Denver's Zen Magnets Is Fighting the Federal Government Over Its Ban of Tiny Magnet Balls

Shihan Qu, the founder of Zen Magnets, is fighting the federal government.
Shihan Qu, the founder of Zen Magnets, is fighting the federal government.
Anthony Camera

Smart and self-assured, with jet-black hair and the faintest of goatees, Shihan Qu is the reigning king of magnet balls. His ascension to the throne wasn't so much the result of hard-won battles against other magnet magnates as it was the outcome of a process of elimination. While other companies that sold powerful BB-sized magnets, most often marketed as adult desk toys, folded under pressure from the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission, the 27-year-old Qu has stood firm, willing to take on the feds all by himself.

Last month, he sat in his rented Denver office to watch the CPSC make a decision that would have big consequences for Zen Magnets, the company he founded five years ago. The meeting was taking place 1,600 miles away in a staid boardroom in Bethesda, Maryland, and being live-streamed online for anyone who wanted to watch it. Qu did.

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The problem, as the CPSC saw it, was that children were getting a hold of the magnets and swallowing them, causing devastating bowel injuries when the magnets attracted inside of their digestive tracts. One nineteen-month-old girl died last year after swallowing seven magnets that her brothers brought home. Though the magnets are usually sold in sets of 216 and labeled as not suitable for young kids, the CPSC had for years gotten reports that magnets were becoming separated from the sets and ending up in the hands of children.

The CPSC meeting had one item on the agenda: whether to ban small, spherical, high-powered magnets. Foremost in most of the commissioners' minds were the injury statistics and the reports from doctors about how these wounds are hard to detect and serious to treat. But the chairman of the commission, Elliot Kaye, acknowledged that a ban on magnets would have another effect, too. When he spoke about it, he looked directly into the camera that was recording and streaming the meeting, as if he knew Qu would be watching.

Zen Magnets can be used to make complex shapes.
Zen Magnets can be used to make complex shapes.
Anthony Camera

"I feel the weight of, and am genuinely sorry for, the likely loss of one man's dreams," Kaye said. "I received an e-mail two days ago from this individual, Mr. Shihan Qu."

"Hey, that's me," Qu mumbled, his lips curling into a smile that lasted just a second.

Kaye quoted from Qu's e-mail, reading aloud a passage about how Qu decided to start Zen Magnets in "a moment of awe and lucidity." Qu wrote that he considers the five-millimeter magnet spheres to be "an adventure into geometry, photography, physical forces and, most importantly, my own mind" and that they "still bring me the childhood wonder that I once had." The fact that they require users to be careful, Kaye quoted Qu as writing, "doesn't mean magnets should be feared but that they should be respected."

"We do not agree on how to address the hazards presented by these magnets," Kaye said, looking into the camera. "But please know I do respect your dream to innovate and to create.... I hope your dreaming will continue and that inspiration will strike again."

But Qu doesn't want to chase his next dream. He wants to fight for this one.

That has meant rallying magnet users to pressure the CPSC to reject the ban. Qu also hired a lawyer to represent him in an administrative lawsuit that the CPSC filed against Zen Magnets and two other companies in an effort to force them to recall their products. He's paying for the lawyer with the profits from Zen's magnet sales, which have increased as the other companies have dropped out of the crusade and Zen has recommitted to it.

"We vow to continue this legal, awareness and lobbying battle until our very last drop of cash-flow blood," Qu wrote on Zen's website in August, in the dramatic, tongue-in-cheek tone the company has adopted in its dealings with the CPSC. "We will combat the CPSC's magnet prohibition until triumph, or until a glorious death of insolvency on the legal battlefield. At the very least, we'll have one more holiday season of availability."

"It seemed that this was the right thing to do," Qu says of his vow. "If this was just a business and it was just about the money, then it wouldn't have been the wisest thing to do."

But Zen Magnets is more than a moneymaking venture to him, and his battle with the CPSC is more than one man's attempt to keep that venture afloat.

