From the April 2000 issue of Startups

Dean Tornabene is the co-inventor with Charles Perez of some of the best-selling gadgets ever pushed by infomercials, including the AB Rocker and the Bun and Thigh Sculptor. His inventions over the past four years have generated more than $300 million in retail sales and direct-response TV combined.

Tornabene, a former Mr. America who has established himself as a health and fitness guru, has quite an impressive background, but his inventing skills go far beyond simply cashing in on his good looks and name recognition. Tornabene also knows how to create a distinctive product-one with the potential to find space on retail shelves and become a smash hit, not just another deadbeat collecting dust in a corner of Wal-Mart.

Tornabene's first inventions came about when he was a teenager growing up in Canonsburg, Pennsylvania. His family couldn't afford expensive fitness equipment, so Tornabene created his own products. At 22, Tornabene moved to Los Angeles and gradually realized that the general public needed more than just exercise to keep in top shape. Hence, Herbal Technologies Inc. was born, a company that sells two of the most popular herbal supplements, Fat Fighting System and Metasystem.

Over the past four years, Tornabene has again turned to fitness equipment, co-inventing the AB Rocker and the Bun and Thigh Sculptor. All have been featured on direct-response TV, and now he's taking yet another stride forward: In 1999, Tornabene signed an exclusive marketing and sales contract with National Boston Medical Inc., parent company of Infotopia, to produce a minimum of 12 new infomercial products over the next four years. The newest product to be featured is the Body Rocker.

Daniel Hoyng, president, chairman and CEO of Infotopia, notes the significance of the deal: "Retail sales are even more important than direct-response sales. To keep a product on retailers' shelves, it's important to have a branding strategy that consumers can recognize."


Don Debelak (dondebelak@uswest.net) is a new-business marketing consultant who has been introducing new products for more than 20 years. He is the author of Bringing Your Product to Market (John Wiley & Sons, $19.95, 800-225-5945).

Stand Out

"OK," you're saying, "so how did Tornabene do it?" First and foremost, you need to make sure your product is different from all the other products out there that are similar to yours. The market is just too demanding. "[I like] to think in other dimensions and use a perspective that's intangible," says Tornabene. In other words, he looks for products that aren't delivering what consumers want-then he focuses on that need and tries to visualize how the product should be designed.

Consider the thought process behind the AB Rocker. Tornabene first identified the problem: The average American doesn't really enjoy exercising and usually stops his or her regime after a short period of time. He then looked beyond his extensive knowledge of fitness products to try to come up with a product to solve that problem.

"I started to realize that the motion people find most comforting is rocking," says Tornabene. "That's why I decided to make rocker technology the basis of my fitness products. The market's previous top-selling abdominal exercising product was the AB Roller, a major hit on direct-response TV. For five years, no one was able to come up with a better solution." Then Tornabene invented the AB Rocker.

Your challenges as an inventor go beyond thinking in other dimensions, however. When creating their products, many inventors experience the frustration of trying to coordinate three very different things: the look, the vision and the cost of the product. You need to have a look that sets the product apart, a function that's important to consumers and a price that consumers will feel is a good value.

Inventors frequently fall short in at least one of these areas. The most effective way to avoid this problem is to collaborate with another person. Tornabene, for example, works closely with Perez, a mechanical wizard who turns vision into reality by creating prototypes. The two of them own a shop in Venice, California.

After experiencing the wonderful world of marketing, you'll typically find that the best collaborative partnership is between a person with the vision to create a new idea and a person who can deliver a quality product. The skills of the two people complement each other, and their different perspectives-one looking to give customers the benefits they want, the other trying to build a quality product at a low cost-lead to the best products.

Tornabene is a well-known inventor with a track record of successful products-but he didn't start off that way. (Remember that small-town story we mentioned earlier? That's where we all begin.) What took him to the top was his ability to consider alternatives to existing products. You'll have a better chance of duplicating Tornabene's success if you can learn to think outside of the proverbial box when creating your own winning inventions.

Shelf Life

The direct-response industry has changed dramatically over the past five years. Direct-response ads were originally used to generate direct sales, and marketers only moved their products to retail during and after their direct-response run. Today, marketers use direct-response TV to supercharge retail sales.

Consider the example of Roto Zip Tool Corp., which has sold its Roto Zip tool (looks like a power drill but acts like a router) for 25 years via building supply stores like Menards and Home Depot. When the company ran an infomercial for three months, retail sales increased more than 50 percent, cites Response magazine. Then there's The Bacon Wave, a microwave-safe bacon cooker by Emson Inc. In its initial TV run, the Bacon Wave sold 250,000 units-then it hit the retail shelves and sold 1.5 million units in just six months. And don't forget The Contour Cloud Pillow, which garnered $18 million during its six-month TV campaign and went on to sell a healthy $6 million more its first year in retail.

Retailers have learned that many people who are reluctant to buy a product off a direct-response ad are more than happy to buy it when they see it on store shelves. Plus, most retail products sell like hot-cakes once they're seen on TV.

Stay Tuned

Infomercials and direct-response TV ads have become some of the most successful routes for inventors to get their products to leading retailers. These retailers often use the "As Seen on TV" marketing technique to push products, as the merchandise can keep selling long after its last TV spot. Best of all for inventors, the infomercial promoters usually finance most-if not all-of the cost of producing and marketing the idea. To stay on top of the latest developments in the direct-response industry, subscribe to Response magazine (http://www.responsemag.com), which covers multichannel direct advertising (including infomercials), one- to two-minute direct commercials and direct-response Web advertising. Annual subscriptions are $39.

Beam Me Up

Many companies can help you take your product onto direct-response TV and then into retail stores. Here's a few you may want to try:

  • Emson Inc.: (a division of E. Mishan & Sons) 2350 Fifth Ave., #800, New York, NY 10001, (212) 689-9094, http://www.emsontv.com
  • Infotopia: (a division of National Boston Medical Inc.) 43 Taunton Green, Taunton, MA 02780, (508) 884-8820, http://www.nbmedical.com
  • Retail Distributors LLC: 150 E. Palmetto Park Rd., #700, Boca Raton, FL 33432, (561) 391-2600, http://www.dtrttv.com