The State of the American Dream
Despite these difficult times, the spirit of invention and ambition is still alive and kicking.
August 20, 2009 - 12:22 am
The United States government is effectively calling the shots now at General Motors. Legislation has been proposed that would start capping the pay of at least some private sector employees. President Obama’s proposed health plan would put yet another 1/6 of the U.S. economy under government management. The party in power in Washington wages class warfare against the “rich,” “profits,” and “speculators.” With such demonizing of wealth and the increasing involvement of the federal government in the private sector one might think that the “American Dream” is dying, that the idea of an entrepreneur building a better mousetrap and striking it rich is as obsolete as telephones connected by a wire.
The American Dream, though, is not dead. At any time of day you can turn on your television and see the realized dreams of inventors on display in infomercials from direct marketing companies like Telebrands, Ontel, IdeaVillage, QVC, and HSN.
I recently had the opportunity to see those dreams at a early stage when I was invited to pitch Telebrands on an idea of mine for a consumer product along with about 30 other entrepreneurs and inventors at Telebrands’ headquarters in Fairfield, New Jersey.
Telebrands’ business model involves a fairly rapid turnover of their product line, replacing all but only the very best sellers after only a year or two. That creates a voracious need for new gadgets and gizmos. Hence the inventors days.
As one might expect with gadgets and gizmos, the majority of inventors were men, but there were a few pitchwomen as well. With Telebrands’ most successful product to date being the Ped Egg foot smoother, this should come as no surprise. Most of the products directly marketed on television are aimed at women one way or another. There was ethnic and geographic diversity among the inventors as well with some coming from as far away as Key West, Oklahoma, and Las Vegas.
There was also quite a variety of ideas/products being pitched. Some were circumspect for intellectual property reasons, but like any proud parent, most of the inventors were eager to share their stories and what product they were pitching. The products ran the gamut: a child’s lamp shaped like an angel whose halo lights up, a tanning bed that lets you tan on both sides without turning over, cooling wash cloths, a device that collects rainwater to water your plants, a grasping assist designed to reach tight spots like retrieving items from your garbage disposal, something that lets you hold a baby while leaving your hands free, a spa/hot tub cleaning system, and an applicator system that looked like a cross between a toothpaste tube and a sponge painting pad. But wait … there’s more! What pitchathon would be complete without at least one “ab cruncher” device?
Diversity extended to the level of development as well. Some people had little more than some hand drawn sketches for their presentation. Other people had working prototypes, and a few had items already in production and on sale. One inventor had been on QVC a handful of times and another’s company already has product being test marketed at Walgreens.
Considering that we were all, in a sense, competing to grab the attention of Telebrands’ CEO Ajit “A.J.” Khubani, there was a palpable sense of camaraderie among the pitchers. After all, we shared the experience of creating and developing an idea, overcoming naysayers, and putting together a pitch. We all had similar dreams. Khubani is the inventors’ Simon Cowell. Unlike American Idol, we weren’t actually competing, though. At these periodic “inventors days” Telebrands has no quota to fill. They may buy no ideas at all or they may make a deal with more than one inventor. It’s all about the ideas and that better mousetrap. Most inventors are quick to recognize someone else’s good idea (and have their own ideas how to improve or compete with it). One inventor even bought a sample from another.
We sat in the lobby as inventors were called to the inner sanctum, which we could all see through the glass walls. Khubani, his wife Poonam, a former Bollywood actress, and Bob Pascatore, an associate of Khubani’s, sat in front of the inventors as they pitched their products. If it looked like they were interested, either asking questions or keeping the inventor beyond the five minute limit, a buzz of excitement went through the small crowd. The inventors who emerged victorious were congratulated, and those who were turned down were consoled.
The one clear hit that day, the one that got the Telebrands’ crew so excited that they didn’t want its inventor to leave the premises without making a deal (Khubani’s main competitors are his two brothers and their companies’ headquarters are also in New Jersey, not far away) was a clothes hanger. Hangers and closet organizers are big sellers in the direct marketing arena. Some people may drop stuff in their garbage disposal and not want to reach in there, but everyone has a closet and uses hangers.
Inventors aren’t the only ones still fascinated by the American Dream. Khubani (and his PR reps) love publicity. There were camera crews and reporters from local television stations, CNBC, Forbes, and the local Bergen Record. There was also a crew from Hand Made Films, filming Khubani and all the inventors, who were wired with mics before we started our pitches. Khubani had a recurring role on the first season of the Discovery Channel’s reality show Pitchmen that starred the late Billy Mays Jr. Discovery and the show’s producers have announced that a second season will be produced. It’s possible Hand Made was shooting for use in the upcoming season, or Khubani, a pitchman’s pitchman, is trying out a new televised venture.
Much of the drama in Pitchmen surrounded the efforts of inventors to get their products picked up and marketed on television. A successful “as seen on TV” product can mean millions in royalties. What is sold “if you call now” is only the tip of the iceberg. TV merchandise is a major revenue stream for most drug store chains. The popularity of Pitchmen and the fact that the show is surviving the demise of its star attest to the enduring appeal of those reaching for the brass ring. Billy Mays may have been the star, but people tuned in because of the earnest appeal of the inventors doing the reaching. In fact, Pitchmen inspired a couple of the inventors at Telebrands.
The current recession may in fact be spurring even more inventors to pursue their dreams. Michigan and Ohio contributed the largest number of people pitching Telebrands that day. Despite the growth of the public sector, Americans still love to tinker and invent in the hope of making it big or at least taking some control over their lives. As seen on television, the American Dream is still alive and well.