Malaysian-born engineer Cheong Choon Ng, inventor of the Rainbow Loom

“It began four years ago, in 2011, when I came home from my work as an engineer at Nissan in Novi, Michigan, and found my daughters, Michelle, nine, and Teresa, 12, making bracelets. They were using the small ­colourful rubber bands that they used to tie up their hair. It reminded me of my childhood in Malaysia, when I used to link rubber bands together to make a jumping rope.

I like to join in with my kids as a way to get closer to them, so I sat down and tried to make a bracelet, but I couldn’t. The rubber bands used to make jumping ropes were much bigger and you could just link them together with your fingers. My daughters’ hands were much tinier than mine and they were managing with the small rubber bands, but I wasn’t quite able to do it.

I had the idea of making a loom made of push pins on a board, where you could loop the rubber bands with a dental hook. I worked it all out in my mind – how you would link the bands together first and then hook them back so they would connect together. As long as you can link from one rubber band you can branch many out. You can move forwards and link back in a repetitive pattern, a bit like in crochet. I thought hard about how I would make it, then I tried it and it worked.

I was really happy to show my kids my ‘invention’. They weren’t too ­excited – it just meant they could do what they were already doing with their fingers. But then I had another idea – how about if I put multiple rows of pins so you could criss-cross the bands together? It worked. I made a diamond bracelet (see insert, left) and showed the kids. Now they could make something new – it was much cooler than anything anyone else had, and they wanted to show their friends.

The girls took that first loom to school, and their friends all liked it. Soon kids I didn’t really know started coming to our house and making bracelets. They were asking for ­Michelle’s dad and asking me how to do it. I was a bit of a hero.

At first I didn’t really know that this was a new invention. I googled ‘rubber band looming’ and ‘stitching’ and to my surprise I couldn’t find any loom where you could do a complicated shape. The more I looked at it, the more I was curious about the patterns. I started to realise nobody had done this before and it really was something new, but the bracelets still weren’t that easy to make with a board and push pins. One day my daughter said to me, ‘Hey Dad, there are looms for crochet, why don’t we make a loom and start selling the bands and looms?’

As an engineer for Nissan, I knew how things are put together in a car, and even though this was much simpler I knew it needed to have good design. It needed to be something I could manufacture and I needed to register the intellectual property. The only problem was we didn’t have any money to start – I only had $10,000 in the bank and the automotive industry wasn’t in great shape at the time. But the most difficult thing was convincing my wife to invest. I knew that unless she bought into it, there was no way it would be successful. I made a few bracelets and rings for her and she saw the passion and effort I was putting in so she said, ‘Honey, why don’t we try it?’”

“When you are put in a very difficult situation I guess you just have to make it work. There wasn’t any room for failure. We could only move forwards. It took about six months to get the design right. I made prototypes out of dry clay left over from my daughter’s craft – I would leave them overnight to dry. In the morning I had to be very careful while I was testing them as they would just crack if I pulled too hard with the rubber bands.

It took me about six months and 28 iterations to get it right. We initially sold the product online. That summer our sales were $20,000. Whatever money we made we put straight back into the business; we were constantly poor at that time. Then the local specialty stores started to carry our Rainbow Looms. They introduced them as ‘educational craft’; it was a whole new category of art. They started to hold classes, which were almost immediately booked out. I guess with the tools it was relatively easy to do and at the end you get the reward, which is the bracelet. Our sales started going up.

By late 2012 our business was doubling every couple of months and we couldn’t keep up with the demand. I took a three-month sabbatical from work. We roped in our neighbours and other parents and kids to do the packing, then we hired two full-time employees. In November 2012 my boss called to see if I was coming back to work. However, I was still struggling to keep up with demand. By this time the business was earning more every month than my entire year’s salary at Nissan. I told him I wasn’t coming back.

We were still only covering a few states in the US and just 40 cities, so we took the leap and went national. In 2012-13 our sales were up to $400,000; the following year, we sold more than $40 million. In 2014 we started selling Rainbow Looms all around the world. We did buy a new car but we already lived a pretty good life before, and we still live in the same 230m2 house. I guess we eat out more. My wife is also working in the same company so we see each other more. I think we work more than we did before but other than that our life is still the same. It’s all happened so fast we haven’t really taken it in. We are not the sort of people to go and spend like crazy.

But what feels incredible is that children all over the world are using something that was discovered by accident. The popularity of the product is so widespread and it all started from my dining table. It’s been a very humbling experience. I never wanted to create something to make money, it was just a fun weekend project that I did to try to impress my kids.”

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