For years, Ken Hakuta, now 49, seemed destined to be remembered for selling fish meal to Japan. Fish meal, Hakuta explains, is fed to the birds there. But he was more than a bird food salesman; his import-export company was also shipping Teflon-coated ironing boards from the United States to Japan.
Then in the early 1980s, the Wacky Wallwalker entered his life. It was a slimy rubber toy, says Hakuta. His mother had sent it from Japan to his children, and when Hakuta saw it, he said, "Wow, this is really something. This is the purpose of my life. I've been living for these wall walkers."
Okaaay! At any rate, Hakuta was captivated: Stick the rubber, octopus-shaped toy onto the wall and gravity would pull it to the floor, but not before it had managed to "walk" its way down the wall. Hakuta sank $100,000 into the Wacky Wallwalker, buying the North American rights to distribute the product from the Japanese company that manufactured the toy.
"People thought I was nuts," says Hakuta. "They thought I'd lost it. Even my friends didn't think it was a good idea." Hakuta had graduated from Harvard Business School in 1977; he was supposed to know better. "But no, I was going to sell these sticky rubber toys," he says.
America was enchanted with Hakuta's product. They appeared in stores, in fast-food chains and in cereal boxes. Hakuta sold 250 million of them in the 1980s and made more than $20 million.
How did he do it? Some of it was luck. Hakuta lived in Washington, DC, at the time, and he persuaded a few toy shops to sell his product. The Washington Post ran a story, and then the CBS Evening News followed up with a two-minute piece to close its broadcast one night. "It must have been a slow news day," admits Hakuta.
Suddenly, the phone started ringing off the hook, and Hakuta says he continued getting coverage, in part because he was so enthusiastic about his toy. "How you sell a weird product is by throwing so much passion behind it, you make believers of everybody. You basically electrify everybody," says Hakuta. "It's like having an ugly baby, but damn it, you love it, you know? [And soon] everybody believes it's the most beautiful baby in the world."
There are two problems with this idea, of course. First, many entrepreneurs have what they think is a "beautiful baby," but they have no idea how to present the little dickens to the world, says Hakuta, who went on to write the 1988 book How to Create Your Own Fad and Make a Million Dollars (William Morrow); he also had his own PBS TV show for six years called Dr. Fad. (Currently, he's following another trend-make that two of them-as founder and CEO of Internet herb seller AllHerb.com.)
Hakuta says one marketing ploy is to manufacture a myth around the product. As an example, Hakuta suggests the entrepreneur who created the Cabbage Patch craze: "There are so many ugly dolls that haven't sold. Why that one? Obviously Xavier Roberts was a genius at marketing them." Instead of just selling Cabbage Patch kids, Roberts put the dolls up for adoption. He wasn't looking for customers but rather "parents," who would love and care for the little tykes. And each "baby" was an individual.
Problem number two: You can't pretend to love your "ugly baby." Well, you can pretend, but it'll blow up in your face, warns Joe Girard, author of How to Sell Anything to Anybody (Warner Publishing Co.), among others. Girard is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world's greatest retail salesman. But before he was successfully selling cars and hitting the lecture circuit, he was custom building and selling houses. "I'm ashamed to say it, but I was always saying things that weren't honest, nice and true to con people, to mislead them," Girard admits. "It all came back to haunt me. I lost a $3 million dollar building business at age 35. I lost it all. Try that on your attitude machine-to be thrown out of your house with your wife and two kids."
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.