"On one hand, I want to win," Qu says. "I want to keep seeing these magnets provide joy and happiness and inspiration to people. And I want to keep making money from it. But on the other hand, I really want to see the CPSC lose. And I want them to be reminded of a little bit of humility and be reminded of the expectation of freedom."

Continue to keep reading about Zen Magnets' fight with the federal government.  

Shihan Qu founded Zen Magnets in 2009.
Shihan Qu founded Zen Magnets in 2009.
Anthony Camera

Qu started Zen Magnets in 2009, when he was a senior at the University of Colorado in Boulder. That moment of "awe and lucidity" he referred to in his e-mail to Kaye took place on a camping trip that Qu says involved tripping in more ways than one. Qu had ordered some rare-earth magnets, sometimes called neodymium magnets, online just as they were starting to catch some buzz and brought them up to the mountains. He doesn't remember exactly what he did with them, and it's unlikely that he built any of the complex shapes that would later be associated with Zen Magnets. But he recalls the fascination he felt as he played with the high-powered spheres, which snap together forcefully and hold tight.

"I felt like the magnets were amazing, and you could do so many things," Qu says. "They made me feel very at peace, which is why I called them Zen Magnets."

At the time, Qu was a mechanical-engineering major and a veteran of buying and selling things to make money, a skill he acquired early in life. Qu was born in Beijing and came to Colorado at age three, eventually moving from Fort Collins to the Denver area and graduating from Cherry Creek High School. As a kid, he made a profit selling Otter Pops for a quarter apiece on the playground during the summer. He continued to indulge his taste for commerce in college, switching from the playground to the Internet: The two framed certificates hanging next to his desk at Zen headquarters are his CU diploma and an eBay top-seller award.

"If I was going to describe him," says his friend Eric Sigurdson, who met Qu at CU and is now the operations manager for Zen, "I'd say he could squeeze a dollar out of something that most people couldn't squeeze a drop of water out of."

After that camping trip, Qu decided that the next thing he should sell was magnets. He was living with his then-girlfriend in CU housing, and the two pulled together $800 in seed money. Qu set about finding the highest-quality neodymium magnets there were. The magnets are made in China, and Qu analyzed samples from several manufacturers, paying close attention to the coating, strength and consistency in size. When he found the best ones, he contacted the manufacturer and asked if it could make them even better.

"It helps that I speak Chinese," Qu says.

All of Zen's magnets come from a single factory, and from the start, Qu claimed they were the best on the market. To prove it, he began selling sets of Zen Magnets on eBay alongside sets of the most popular magnets on the market, called Buckyballs, and challenging customers to compare them. When Qu got a voice-mail message from Buckyballs co-founder Jake Bronstein threatening to sue him -- "We're a $20 million company, and if you think that I'm not serious, if you think that we have an army of salespeople but not an army of lawyers, you're out of your head" -- Qu responded with a YouTube video. In keeping with his personality, it was part science and part sass.

Wearing a T-shirt and a pair of 3-D glasses, Qu showed Zen Magnets outperforming Buckyballs in a series of quality tests. Then he delivered a message directly to Bronstein: "Clearly, you are the Goliath in this situation. We are just the humble, insignificant underdooooog." (Underdog, the cartoon crime fighter, flashed on the screen.) "Do you really feel so threatened by our better magnets that you have to flail your sword at us?"

It's true that in terms of sales, Zen was a small player and Buckyballs was the big dog. Its founders were much more aggressive in their marketing, and by the end of 2009, Buckyballs had landed on all sorts of hot holiday gift lists, in publications from Rolling Stone to Real Simple. Major retailers such as Toys "R" Us, Brookstone and Barnes & Noble picked them up, and by March 2010, Buckyballs had sold about 175,000 sets, each containing 216 little magnets.

