The fact: more than a million people bought rocks as pets. The lesson: you can sell anything to anybody.
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15+ min read

This story appears in the August 1999 issue of Business Start-Ups magazine. Subscribe »

He was like any of us, just somebody with a dream-and a rock. It was April 1975 when Gary Dahl, a California ad man, started grousing about the chores of taking care of a pet. Suddenly, Dahl was spinning a yarn to his friends about his pet rock-which had a great personality, and was easy and inexpensive to care for. And so simple to train: With just a little help, pet rocks roll over and play dead very well.

Dahl, then 37, recognized a potential gag gift and spent several months writing the Pet Rock Training Manual. (Sample instructions on house-training: "Place it on some old newspapers. The rock...will require no further instruction.") He included a rock with each book and charged $3.95 for the set. (In 1999's dollars, that would be $11.25.)

To even his own amazement, Dahl sold 1.5 million.

P.T. Barnum is reported to have said, "There's a sucker born every minute." You have to wonder what ol' Barnum would have made of a late-20th-century America that's gone mad for everything from pet rocks to Pop Rocks, from Cabbage Patch Kids to Beanie Babies. But if the consumer receives pleasure from a product, and if the product does what it's purported to, who is anybody to call anybody else a sucker?

In fact, cigarettes may be the only true sucker product: If you use them correctly, they're virtually guaranteed to kill you in a slow, painful way. Pork rinds have to be a close second. (Think about it. Pieces of fried fat in a bag?)

So if you want to create a sucker for your product, remember, it's all in the eye of the beholder-or the wallet of the consumer. Regardless, the products featured in this story are far from obvious, slam-dunk sells. But these entrepreneurs made them their business anyway, and in a big way.

Geoff Williams has never forgotten a touching father-and-son moment in the late 1970s when his dad drew his young boy aside and said, "Son, this is my pet rock." "I'd like to say I thought he was crazy," Williams admits, "but I suddenly wanted one, too."

Toy Be or Not Toy Be

For years, Ken Hakuta, now 49, seemed destined to be remembered for selling fish meal to Japan. Fish meal, Hakuta explains, is fed to the birds there. But he was more than a bird food salesman; his import-export company was also shipping Teflon-coated ironing boards from the United States to Japan.

Then in the early 1980s, the Wacky Wallwalker entered his life. It was a slimy rubber toy, says Hakuta. His mother had sent it from Japan to his children, and when Hakuta saw it, he said, "Wow, this is really something. This is the purpose of my life. I've been living for these wall walkers."

Okaaay! At any rate, Hakuta was captivated: Stick the rubber, octopus-shaped toy onto the wall and gravity would pull it to the floor, but not before it had managed to "walk" its way down the wall. Hakuta sank $100,000 into the Wacky Wallwalker, buying the North American rights to distribute the product from the Japanese company that manufactured the toy.

"People thought I was nuts," says Hakuta. "They thought I'd lost it. Even my friends didn't think it was a good idea." Hakuta had graduated from Harvard Business School in 1977; he was supposed to know better. "But no, I was going to sell these sticky rubber toys," he says.

America was enchanted with Hakuta's product. They appeared in stores, in fast-food chains and in cereal boxes. Hakuta sold 250 million of them in the 1980s and made more than $20 million.

How did he do it? Some of it was luck. Hakuta lived in Washington, DC, at the time, and he persuaded a few toy shops to sell his product. The Washington Post ran a story, and then the CBS Evening News followed up with a two-minute piece to close its broadcast one night. "It must have been a slow news day," admits Hakuta.

Suddenly, the phone started ringing off the hook, and Hakuta says he continued getting coverage, in part because he was so enthusiastic about his toy. "How you sell a weird product is by throwing so much passion behind it, you make believers of everybody. You basically electrify everybody," says Hakuta. "It's like having an ugly baby, but damn it, you love it, you know? [And soon] everybody believes it's the most beautiful baby in the world."

