In 1996 a twenty-five-year-old graduate of Florida State University, Sara Blakely, started working for an office-supply company selling fax machines. Part of the company’s dress code included ladies wearing tights (that’s pantyhose if you are reading this in America), which Blakely resented in the hot sunshine of Florida as she liked to wear sandals. However, she did like the way the top section of the tights made her look slimmer, or firmer, and eliminated underwear lines that were visible through her outer clothing. Blakeley experimented by cutting them off just above the knee but found the material rolled up her legs as she walked around. She then spent the next two years trying out various materials before filing for a patent. Her Spanx underwear was initially rejected by every manufacturer and retail outlet she approached over the following three years until Highland Mills agreed to a production deal after the owner’s daughters both endorsed Blakely’s underwear. The Spanx brand made $4 million in its first year of trading and is now estimated to be worth $1 billion.
A unisex body-length blanket with sleeves is how the Snuggie is usually described. The sleeved-blanket started life in 1998 as a Slanket and was first marketed as the Freedom Blanket when it was displayed in the shops. Student Gary Clegg’s mother made him a wrap round blanket with a single sleeve that he could wear in his cold dormitory room and still be able to work with his one free hand. Clegg later added the second sleeve to create a product that initially sold for $14.95 or $19.95 for a pair. Launched in 2008, the Snuggie variation sold four million units by the end of 2009 and is now responsible for over half a billion dollars in worldwide sales. Half a billion dollars for a back-to-front dressing gown.
The Plastic Wishbone
Who would have thought it? A fake wishbone to keep the kids quiet on Christmas Day or Thanksgiving instead of arguing over who was given the bird’s single furcula bone. Lucky Break Wishbones, the 1999 brainchild of inventor Ken Ahroni, is now keeping spoiled kids happy to the tune of $2.5 million a year. Now why didn’t I think of that?
The Head On
This is a wax product with an annoying television commercial that claims to be able to cure a headache by simply rubbing the bar-stick across the forehead. Despite there being no scientific research to support these claims (and for legal reasons I am not suggesting that it doesn’t work) over six million sticks of the stuff were sold in 2006 alone, at a price of $8 a time. You can work out the math.
Billy Big Mouth Bass
Presumably everyone has seen one of these, or at least heard of the singing fish that became the must-have novelty during the 1990s. Who would have thought that over one million of them would be sold in the year 2000 alone, at a cost of $20 each?
The Beanie Baby
Nobody took the Beanie Baby seriously at all, apart from its inventor Ty Warner (b. 1944) who, apparently, sold 300,000 at his first toy show. Presumably that means orders as it is hard to believe anybody would take that many units to a product launch. Who cares anyway as Beanie Baby sales have now topped five billion and still counting. Ty Warner is estimated to be worth $3 billion to $6 billion.
Imagine going into a meeting with an idea for an electronic pet that needs constant attention to either shut it up or stop it from dying. It would take either a brave man or a fool. Or both. Until it sold seventy-four million units, making billions of dollars for everybody involved. Gin and tonics all round, I think.
An application for smartphones that replicates the sound of twenty-five forms of flatulence to please the tiniest of minds. It even has a ‘record-your-own-fart’ feature. Inventor Joel Comm (b. 1964) must have hoped it would prove to be popular but he could never have predicted 114,000 downloads at $1 a time during the first two weeks of uploading it to iTunes. The iFart app went to number one on the application chart where it stayed for three weeks making it the biggest selling app in the world during that time. It is now thought to have received over a million downloads, earning its creator more than I care to think about.
Yellow Smiley Faces
In 1963 Harvey Ball (1921–2001), a designer for a PR company, was asked to think of a logo for one of their clients, a life assurance company. In no time at all he had produced the goofy, yellow, smiling, cartoon face and added the words ‘Have a nice day’. A few years later Bernard and Murray Spain were planning to open a novelty store and thought the smiley face would be a good logo for them to use, so they bought the rights. They then used that image on just about anything they could think of, including key rings, Frisbees and carrier bags, and were soon producing a vast range of products with the smiley face logo. By 1971 sales had reached fifty million in number and the brothers’ novelty store was expanding into a chain. In the year 2000 they sold the business for a handsome half a billion dollars. The man who designed the logo in the first place was paid $45 for his efforts.
The Wacky Wall Walker
Whatever possessed Ken Hakuta to spend $100,000 to buy the rights to a toy that sticks to walls when it is thrown, and then appears to walk down them, is anybody’s guess. His mother had sent him one whilst on a visit to China and Ken was convinced the toy would be a big hit in America. He was wrong. At least to begin with. Sales were painfully slow but then somebody at the Washington Post stumbled upon one and wrote a review. The ensuing craze that followed led to the Wall Walker becoming one of the biggest fads of all time with a reported 240 million of them being sold in just a few months, earning Hakuta a healthy $80 million in the process.
Richard James (1914–74) was once a naval engineer and one day, during the Second World War, he was working with a new tension spring, which he clumsily dropped. James and his colleagues then watched as the spring worked its way across the floor by using its own momentum. By the end of the war James had decided to make a toy out of it but was so nervous that he persuaded a friend to keep him company at the initial launch. Both of them, I imagine, were amazed to see the first batch of 400 sell within the first hour and a half. Despite how intensely annoying it is, the single-dollar toy went on to sell 300 million units, making James a very wealthy man. In 1960 he packed everything up, left his wife to run the business and moved to Bolivia where he joined the cult of the Wycliffe Bible Translators. And that’s where he stayed until his death in 1974.
The Million Dollar Homepage
In 2005 a twenty-one year-old British student, Alex Tew, came up with a novel way of raising the money for his university education. He set up a single-page website that offered to display one million adverts (one per pixel) for a single dollar each. Amazingly, http://www.milliondollarhomepage.com was an instant success and advertisers poured in to buy pixels on the webpage. Alex shamelessly declared himself a ‘pixel hustler and proud of it’, and then he sat back to watch the money roll in. Launched on 25 August 2005 the final pixels were auctioned on 11 January 2006 and the sales income achieved was $1,037,100 against start up costs of under $75 to register the domain name. It was a stroke of genius: stand up and take a bow, young man.
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