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Movie 'Joy' Celebrates Something We Already Appreciate: Entrepreneurs

Movie 'Joy' Celebrates Something We Already Appreciate: Entrepreneurs
Image credit: 20th Century Fox | Joy

A household mop may at first glance seem like an unlikely character for a major motion picture, especially one featuring three of the biggest movie stars on the planet: Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro. But, hang on. This is not just any ordinary mop. 

It's the Miracle Mop, a QVC mainstay in the early 1990s hawked by its inventor, Long Island housewife and single mother of three, Joy Mangano. The reason this mop went viral (1990s-style) and three years after its 1992 debut was selling $1 million worth per year -- was its innovative self-wringing feature, which frees users from having to touch a dirty, icky mop head.

There's more: The mop's plastic handle is lightweight, and its head's 300 feet of continuous-loop cotton can clean an expansive floor space, then -- hallelujah! -- be popped off for a sanitizing run in the washing machine.

But, back to the movie, Joy, which opened Christmas Day nationwide and attracted mixed reviews, is worth a look because it signals that -- yes! -- entrepreneurs have arrived: Their stories are sexy enough for the silver screen and may even have lessons to teach budding startup entrepreneurs. Mangano's certainly does.

But, first, consider her real-life story -- since the movie, with a screenplay by director David O. Russell (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle), was merely "inspired" (as a movie title puts it) by Mangano's rags-to-riches tale. In fact, the original screenplay, by Annie Mumolo, was reportedly scrapped. Mumolo received a writing credit only. Several other female entrepreneurs' stories became part of the mix.

Regardless, inventor and superwoman Mangano remains the centerpiece. Born 59 years ago in East Meadow, NY, she was divorced with three kids by age 33. But her long-time affinity for invention and math was strong. As early as her high school years, she'd thought up a fluorescent flea collar to keep pets safe at night, but Hartz Mountain beat her to a patent.

Related: 5 Movies With Great Lessons for Entrepreneurs

The self-wringing, washable mop idea came from another need: mopping the decks of boats, which Mangano frequented. "I was a boater and I was tired of bending over, ringing my hands out," Mangano told Investors Business Daily.

After working with an engineer on the prototype, she borrowed $100,000 from friends and family and used her Smithtown bedroom as her base of operations while her three kids fulfilled orders in the next room. She hawked her innovation at Kmart stores and through Amway, but her first year produced only $10,000 in sales, less than her production costs.

Then: A shining path appeared in the form of QVC ("Quality/Value/Convenience"). In 1992, the shopping network reluctantly bought 1,000 mops on consignment. ''They told me they really didn't sell mops,'' Mangano told The New York Times. And, indeed, few mops were sold. But once Mangano convinced executives to let her demonstrate the mop herself, the phones went crazy. She sold 18,000 mops in 20 minutes.

The movie's portrayal of that event is perhaps its strongest moment, complete with a fictional QVC executive played by Bradley Cooper and a delicious cameo by Melissa Rivers reenacting one of her late mother's -- Joan River, also an entrepreneur -- many QVC appearances.

In a word, viewers adored the Miracle Mop: "I love your mop, it's been a lifesaver," and "This mop is wonderful; I would tell anyone to buy it," were typical customer comments. Viewers also loved Mangano herself.

She went on to invent a slew of useful, mega-successful products: Huggable Hangers, an HSN best-seller (678 million sold) because of their velvety, no-slip quality; Forever Fragrant, or odor neutralizers; the travel-size My Little Steamer; plus wheeled luggage, rubberized-sole platform shoes, textiles, storage units and more.

Her first company, Arma Products, morphed into Ingenious Designs, which in turn was sold to Home Shopping Network's parent company in 1999. Mangano's days as a struggling single mom, holding down waitressing and airport reservation clerk jobs were over.

So, what makes her tale so compelling now? Simply, the time may be right for entrepreneurial stories. As Vogue magazine described this month, “If Mac motherboards in Jobs and subprime mortgages in The Big Short can be glamorous, why not a mop? Added Entertainment Weekly, "David O. Russell’s films are filled with seekers and strivers and lovable misfits."

What's especially great about Joy, despite its cinematic flaws, is that it concentrates on the female entrepreneur herself. "Though there're important men's roles, Bradley and Edgar [actor Edgar Ramirez, who plays Joy's ex] could have been love interests to Joy, but that's not the story," the actress Isabella Rossellini commented in a New York Times video about the movie.

Related: What Does It Take to Get Your Product on QVC?

Joy "is not the story about a woman falling in love and succeeding," added Rossellini, who plays Joy's father's girlfriend. "It's about a woman making money, wanting to have an empire."

And Mangano certainly has that, as a celebrity seller on HSN, whose products are also sold in retail outlets. Today, "HSN could not be more proud of what she has achieved as both an innovator and a businesswoman," HSN's president Bill Brand said in an email to Entrepreneur.com, noting the debut of "American Dreams," a new programming initiative that allows entrepreneurs to submit ideas to vie for a chance to reach HSN's 95 million homes. "Who knows?" says an HSN video. "We may just find the next Miracle Mop."

Here are some lessons from Mangano's (fictionalized movie) story:

1. Draw attention to a problem you have that everyone else has, too:

In the film, a broken wine glass causes Joy to cut her fingers as she tries to clean up the mess. Voila! The idea for a self-wringing mop is born. Mangano's many other products have all sprung from problems everyone has.

2. Ignore naysayers.

"Joy's never run a business in her life!" the main character's negative, somewhat jealous sister declares. And, in the film's funniest moment, her father, played by Robert DeNiro -- broadcasts his disapproval of the man Joy is marrying, delivering a horribly inappropriate, insulting wedding toast. (In real life and the movie, Joy's ex has remained one of her biggest supporters and cheerleaders to this day.)

3. Push through external obstacles.

In the film, Joy battles a mysterious man in Texas who claims to hold the patent to another self-wringing mop, invented in China. She flies to Dallas to confront him and -- no spoilers here! -- discovers information that bolsters her case.

4. Be yourself.

In the film, Joy cringes at being dressed by QVC like an alien version of herself -- tight suit, high heels, caked makeup. She turns back to the dressing room and reemerges in blouse and slacks -- as herself! -- then proceeds to sell those 18,000 mops in 20 minutes.

Related: This Inventor Is Kickstarting Carry-On Luggage That You Can Ride Like a Go-Kart