Zen's sales were modest by comparison, about two a day at first and increasing to an average of 20,000 sets a year. Until this year, when the company expanded into a handful of local pot shops (which are age-restricted), all of Zen's sales were online. Its magnets are sold in sets of 72 ($12), 216 ($38) and 1,728 ($264). Zen also sells lower-quality colored magnets called Neoballs (9 to 10 cents each). This year, Zen is on track to make about $700,000 in revenue.

In addition to emphasizing quality, Zen sought to differentiate itself early by cultivating a community of users dedicated to making magnet art. Qu likes to say that although Zen Magnets only represent 3 percent of all magnet-sphere sales in the U.S., more than half of all magnet art is associated with Zen Magnets. His "pride and joy" is the Zen Magnets Flickr gallery, where users submit photos of everything from complicated geometric shapes -- one recent design is titled "Stellated Icosidodecahedron" -- to replicas of the Eiffel Tower. Zen regularly holds design contests where the winners get free magnets.

"I've really appreciated being in the community," says Curt McClive, a 53-year-old engineer who lives outside Seattle. Like many Zen devotees, McClive started out with Buckyballs. "I don't use Buckyballs anymore because the quality difference is observable."

But though neodymium magnets proved popular, they also proved problematic. The CPSC got its first incident report involving small, spherical magnets in February 2010. According to CPSC documents, a nine-year-old boy swallowed seven magnets while using them to mimic body piercings. The magnets had been bought for a thirteen-year-old. They ended up passing through the nine-year-old's body in a single mass, and the boy wasn't hurt.

The CPSC was concerned nonetheless. The federal agency had a history with magnets: In 2007, the Chicago Tribune published a series of stories about how the CPSC was slow to respond to reports that children were suffering serious injuries from swallowing magnets that routinely fell out of a construction toy called Magnetix. Understaffed and underfunded, the agency didn't take action until a toddler died. The stories won a Pulitzer Prize.

Determined not to let that happen again, the CPSC targeted the biggest neodymium magnet seller on the market: the one with the "army of lawyers." At the time, Buckyballs was labeling its products for users ages thirteen and up. After negotiating with the CPSC, the company agreed to a recall and to change its packaging to say "14+" so that Buckyballs wouldn't be considered a toy under federal regulations. The packaging also included a warning about the danger of swallowing magnets and told users to keep them away from kids.

However, that was easier said than done.

Continue to keep reading about Zen Magnets' fight with the federal government.  

One of the warning labels that comes with Zen Magnets.
One of the warning labels that comes with Zen Magnets.
Anthony Camera

From the beginning, Zen included a warning in its packaging that its magnets were for ages twelve and up. "Call poison control if more than 1 magnet is swallowed," it said.

Qu says he settled on the language because it seemed to make sense. But after the Buckyballs recall, he changed the wording on Zen's website to reflect what he viewed as conflicting recommendations from the CPSC: "How old do you have to be to play with these? According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, 14 years old in the U.S. for a strong magnetic toy. Unless it's not a toy, then no age limit. Unless it's a 'Science Kit,' then the age regulation is 8+. Zen Magnets are classified as a science kit, so the minimum age as recommended by the U.S. government is 8. Our common sense recommendation is 12."

The paper warning that came with the magnets was even snarkier: "Really, it's whatever age at which a person stops swallowing non-foods.... Place swallowing magnets on your don't-do list, along with breathing water, drinking poison and running into traffic."

The CPSC didn't appreciate Zen's attitude. "We sought to stay above the juvenile efforts of others," says Scott Wolfson, a CPSC spokesman who has taken the lead on the magnet ban, "and stay focused on what our purpose is at the agency."

To that end, the CPSC launched an education campaign in 2011, hoping it would curb any injuries and make further regulation unnecessary. Buckyballs played along, and the two issued a joint safety video and joint press release: "When two or more magnets are swallowed," it said, "they can attract one another internally, resulting in serious injuries, such as small holes in the stomach and intestines, intestinal blockage, blood poisoning and even death."

