediately nail the production?
The first design I made was just sort of half a joke. I wanted to make something that was big and awkward and goofy. I prototyped one and threw it out there and people wanted to buy it. From there, we started getting into more mainstream designs. But they were still a little bit unusual.
Essentially, what we’ve ended up doing is taken a production approach to a custom or semi-custom item. We’re not doing the cheap mass produced plastic spinners you see coming from overseas, but we’re trying to compete with them as much as possible in a more durable metallic product.
What materials are you using? And how do your spinners stand apart, from even the other heavy metal versions like Torqbar?
What’s unique about us is that we run the full spectrum of materials. We start on the inexpensive side with the aluminums and the brasses that are a little more budget friendly. And then we run all the way up to the full exotics: Superconductor (Niobium and Copper), Damascus Titanium, Damascus Steel. Tungsten is a really big one for us. A lot of the other guys who are doing difficult materials, but they’re very hard to find because they only do a couple at a time. We’ve tried to take a production approach and do them in volume. Let’s make them a reasonable price and in an exotic material. We’ve tried to bring them to the masses, so to speak. Our least expensive model starts at $30.
And what kind of material would that be?
Aluminum. Then we run all the way up to the most expensive, our full superconductor, which is about $750. And then everything in between. That’s why we’re unique — we have something in everybody’s budget.
What’s your most popular model and which one do you like the best?
Our most popular models would be the IFDGT and the three-armed TRIFDGT. They’re pretty budget friendly and good for people of all levels. On one hand, we have more budget friendly spinners, that are really great for the people who are just getting into it or just trying it out. But we also have the more exotic and high-performance models that do well with collectors and customers looking for something that’s a bit different. Also, I’d say that our two most popular metals are brass ⏤ which is inexpensive but still pretty high performance because it’s heavy ⏤ and then tungsten.
Walk us through the process. How long do they take to make?
Sure, so that’s one of the biggest drivers of cost. An aluminum one is very quick to make. It takes probably a total 10 or 15 minutes to machine it, and maybe another five to 10 minutes to assemble it. Now something like a superconductor, on the other hand, requires a lot of hand-finishing and polishing. We try to make sure those are balanced even better, so we also do some hand balancing on those. A lot of test fitting, of assembling, of disassembling, adjust this, tweak that, put it back together. Those can take potentially up to a couple of hours a piece.
And then when you get into some of the tougher alloys like tungsten they are very tough very dense, very heavy, very difficult to machine. It takes roughly an hour just to machine one of those, versus aluminum which is, maybe, five to 10 minutes. Tungsten also destroys cutting tools, so we’re constantly changing out tools. There’s a lot more that goes into some of those exotics and tougher materials.
You mentioned demand is strong. How many are you making and selling?
We’ve sold a few thousand. We’re slowly getting caught up to demand. There’s been a lot of talk that this is a fad, and it’s going to go away. And I’m sure to some degree that’s true, especially on the budget end of the spectrum with kids playing with them. But that’s not really who we’re selling to. The people we’re selling to we’re interested in these things long before it became super popular, and we fully expect those people will continue to be interested in them long after. They love to collect these things, to have one of every material and one of every design. It’s not just something they’re getting into because it’s the cool thing. It’s something they’re getting into because they truly enjoy it. As a result, we’ve seen nothing but growth in terms of demand.
And what percentage of your business would you say is fidget spinners these days?
Right now, it’s probably about 50-50. Which, getting into it, I never would have expected. It’s something that we’ve really embraced though. It has become a part of who we are.
Since you’re targeting collectors, for the most part, the higher price point hasn’t proven to be a problem then?
No, not at all. Which is great, because we try to be very aggressive in how we price things. We look at what it costs us, and we look at making a reasonable profit on that. We’re not going to gouge people. We want to develop a long-term relationship with our customers. I think we’re on fifth design at this point, and there are people out there who have every single one, or at least one out of every family that we’ve made. It’s really cool to develop these relationships with these people and interact with them and just to see the way they appreciate what we’re doing.
Now the big question: what kind of spin times are you getting?
Based on having so many different materials, we kind of run the full spectrum there as well. The lighter ones like aluminum and titanium typically run for two to three minutes. And this is not verified, but I think our tungsten model currently is the record holder for the longest spin at, like, just under 20 minutes.
So do you use one personally?
I didn’t have one before I started. When I first saw them, I was skeptical. I mean, it’s a piece of metal that spins, but they’re actually surprisingly addicting. And now that I’ve kind of started playing with them they’re tough to put down.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.