A.J. Khubani turns that old saw about the world beating a path to your door if you invent a better mousetrap upside down.
FOR THE RECORD:
Inventors Day: A column in the March 7 Business section about inventors who gathered to show their wizardry to a panel headed by infomercial marketer A.J. Khubani said Scott Heim runs Oregon Freeze Dry Inc. His company, which is based in Oregon, is called Dry Inc. —
Inventors beat a path to his door. One day last week they arrived in waves: inventors of new takes on dog leashes, floor mats, home exercise devices, skin creams, pillows, umbrellas, coffee mugs, kitty litter strainers, eyelash curlers.
Early Wednesday morning, 44 inventors crammed into a conference room and lined up in the hallway on an upper floor of the Los Angeles Airport Marriott. In this case, the term "inventor" doesn't give the whole picture -- think "purveyors of would-be TV infomercial products" to complete the description.
Their hope was to receive the Nod That Leads To Wealth from Khubani, the founder and chief executive of Telebrands, one of the largest infomercial marketers in the country. Khubani's quest for the next big thing to be hawked by supercaffeinated pitchmen on TV was the rationale for Inventors Day, the event he sponsored at the Marriott.
Far from home
Telebrands has been holding these events every couple of months since May, but this was the first one it scheduled outside its headquarters in Fairfield, N.J.
The format was, unsurprisingly, extremely televisual: Behind a long table sat a panel of four judges -- Khubani and his wife, Poonam; Nancy Lazkani, the owner of a Van Nuys direct marketing firm; and Tommy Zarzecki, Telebrands' "official blogger."
Looking on were a film crew shooting a demo for a possible reality show, a feature reporter for NBC's "Today" show, and a few others from the local press, like me.
The inventors each got five minutes to demonstrate their ideas, preferably with a working prototype, and field a few gentle questions from the judges -- how they got their idea, whether they've been selling the product at trade shows or online, etc.
Khubani managed to hear out dozens of contestants with remarkable equanimity, never displaying boredom or impatience no matter how bizarre or comic the pitch. The very first pitch of Inventor's Day came from a man from Georgia selling a "do-it-yourself face lift," a cream he said he'd been marketing to women "for over three years -- with no side effects!"
"This is just like 'American Idol,' " gushed Andrea Pass, the company's publicist. Well, maybe with a bit of "Let's Make a Deal" thrown in. Some inventors came in costume, including two women from Schaumburg, Ill., who dressed in matching pink jackets to promote a gizmo to foil purse snatchers by chaining your handbag to the chair you've hung it on.
An in-air cocoon
Then there was Chad Hassell of Salt Lake City, who wandered the hallway draped in his "Cozy Traveler," a body-length blanket hooked to a plump neck pillow to provide head-and-body comfort on cramped and chilly airplanes.
The get-up made Hassell look a bit like Ming the Merciless aproned up for a spot of backyard barbecuing, but that's not to say the product might not work as advertised.
The people waiting their turn in the dock represented a fairly wide range of American Inventordom. Most had been pre-screened by Telebrands and invited to come to the event -- at their own expense, naturally. But several were walk-ons arriving unexpectedly, evidently inspired by an interview Khubani gave a local radio station earlier in the week.
At one end of the spectrum were those with a germ of an idea looking for someone to make it real. For example, Karen Wilson, 55, of Coral Springs, Fla., who dubs her product "The Pillow You've Always Dreamed Of." This, she told me, is an inflatable, ergonomically shaped pillow with a built-in pocket to hold a hot/cold gel pack.
"It's better than all the other pillows out there," she assured me. The problem was that it has to be airtight, and she hasn't been able to get the pieces glued just right. "I've got it all figured out, but I need to get it manufactured," she said.
At the other end was Scott Heim, 49, a former marketing executive at Kimberly-Clark and DowBrands (where he managed the Ziploc brand), who runs Oregon Freeze Dry Inc. His company's product is a disposable cloth that dry-cleans your garments when it's tossed in your home dryer with them.
The firm's Dry Cleaner’s Secret has been on supermarket and drugstore shelves for years, but Heim told me he's been body-checked away from mega-retailers Wal-Mart and Target by the machinations of big consumer-goods companies, which ferociously protect shelf allocations.