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But the reports of children swallowing magnets kept coming: Eight total in 2010, seventeen in 2011 and 25 in the first half of 2012. More than half of those injured required surgery. The most serious case involved 23-month-old Braylon Jordan of Mississippi, who swallowed eight magnets. According to CPSC documents and news reports, his parents took him to an urgent-care clinic because he was vomiting. Doctors diagnosed him with an ear infection and sent him home. But when Braylon's condition worsened and he began losing consciousness, his parents rushed him to the hospital. An X-ray revealed the tiny magnetic balls in his intestines and abdominal cavity.

Braylon underwent surgery to remove the magnets, which were a brand called NeoCube. Complications caused doctors to have to perform several more operations, during which almost all of Braylon's small intestine was removed. In a document published shortly after the injury, the CPSC wrote that Braylon was being fed intravenously and would eventually need a bowel transplant. "His long-term prognosis is poor," the document notes.

"The case of Braylon Jordan touched many of us in our heart," Wolfson says. "It pushed us to do more, to try to work as fast as we could to address this issue."

So in 2012, the CPSC contacted thirteen U.S. magnet companies, including Zen, and requested that they stop importing and selling magnet sets. At that point, consumers had bought about 2.7 million sets, the majority of them Buckyballs brand. Ten of the companies agreed to stop selling. But Zen, Buckyballs and Star Networks, whose product was called Magnicube, did not. Qu figured that his magnets weren't defective, so why stop selling them? Plus, there hadn't been any injury reports involving Zen Magnets.

"It was like they were trying to deliver the punishment before the crime," Qu says.

To deal with the holdouts, the CPSC got more aggressive. That summer, the commissioners decided to pursue a two-pronged attack: They filed administrative lawsuits against Zen, Buckyballs and Magnicube in order to force them to recall their products, and at the same time began the long and bureaucratic process of banning future sales.

The agency made its case in a pair of lengthy documents, the first from August 2012 and an updated version released in September 2014. The most recent document notes that there were 121 probable cases of kids swallowing magnets from magnet sets between January 2009 and December 2013, according to a national database that tracks ER visits for injuries related to consumer products. The cases were probable because most hospitals don't note the exact type or brand of magnets swallowed, instead referring to them as "BB-sized magnets" or "small, strong magnets."

The CPSC took those 121 cases and extrapolated to estimate that there were 2,900 magnet-set-related ingestions in those five years.

Dr. Robert Kramer, the director of endoscopy at Children's Hospital Colorado, says Children's has seen its fair share of magnet injuries. "We see young toddlers who ingest them thinking they're candy, and we see teenagers using them to emulate piercings," he says.

Part of the problem with these injuries is that they don't cause serious symptoms right away. At first, it can seem like the child has a stomach bug or the flu, Kramer explains. If a parent doesn't see the kid swallow the magnets -- or if the kid doesn't confess that he did -- the only way to tell is with an X-ray. And by then, the magnets have often moved past the esophagus and stomach and are pinching the intestines together, threatening to kill the tissue or punch a hole right through. At that point, surgery is needed to remove them.

Warnings alone don't work, the CPSC argued, because teenagers won't follow them and young children don't understand them. Even if parents read the warnings and attempt to keep the magnets away from their kids, they're so small that it's easy for a few to roll away.

Commissioner Nancy Nord, who has since left the CPSC, was the only commissioner to vote against the dual approach. She thought that suing the companies, a tactic the CPSC hadn't used since it sued the manufacturer of Daisy BB guns in 2001, was improper at the same time that the agency was pursuing a ban. She worried that a judge wouldn't be able to remain impartial if he knew about the potential ban, and she was concerned about a possible appeal: Federal law dictates that if the magnet companies lose in court, they are to appeal the decision to the commissioners, the very people who voted to sue them in the first place.

"It just smacks of heavy-handedness," Nord says now. "It's the federal government putting a very heavy thumb down on the scales of justice."

But the other commissioners, and the CPSC staff, saw it differently. The lawsuits, Wolfson explains, are to get rid of magnets that are already on the market and in people's homes, whereas the regulation is to prevent any more from being imported and sold.

