Suckers!

Know Your Audience



John Wilkinson isn't in the Guinness Book of World Records, but he is a good salesman. He rents and sells sumo wrestling suits. If you weren't born in bulk and you want to sumo wrestle, Wilkinson's company provides the chance.

Laugh if you want, but the 42-year-old's San Francisco company, Total Rebound, made $3.5 million in 1998 and expects to make $4 million this year. Well, OK, to collect that cash, Total Rebound does more than just the sumo wrestling thing. Wilkinson's company also sells supplies for human shuffleboard games, an inflatable mountain climb, and "Off With Their Heads," a game in which people get to behead each other and live to tell about it.

Not your average, everyday forms of entertainment. Making it a tougher sell, these games are prohibitively expensive for the local yokel to purchase-but not too expensive for a company to purchase or rent out for a day or a weekend, for a company picnic, seminar or party. Suddenly Wilkinson's surreal ideas make sense. After all, in this computer age, says Wilkerson, "There's so much less social interaction. People crave it. And we are a solution to that. So it isn't that hard of a sell, once you explain, 'Here's your problem,' and 'Here's how we can help.'"

But in 1992, when Total Rebound started renting out its wacky interactive games, human resources departments were confused. It wasn't yet a Dilbert world, the Internet didn't exist as far as the general public was concerned, and the idea that employees might need more stimulation than a company picnic with wieners and Kool-Aid was only beginning to be explored. But Wilkinson already knew that people loved the games; he had unwittingly done his own market research during Total Rebound's early days as a bungee jumping company, the first one in the country to receive OSHA approval.

You'd think bungee jumping would be a hard sell and that those customers could definitely be called suckers: Here, you take this rope and you plunge from a great height and hurtle toward what will seem to be certain death. But Wilkinson reports there was always a steady stream of customers-so many, in fact, he began offering diversions, like sumo wrestling, for those waiting in line.

So during the off-season ("Somebody decided bungee jumping had a season," says a perplexed Wilkinson), he aimed for the corporate market. He teamed up with caterers and event planners, finding them through their associations. Now Total Rebound's clients include Microsoft and Cisco Systems.

But there is a downside to owning a business that features zany games like human-bowling (a person climbs into a life-size bowling ball, and, well, you get the idea): Because few people know these games exist, Wilkinson has to do a lot of advertising-at least $100,000 worth each year. The upside of selling something bizarre? Observes Wilkinson: "Truly, with what we do, we don't have much competition."

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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.

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This article was originally published in the August 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Suckers!.

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