From the March 2001 issue of Entrepreneur

Mannix. C-SPAN. The Food Network. Burt Reynolds in Cannonball Run II. Some sharks on the Discovery Channel. Abe Vigoda. The Skipper shouting, "Gilligan!" And in the midst of all this are entrepreneurs.

You know where they are. QVC. HSN. The Shop at Home Network. ValueVision. Even your local access TV station may be offering up some shopping bounty.

And we know what you're thinking: that you would and could never try to sell your wares on TV, where they'd be sandwiched between diamond pendants and Don Knotts videotape collections. You're thinking a shopping network simply isn't as exciting as HBO. Or even as exciting as The Golf Channel. But the facts don't lie: A shopping channel can be a casting couch you can use to secure a reputation and riches.

Underline riches. There are 68.5 million cable subscribers, and, in 1999, QVC and HSN (Home Shopping Network) pulled in $5 billion in sales. Somebody is making money on TV, and it could be you. Just call the number at the bottom of the page and send in $79.95. We accept Mastercard, Visa and . . .OK, it's not that easy. But QVC's director of vendor relations, Marilyn Montross, estimates the network welcomes 1,100 new businesses annually-some are mammoth corporations, many are smaller companies-that all help contribute to the 13,000 new products that appear on QVC every year.

In 1995, two of QVC's rising new stars were business partners Ron Wilson II and Brian Le Gette, presidents of Baltimore, Maryland-based Gray Matter Holdings, parent company of Gorgonz, an industrial design firm, and Big Bang Products, a developer and marketer of unique and innovative consumer products. When Le Gette made his first appearance on QVC, he and Wilson had spent $50,000 to make 5,000 ear warmers. By the end of last year, Gray Matter was projected to rake in $10 million.

If they hadn't sold on QVC, it's hard to tell where Wilson, 33, and Le Gette, 35, would be. Working as engineers for someone else? Huddled in an alley, still sobbing over misspent money and dreams? Either way, their ears would be warm.

"By minute four, we hadn't sold anything," says Le Gette, who was scheduled to present Gray Matter's ear warmers for 15 minutes, "but by minute eight and a half, we were sold out." That led to QVC ordering 25,000 ear warmers. Today, their prime products are the ear warmers, Snap-2-It beach mats and the Aggressor, a radio-controlled airplane.

Linda Simmons' desk may not have a radio-controlled airplane on it, but it has everything else, from cookbooks to stuffed animals and earrings. Simmons works in an open cubicle area with several other vendor relations specialists. They're the first jury box at QVC.

Simmons has to look at each of the thousands of items that QVC hopefuls submit to the network for consideration. The biggest error she finds entrepreneurs make when they send in their prototypes is not including enough information. "The two main things I need to know are the cost of your product and the availability," Simmons says. "I tell people when they call that this is their opportunity to sell this product to me. It's their baby. They know it better than I do. Tell me what I want to know. Tell me what's unique about it."

But your product shouldn't be too far off the beaten path. Jewelry, bedding, furniture, kitchen appliances and clothing are some of the hottest things on the shopping networks. That's right-they're all items a customer could find at a local department store. And yet . . ."If your product is out in a Wal-Mart or a department store, we have to give people a reason to buy it on the air rather than go to a store where they won't pay shipping and handling," says Julie Campbell, a buyer for HSN.

So it should be something you can find at your local mall, and yet something you can't? Yes. Campbell's best advice for working around that contradiction: "It needs to be something that's innovative, something that a customer can truly use, something that works."

If you can meet those objectives, you may be able to start a long relationship with a shopping network rather than end up a one-hit wonder. "The best entrepreneurs keep coming up with new and fresh ideas," says Montross. "Some products have run for years without any changes and continue to run with no end in sight, but, for the most part, every product has some sort of life cycle."

Not that it's all bright and cheery in TV Land (oh, sorry, wrong network). Le Gette admits to his share of bloopers, saying, "This is live television; anything can happen." Once, during a glove demonstration, the thermometers weren't plugged in, and everything he said was happening was the opposite of what the audience saw. But it's a wonderful place to launch a product, says Le Gette, and you'll learn-within minutes, not months-whether you have a hit on your hands.

And the best thing about bringing your business to a shopping channel? Finally, you can stop complaining that there's nothing good on TV.


Contact Sources

  • Big Bang Products, (410) 534-6320, www.bigbangproducts.com
  • Home Shopping Network, (800) 436-1010
  • QVC, (484) 701-1000