Qu thought the whole thing was ridiculous. He agrees that some of the injuries are tragic, but he thinks they've been blown out of proportion. Balloons and bikes cause more deaths than magnets, he argues; CPSC reports show that twelve kids choked to death on uninflated balloons in 2010, 2011 and 2012, and seven kids died while riding tricycles. And that's not to mention the deaths caused by products like guns, pools and ATVs.

But the CPSC argues that there's a difference between those products and magnets: Everyone knows guns can be deadly, but most people don't suspect a pair of tiny magnets, even though the injuries can be just as severe. Wolfson is fond of saying that magnet injuries are like "a gunshot wound to the gut with no sign of entry or exit."

Qu doesn't buy it. "These magnets are not dangerous at all unless they're swallowed," he says. "That it's inevitable that they will be swallowed is not at all proven. It's only assumed by the CPSC, and they're acting completely on that assumption."

After the CPSC announced its proposed ban, Qu changed the paper warning that comes with Neoballs. "OMFG READ ME," it said. "The grumpy CPSC is about to BAN magnet spheres in the U.S. because they are an ingestion hazard. They don't trust that you are capable of understanding and following warnings. Prove them wrong, or we all can't have nice magnets."

In true Qu fashion, the warning ends with this: "SRSLY."

Continue to keep reading about Zen Magnets' fight with the federal government.  

Zen Magnets recently began selling its products at marijuana dispensaries and head shops, including Vaper Jungle.
Zen Magnets recently began selling its products at marijuana dispensaries and head shops, including Vaper Jungle.
Anthony Camera

For a while, Buckyballs took the lead in fighting the CPSC. With its higher profile and deeper pockets -- but the same snark as Zen Magnets and Qu -- the company launched a campaign called Save Our Balls. Craig Zucker, the CEO, began making the rounds on TV news shows, and his battle was covered in the Washington Post, the New York Times and Wired magazine. The Save Our Balls website featured cheeky suggestions of other dangerous things the CPSC should ban, including hot dogs, stairs and hippos, "adorably dumpy" animals that weigh 8,000 pounds each and kill 2,900 people every year. "Is trying to ban an animal illogical?" the website asked. "You betcha. It's what the CPSC does best!"

Several news stories also mentioned Qu, who created his own website called SaveMagnets.com and started a petition on Change.org urging the CPSC to drop the ban. "Although it sounds like a fictitious Onion article, this is real and happening," the petition says. (The petition links to an Onion story called "Fun Toy Banned Because of Three Stupid Dead Kids.") The petition continues: "If the CPSC succeeds, magnets will be harder to obtain than ammunition in the U.S." It currently has more than 5,000 signatures.

In addition, magnet fans flooded the CPSC with thousands of comments opposing the ban. They ranged from thoughtful -- a mother whose blind son enjoys building 3-D shapes, a military vet who said playing with magnets helps calm his nerves -- to hateful.

"Fuck the government," one person wrote.

"This ban is unnecessary," another said. "If kids are swallowing magnets, it's their own responsibility. Why are we blaming magnet sphere companies? We don't blame spoons for obesity. We don't blame steering wheels for DUIs."

Many commenters pointed the finger at parents: "Making magnets illegal is not the solution to the problem. Perhaps you should considering making stupid parents illegal instead."

Some suggested that the CPSC require magnet sellers to coat their magnets in bitterants to deter kids from swallowing them, an idea the CPSC rejected by noting that children regularly eat gasoline and toilet-bowl cleanser, so why not bitter magnets? Others recommended that magnets be sold in child-safe packaging, but the CPSC responded that parents would be unlikely to return the magnets to the packaging after they played with them.

The CPSC also received feedback from supporters of the ban. Among the most persuasive were comments from doctors who'd treated kids for magnet injuries. The American Academy of Pediatrics and other medical societies lined up behind the ban, and at an October 2013 public hearing that the magnet companies say they were deliberately left out of, several doctors testified for it. "This is not an issue of bad parenting," said Dr. Maria Oliva-Hemker, the chief of pediatric gastroenterology at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore. "This is an issue of availability of devices that unfortunately cause way more harm than initially thought."

