From the November 2000 issue of Startups

When Jim Caldwell hosted the game show Tic Tac Dough in the 1980s, he gave away money and prizes while entertaining viewers. Now this TV-host-turned-entrepreneur has gotten in on a different kind of TV game: showcasing products through infomercials.

Caldwell, 49, first hosted an infomercial in 1986, as time when this marketing vehicle was still in its infancy. Intrigued by the format, he ended up being the host and executive producer of 35 infomercials in 1988. But it was his experience working with Kevin Harrington, one of the founders of the industry trade group Electronic Retailing Association, that made him realize the real name of the game was to work for a piece of the profits of each product.

So in 1989, Caldwell launched his own infomercial production company, Future Thunder Productions Inc. from his home in New York (he moved to Sherman Oaks, California in 1995). After a few product duds, he hit pay dirt with a fly fishing lure in 1991, which generated more than $100 million in sales, bringing Future Thunder to the forefront of the direct marketing industry.

For each infomercial, Caldwell brings together a freelance team for production and client relations, but handles business development, client relations, writing, executive producing and hosting duties himself. His sole employee takes care of office management and post-production editing. And Caldwell is now the prizewinner taking home the dough: With exposure in 70 countries, Future Thunder brought in sales of more than $2 million in 1999, and Caldwell anticipates sales of $3.5 million by the year-end.

HomeOfficeMag: Did you encounter any obstacles when starting up?

Jim Caldwell: Just gaining knowledge and experience. I had to learn what to do and [what] not to do. The cost of entry wasn't an issue nor was trying to get [into the industry.] My start-up costs consisted of a fax machine and business cards. It was such an open playing field 10 years ago that if you had some brains and decent instinct, you could work your way through the process of figuring out what to do.

[Before I stared Future Thunder,] I had witnessed first-hand the concept of throwing stuff up on the wall and seeing what sticks [in making an infomercial], and I knew [that strategy] didn't work. So I refined my awareness of what works, and in time, I developed better instincts. These days, I'll turn down 99 out of 100 ideas. But in the old days, I wasn't as discerning, so I didn't necessarily pick right. Now I'm able to tell at a glance what has a really good shot at working and what doesn't stand a chance.

HomeOfficeMag: What advantages do you find from working at home?

Caldwell: I don't have to commute. I get frustrated wasting my time in traffic. I'm not a very good person as far as patience-I'm a type-A [personality] big time. I'm around my family much more than I would be [working from an office]; my son, Carson, has complete access to me, and we're expecting another baby in a few months. Any time I want to walk into the office and work I can. At the same time, I can also take a break and go for a walk, do nothing or play with my kid. It gives me a chance to work as hard as I want or not work at all, depending on how I feel, and I like that.

HomeOfficeMag: Are there any disadvantages in working from your home?

Caldwell: Sometimes when there's an influx of people, maybe due to a series of meetings, it can get a little tiring for my wife, Donna. She can't exactly walk around in her nightgown. Also, sometimes I feel a little guilty when my son comes in and I can't play with him in the middle of the day.

HomeOfficeMag: Have there been any aspects of entrepreneurship that have surprised you?

Caldwell: That I can be as small as I am and have such a presence in the industry. It's surprising to me, knowing where I was 10 years ago and not being sure how it would work out. You kind of assume you'll have to build a staff and [increase] overhead as you get bigger. That hasn't been the case for me, so that's a nice surprise.

HomeOfficeMag: What are your future plans for the company?

Caldwell: I'm considering additional strategic alliances that will expand my scope and [give me] access to a larger playing field. I've been approached by people with deep pockets, and there may be some interesting opportunities down the pike that might make me expand my staff by one to three employees.