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Big Break

With millions of viewers tuning in, home shopping networks are the perfect place to launch and grow your business.
May 1, 2008
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/192754

You hear about it all the time--entrepreneurs making thousands off a four-minute spot on QVC or getting instant brand recognition from a stint on the Home Shopping Network. But if you're still scratching your head, wondering why anyone would want to sell his or her products on a home shopping network, take another look. Your impressions of TV shopping are probably outdated, and it's time to recognize these networks for the giants they've become.

Reaching into nearly 100 million homes and raking in revenue in the billions, QVC and HSN have evolved light years beyond cheesy infomercials and now appeal to an audience much broader than old ladies and desperate housewives. Today, HSN's core demographic is 75 percent to 80 percent women, ages 25 to 54, with a household income of about $60,000. "[Home shopping networks] were kind of a late-night joke that you'd find on Saturday Night Live," says Nick Romer, author of Make Millions Selling on QVC. "In fact, that was my opinion of them in the beginning, like, 'Who would buy anything from there, and how do you trust them?'" However, after finding his own phenomenal success selling arts and crafts products on QVC, Romer changed his tune.

Meanwhile, as the number of two-income households has increased, so has the need for convenient shopping and quality products that are available at affordable prices. And it certainly doesn't hurt the image of home shopping networks when trendy celeb-rities get in on the action. Last year, celebrity fashion stylist Wayne Scot Lukas and actress Tori Spelling launched their lines on HSN. Meanwhile, QVC works with the likes of Heidi Klum and Jessica Simpson. Strategic partnerships, like HSN's recent cooperation with Elle magazine and Sephora, have also added to these networks' cool factor. "I've seen HSN morph into a much more stylish network," says Laurie Feltheimer, founder of Hot in Hollywood, a Los Angeles-based HSN vendor since 2003 that specializes in on-trend clothes and accessories modeled after Hollywood fashions. "Even since I've been there, I've noticed it puts more beautiful products on air, it's more stylish, the sets are more beautiful. It has really grown to be a fantastic place."

So before you change the channel on home shopping networks for good, you might want to think again. You could be turning off the opportunity to tune in to your largest consumer base ever.

Getting There
Celebrity vendors might turn heads, but rest assured that as an entrepreneur, you have a lot to bring to the table. "QVC is very open, and in fact eager, to find entrepreneurs to do business with because our customers love the kinds of innovative product that vendor base brings to QVC," says Marilyn Montross, director of vendor relations at QVC. "[Entrepreneurs] also generally come with a back story that's of interest to the customer. Customers really enjoy rooting for people who could very well be their neighbor or their nephew."

Keeping this in mind, getting discovered might be just a couple of steps away. Both QVC and HSN scour trade shows and accept online submissions at qvcproductsearch.com and hsn.com/corp/vendor/default.aspx, respectively. In addition, in 2007, QVC hosted 10 product searches throughout the nation where applicants were guaranteed time with a QVC buyer. In search of the next big idea, QVC also partnered with Oprah Winfrey last year and received submissions from more than 6,000 inventors.

Meanwhile, HSN encourages entrepreneurs to contact buyers directly--sending a sample of the product is always preferred.

The road to being discovered can be short or long. For Feltheimer, 42, all it took was a simple call to HSN's CEO, and she soon had a face-to-face meeting and an opportunity to present her concept to the network.

In Laura Geller's case, her claim to fame wasn't even solicited. In 1997, Geller was attending a Cosmetic Executive Women networking event held for professionals in the cosmetics industry and ended up networking with the head of health and beauty at QVC. Six months later, she was on air demonstrating a three-piece face structuring kit to help women look more polished and defined. Now Laura Geller Makeup is among the top three color cosmetics brands on QVC in the U.S. and is one of the top 10 brands on QVC in the United Kingdom.