In December 2012, Buckyballs gave up. By then, major retailers had stopped selling them under pressure from the CPSC. Zucker held one more huge online sale and then dissolved the company. In a statement, he said Buckyballs were going "the way of Crystal Pepsi and the DeLorean" due to mounting legal costs and "continued badgering by the CPSC."

But the CPSC wasn't about to let Zucker get off scot-free. In February 2013, the agency added him personally to the lawsuit in an attempt to hold him liable for a recall of Buckyballs. The CPSC estimated the cost of that recall at $57 million.

Though Zucker fought back, creating a new product called Liberty Balls -- large magnetic spheres too big to swallow -- and selling them to help pay his legal bills, he eventually agreed to a settlement with the CPSC in May 2014.

Zucker declined to be interviewed for this story, sending only the statement he released at that time. The settlement requires that he spend up to $375,000 refunding Buckyballs customers; in the statement, Zucker called it "a victory for me and small business owners across the United States." He said he hoped it would discourage the CPSC from taking the "unprecedented" step of suing individual entrepreneurs in the future.

The Buckyballs settlement left Qu at a crossroads. "They were the big capital ship in front of us and we were in their wake," he says. "And when they pulled out, that's when all of a sudden, the capital ship was gone. We were still going in the same direction, and it was like, Now what do we do? Do we go forward with the lawsuit or not?"

Qu decided that they would. But this time, there was no moment of awe and lucidity. Instead, Qu says the decision was based on a careful weighing of the odds. "The aha moment was like, 'Oh, my God, their information is complete bullshit,'" Qu says. He believes that the CPSC's injury statistics are overestimated and that its analysis of the economic impact of a magnet ban is unrealistic because it relies on sales data from 2012, when Buckyballs was in its prime, rather than on current numbers.

Qu also thinks that Zen Magnets is in a much more defensible position than Buckyballs ever was. Zen never sold its magnets in Toys "R" Us and never referred to them as children's toys. And it's only in the past year that Qu has heard of an injury possibly involving Zen Magnets: a fourteen-year-old Florida girl who put magnets in her mouth to hold while she was going to the bathroom and accidentally swallowed them. The girl had gotten the magnets from a friend. Though she wasn't sure of the brand, she thought it might be Zen.

In a recent effort to stave off the CPSC ban by implementing his own "voluntary standard," Qu began selling Zen Magnets in about a dozen local marijuana dispensaries and head shops -- or as Zen designer Ian Sitko puts it, "age-restricted, non-sex stores." The idea, Qu says, was to show the federal government that the industry was capable of regulating itself and to push the CPSC to explain why the approach wouldn't work.

The company also spent about $45,000 to erect more than 65 billboards around Denver. Some advertised that Zen Magnets were now available in pot shops, while others decried the potential ban, using more cannabis references: "Hemp Isn't The Only Unjust Prohibition," they said. (Note: Hemp is legal in Colorado but illegal under federal law.)

But the CPSC wasn't satisfied. Instead, it remained committed to the legal battle, even though its biggest target had surrendered. In August, the CPSC won another victory when Magnicube agreed to settle its lawsuit and recall its magnets as well.

"The resolution of both of those cases was exactly what we asked from the very start," Wolfson says. "That leaves us with one remaining case: Zen Magnets."

Continue to keep reading about Zen Magnets' fight with the federal government.  

Consumer Product Safety Commission chairman Elliot Kaye voted to ban magnets.
Consumer Product Safety Commission chairman Elliot Kaye voted to ban magnets.

On September 24, the CPSC commissioners voted 4-0 to ban small, high-powered magnets. The fifth commissioner, Ann Marie Buerkle, refused to participate in the vote. Like Nord, she believes that pursuing a ban and a lawsuit at the same time is improper.

