In business, it may be argued that the best way to succeed is to knuckle down and chip away until that promotion arrives. On the other hand, ideas-led individuals might opt to try and come up with an invention so unique and downright bizarre that people can’t help but throw money at it. Novelties such as singing fish, anthropomorphic rocks, cutesy furry toys and joke hillbilly teeth have all helped their inventors to hit the big time. And who knows? For anyone whose mind is fizzing with unusual ideas, business management could well offer a context within which to dream up something even more out there than these weird – yet surprisingly successful – inventions.
10. Big Mouth Billy Bass
In 1998 Joe Pellettieri took a car journey that changed the face of modern American pop culture. The then vice president of product development for Texan novelty outfit Gemmy Industries was driving around looking for inspiration when he happened to pass a fishing store. For some strange reason, the store’s logo prompted Pellettieri’s wife to suggest a singing fish, and the product was launched almost two years later. Fast-forward to 2013, and seemingly almost everyone has heard of Big Mouth Billy Bass. The novelty singing fish has shown up on talk shows, cameoed on The Sopranos, and has even reportedly been owned and used by Queen Elizabeth II. Although Gemmy Industries has not specified exactly how much Big Mouth Billy Bass made the company, it has suggested that, as genuine crossover products appealing to multiple demographics, “millions” were sold.
9. Pet Rock
If someone in 1974 had declared that within a year millions of ordinary Americans would each pay several dollars for an ordinary rock, that person might well have been locked away. However, in 1975 California ad executive Gary Dahl brought out the Pet Rock and, as a result, attained millionaire status almost overnight. The strange idea was prompted by a conversation among friends about pets and their shortcomings, through which Dahl came to the conclusion that – because it didn’t need to be fed or groomed and wouldn’t get ill – a rock was the perfect option. Pet Rocks had nothing to separate them from regular beach pebbles, except that they cost $3.95. Nevertheless, thanks to a canny strategy that saw the rocks sold in pet carriers complete with an owners’ manual, Dahl managed to shift 1.5 million units in the six months or so that the craze lasted. Craze indeed.
8. Koosh Ball
Although the bizarrely named Koosh ball might look rather silly, it was actually invented for a practical purpose. Scott Stillinger came up with the idea in 1986 in order to give his young children something simple to grip onto and throw, but he soon teamed up with his brother-in-law, a former Mattel marketing manager, to sell the product. A mere two years after its conception, it joined the ranks of Christmas 1988’s most covetable toys. Its construction is simple – just a rubber core to which rubber strings are affixed – but it proved wildly popular. Fifty million of the balls were sold – which had to net its creator a lot of cash. And OddzOn Products Inc., the company Stillinger co-founded to market the unique balls, was itself bought by toy maker Russ Berrie and Company, Inc. in 1994, possibly bringing in even more money for the inventor. Today, Hasbro manufactures the toy, and as well as the traditional Koosh balls, the range includes foam balls that are launched from play guns.
Doggles – the tinted goggles for dogs – may sound like a bad joke, but for Californian Roni Di Lullo they’re no laughing matter. Ever since Di Lullo watched her dog struggle to play Frisbee in the sunlight one day in 1997, she has committed herself to producing Doggles. The concept initially involved sports goggles being repurposed for Di Lullo’s pet and then for other dogs with interested owners, but eventually a pair custom-designed for a canine’s head was developed. And guess what? In the past 16 years, Doggles have allowed Di Lullo’s business to grow from a DIY setup to a serious player that yielded $3 million in revenue in 2012. The idea is mind-bendingly simple: Doggles act like sunglasses, blocking out all UV rays from dogs’ eyes. Still, this invention is a godsend for those who really need to look after their hound’s eyesight, and everyone from veterinarians to the U.S. Army have gotten in on the Doggles trend. Simply put: Doggles are great business.
With origins nearly as bizarre as the item itself, the Flowbee was dreamt up by San Diego carpenter Rick Hunts in the late 1980s after he saw how the suction of an industrial vacuum worked to get sawdust out of his hair. The product itself is a hair-clipping device that attaches to a vacuum cleaner, allowing the user to cut their curls with minimal fuss. It sounds almost too ridiculous to be true, yet when Hunts took the Flowbee on to late night TV after selling out of the products at a country fair, a cult legend was born. Before long, the Flowbee had found itself a rival, and it was also the apparent inspiration behind a similar device seen in the 1992 movie Wayne’s World – albeit under the name “Suck Kut.” By the year 2000, two million units had been shifted, and at least one barber has given it the nod, noting its ability to save on all the mess created when cutting tresses.