For Barry Farber, 48, and Gary Johnson, inventors of the FoldzFlat pen, which folds down flat to the size of a credit card, getting the green light from QVC was a lot more painstaking, taking a couple of years and numerous phone calls. "I got rejections from several different buyers," says Farber, who is also an Entrepreneur columnist. "They told me pens didn't sell well in the past and there wasn't enough value in this." Instead of letting rejection stop him in his tracks, Farber asked why, took note and tweaked the product accordingly. The strategy definitely paid off. In November 2006, Farber and Johnson, now in his early 50s, sold more than 7,000 units in less than four minutes.

Perfecting Your Product
Farber might have learned the hard way, but now that he knows the QVC formula, it seems to come as second nature. "They know what they want," says Farber. "They know what works. They know it has to be demonstrable, unique and something of value and convenience that has a lot of features and benefits." He used these clues to alter his own invention to get it up to par. He increased its value by offering two pens--one in a gold tone and one in silver--and he packaged them in an attractive gift box. And when Farber was finally able to demonstrate it to a buyer, they saw just how demonstrable it was.

"We look for [products] that have something new or different, something that is enhanced, something you can't find anywhere else," adds Montross. "That's not to say we only look for exclusive products or products that can only be sold on QVC, but in many cases, that can also be an advantage."

What works for QVC is not so far off from what works for HSN. "We look for something that's unique, has broad appeal, is visual, does not compete with what we already have and tells a story," says Lynne Ronon, executive vice president of merchandising at HSN.

Getting on these networks is one thing. Staying top of mind for consumers after more than 10 years is another. Geller, 49, does so by keeping up-to-date with her consumers' needs. As her customers have become more pressed for time, Geller has created makeup lines that are simple to apply. She's also constantly developing new eye-catching products. "The customer always wants what's new," she says. "You can't go on with the same olds. Even if your product is strong, you have to make it unique and different as time passes."

Think you have a product? Now take a step back and think out your strategy. "Build the prototype, then pitch that to people, get your pricing and see how that goes," says Romer. "Don't necessarily mortgage your house, make 10 units and say 'I'm going to get on a TV station.' That's too risky."

Success Breeds Success
Amazingly, home shopping networks have such pull that they can independently keep some businesses afloat. Feltheimer has grown her fashion business into a multimillion-dollar company simply by riding on HSN's coattails. And while she has gotten various inquiries from retailers wanting to stock her brand, she's not looking for more. "At this point, I'm really happy with my business at HSN," says Feltheimer, who appears on HSN six to eight times a year. "It's growing, it's keeping me busy and interested, and I don't see any reason to complicate my life any further."

But for others, QVC or HSN is just one step on the path to success. Geller's success on QVC opened the doors to other opportunities. She launched her makeup line in Sephora in 2006, appears on QVC regularly in the UK, and is expanding to QVC in Germany this fall. With all these pieces in place, plus her own studio in New York City, Geller ended 2007 with approximately $30 million in sales and expects to bring in $45 million this year.

Farber was able to keep the momentum of his success on QVC going by inking a deal with sticker company Sandylion Sticker Designs to produce and promote Snappy Writers, a kid's version of the Foldz-Flat pen. Snappy Writers launched at Toy Fair in February and will be distributed everywhere from gift stores to major retailers like Target and Wal-Mart later this year. "Success breeds success," says Farber. "Once you're on and you have success, you need to make sure you leverage that." Farber spreads word of his success by sending e-mails to all his contacts before each appearance on QVC. He is also currently working on enhancing his website with clips from his nearly dozen QVC appearances. His hard work and strategic planning have helped. FoldzFlat pens make their mark with 2007 sales of more than $700,000 and projected sales of $2.5 million this year.

Making your debut on a home shopping network might be challenging; it might take perseverance and unwavering determination just to get the big break, but keep in mind that the simplest concept can change your life. "I developed two pieces of plastic that show people how to make an envelope out of anything," says Romer of his envelope-making template that first got him on QVC 14 years ago. "On those two pieces of plastic, I flew to Germany and did television over there, I flew to England, I flew to Canada and did television over there, and we sold this in 22,000 stores in 23 countries. And it was two pieces of plastic."