Chairman Kaye was the only commissioner to address Qu directly or express any sympathy for his plight. The other commissioners called neodymium magnets "insidious" and referred to their "harrowing recent history" of injuries. "The conclusion that I reach," commissioner Robert Adler said at the meeting after voting in favor of the ban, "is that if these magnet sets remain on the market, irrespective of how strong the warnings on the boxes in which they're sold [are] or how narrowly they're marketed to adults, children will continue to be at risk of debilitating harm or death."

In the end, Kaye was also swayed by the severity of the injuries. He read aloud an e-mail from the aunt of nineteen-month-old Annaka Chaffin, who died in August 2013 after swallowing magnets and becoming ill. Doctors thought she had the flu and sent her home. When her mother found her "cold and hard" the next morning, she ran to get a neighbor who was a nurse. "The baby was presumably already dead, because in talking to the neighbor, when she was attempting CPR, she had to pry the baby's mouth open, and with every compression, there was blood coming out of her eyes, nose and mouth," Kaye read. Chaffin's family, including her aunt, mother and two older brothers, had driven from Ohio to Maryland to attend the vote and were in the audience.

"As a parent, I hurt so much for Annaka's family," Kaye said. "I will always think of Annie when I think of this rule and the actions the commission has approved this morning."

From his office in Denver, Qu watched Kaye's emotional speech on the live webcast, taking notes on his laptop. The hearing had begun at 8 a.m. Denver time, and for most of it, Qu was alone. When it was over and the screen went blue, he uttered one word: "Okay."

He wasn't shocked by the vote. "I was pretty sure they knew what they were going to do," he said. But he was disappointed nonetheless, including by the focus on the Chaffin case. "I've never seen a chairman spend so much time going into such gruesome detail about any one injury before. There's so many hundreds of thousands of injuries and deaths that the CPSC has not performed the same service to."

As Qu spoke, his six employees began to arrive for the day.

"So how did it go this morning?" Sitko asked when he rolled in just before 10 a.m., a coffee in his hand and his girlfriend, Jenna, who also works at Zen, by his side.

"Well," Qu said, "they banned magnets."

"I'm not surprised," Sitko said.

But Sitko and the other employees didn't spend much time debating the merits of the decision or cursing the CPSC. Instead, they got to work assembling magnet sets, printing mailing labels and stuffing envelopes. Zen had held a big online sale just prior to the vote and sold about $20,000 worth of magnets in a single weekend. There were a lot of envelopes to stuff.

"Business as usual," Sigurdson, the company's operations manager, said as he fiddled with Spotify, settling on some trippy instrumental music that soon filled the small office. "I don't have time to worry about all that. I'm glad Shihan worries about those things."

At his desk a few feet away, Qu put on a big pair of headphones with a wireless microphone and started calling the handful of journalists who'd e-mailed him asking for comment. When he tried to get into the weeds of why the CPSC had erred, they asked him to cut to the chase. "To Chairman Kaye, I say 'thank you,'" Qu told the reporters. "I will continue to follow my dreams. And that will include continuing to fight the CPSC."

A hearing in the CPSC's lawsuit against Zen has been scheduled for December 1 in Maryland. It's expected to last three weeks. Qu, who has been busy helping to prepare evidence, will be there for every day of it, wearing the new suits he bought for the case. (He's already spent more than $100,000 on legal expenses, and expects to spend more.)

Meanwhile, the ban will go into effect 180 days after its passage, which means Zen can continue selling its inventory until April 1, 2015. There's a process to appeal the ban, and Qu hopes to hire a second lawyer to help him do so. After he hung up with the last reporter and a few of his employees headed outside for a smoke break, he started dialing attorneys with experience fighting the CPSC. He ended up leaving a bunch of messages. "You can call me anytime," he said into one attorney's voice mail. "In the middle of the night, if you have to."

After all, Qu wants to win.

Follow me on Twitter @MelanieAsmar or e-mail me at melanie.asmar@westword.com

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