5. Silly Putty
Most people probably played with Silly Putty as a kid, but for the few who haven’t, it’s a sort of moldable gunky substance that can stretch and bounce and break. Its creator is disputed – Harvey Chin, Earl Warrick and James Wright are all credited with its invention – but it was indebted marketing consultant Peter Hodgson who turned it into a money-spinning idea. In 1950, armed only with a vague plan and an emergency loan of cash, Hodgson bought up as much of the stuff as he could and named it “Silly Putty.” The canny marketer shifted 250,000 units at a dollar apiece in three days, and pretty much ever since then – an early setback owing to a Korean War silicone ration notwithstanding – Silly Putty has been big business. By the time Hodgson died in 1976, Silly Putty was raking in over $5 million a year.
It took 18 months for creators Dave Hampton and Caleb Chung to design and make the Furby, yet for some, despite those hours put in, the mass appeal of the toy seemingly defies explanation. In 1998 Tiger Electronics introduced the owl-like robot balls of fluff that spoke in their own language, and the playthings soon took the world by storm. During Christmas that year, demand was so great that the Furbies sold for several times their original retail price, with some buyers forking out as much as several hundred dollars for just one toy. In fact, more than 40 million of the items were shifted in their first three years on the shelves. And what’s more, the craze didn’t die there, with Hasbro reviving the Furbies in 2005 and again seven years later. The 2012 re-launch saw Furbies come out on top as the predicted bestseller of all toys that Christmas at Walmart.
3. Billy-Bob Teeth
It’s said that America is obsessed with dental care – and it’s true that U.S. celebrities have teeth that often seem whiter than is possible to achieve in nature. As a result, one might expect the land of gleaming smiles to be the last place on Earth where a novelty set of deformed teeth would be created. Nonetheless, in 1993 Jonah White watched dental student Rich Bailey try to pick up girls while wearing some self-made hillbilly teeth at a Missouri State University football game. White started chatting to Bailey after the game, and the dental student agreed to show him how the teeth were fashioned. Following these bizarre beginnings, the pair teamed up, and a successful business was born. In 2006 the company hit the $40 million annual sales mark, and by 2011 they’d shifted in excess of 15 million units of the teeth and other joke merchandise. Today, no less than 20 million Billy-Bob sets have been made, and White and Bailey claim on their website that they sell the novelty teeth to more than 95 percent of countries across the globe.
It’s only a wearable blanket with sleeves, yet it’s netted the people behind it millions. In winter 2008/2009, the Snuggie became a global sensation, thanks in no small part to its hugely popular direct-response commercial. Scott Boilen, the president and CEO of New York’s Allstar Product Group, which sells the item, admits that he doesn’t mind the product’s jokey reputation, as it makes viewers pay attention – and become customers. By 2013 more than 30 million Snuggies had been sold, bringing in no less than $500 million for Allstar. Interestingly, the Snuggie wasn’t the first sleeved blanket to hit the shelves. The Slanket, invented by Gary Clegg in 1997, has been sold on QVC since 2007. As Clegg himself says, “In the U.K., The Slanket is their Snuggie – it’s number one. We also focus on delivering superior customer service and providing a quality product.”
The Slinky is possibly the most unlikely success story in business history. The toy was discovered in 1943 when naval engineer Richard James unintentionally knocked over a spring while at work and watched as it “walked” its way down to the floor via objects at different levels before righting itself. The plaything was developed by James before being launched in 1945, and things went supernova within a very short spell. Although precise figures are hard to come by, it’s estimated that two years after he founded James Industries, the inventor had made the modern-day equivalent of $1 billion in sales from his toy. From 1945 through 2005, the company shifted over 300 million units – that’s nearly one for every single person in the United States today. After James and his wife separated in 1960, she took over the company and headed it until 1998. This almost absurdly simple toy had brought success beyond the James’ wildest dreams. Not bad going for a repackaged spring.