There are two problems with this idea, of course. First, many entrepreneurs have what they think is a "beautiful baby," but they have no idea how to present the little dickens to the world, says Hakuta, who went on to write the 1988 book How to Create Your Own Fad and Make a Million Dollars (William Morrow); he also had his own PBS TV show for six years called Dr. Fad. (Currently, he's following another trend-make that two of them-as founder and CEO of Internet herb seller

Hakuta says one marketing ploy is to manufacture a myth around the product. As an example, Hakuta suggests the entrepreneur who created the Cabbage Patch craze: "There are so many ugly dolls that haven't sold. Why that one? Obviously Xavier Roberts was a genius at marketing them." Instead of just selling Cabbage Patch kids, Roberts put the dolls up for adoption. He wasn't looking for customers but rather "parents," who would love and care for the little tykes. And each "baby" was an individual.

Problem number two: You can't pretend to love your "ugly baby." Well, you can pretend, but it'll blow up in your face, warns Joe Girard, author of How to Sell Anything to Anybody (Warner Publishing Co.), among others. Girard is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the world's greatest retail salesman. But before he was successfully selling cars and hitting the lecture circuit, he was custom building and selling houses. "I'm ashamed to say it, but I was always saying things that weren't honest, nice and true to con people, to mislead them," Girard admits. "It all came back to haunt me. I lost a $3 million dollar building business at age 35. I lost it all. Try that on your attitude machine-to be thrown out of your house with your wife and two kids."

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."

Gift of Gab

There once was a man with a knack.

He collected words by the sack.

Now he's king of the hill,

Last year, he made six mil'.

And he's making so much Jack

because he stuck magnets on his back.

Dave Kapell sells poetry kits-magnets with words-the idea being that Longfellows and short fellows can make up their own verse on the front of the fridge. It's a creative, fun product, but as even Kapell admits, the question consumers have to hurdle is, "Why would I pay $20 for a little box of words?"

Kapell was a guitarist in a Minneapolis band when he created the prototype for Magnetic Poetry. The musician clipped out compelling phrases from newspapers, magazines and letters, stuck them in an envelope, and then when he had songwriter's block, he'd dump them out and see if anything ignited his imagination. One day in 1993, the then-311-year-old fatefully sneezed, scattering the words about. But instead of thinking, "Gee, maybe I should get some antihistamine," Kapell promptly concluded, "This would work a lot better if the words would stick in one place."

When Kapell's friends saw the word magnets on his refrigerator, they loved the concept and soon, Kapell was bringing his little creation to social get-togethers. "They were invariably the hit of the party, and that was the point when I realized I was really on to something," says Kapell, who figures his start-up capital to begin Magnetic Poetry was "probably about a hundred bucks." This year, he expects his company, with a staff of 24, to make $6.5 million.

So how did Kapell convince people-lots of people-to plop down $20 for a bag of words? Surely, any poet-wanna-bes could opt for pen and paper, and there's always the computer that probably set them back a couple grand. For starters, as all entrepreneurs should, Kapell passionately believed in his idea. Second, he was lucky that his product has built-in word-of-mouth. "The beauty of our product is we have some prime billboard real estate, which is people's refrigerators," says Kapell. "You go into people's homes and play with it for a while, and all of the sudden, you're hooked. Then you don't care how much you pay for it."

Third, Kapell looked for help from businesses close to home: "I went to the stores where I shopped, and I'd ask the [retailers], 'What would you do if you were me?'" Kapell received recommendations on how to package his product, and even what sales representatives he should contact.

Which echoes Girard's guidance: Don't be afraid to ask the people you're selling to for advice on how to sell. During his automobile era, if Girard didn't sell a car, he'd call the ex-customer back and ask, "Was it something I said? Was there something you didn't like about me? People will tell you, if you ask them," insists Girard.

Rock On

If there's a commonality between sumo wrestling suits, magnets, Wacky Wallwalkers, Beanie Babies and the like, it's the emotional link between the product and the customer. Gian Luigi Longinotti-Buitoni, president and CEO of Ferrar's North America Inc., writes of this link in his new book, Selling Dreams (Simon & Schuster). "You have to try to interpret the spirit of the nation," says Longinotti-Buitoni. "For instance, when the Walkman [took off], it fit in with the dreams of that time, giving everybody the freedom to listen to music and walk around." Entrepreneurs who want to sell something unusual, says Longinotti-Buitoni, have to think just like an artist. "You don't come up with good ideas through market analysis," he says. "It requires a certain curiosity, a creative way of thinking."

After all, the pet rock didn't sell because of a public need. Everybody just wanted in on Dahl's joke. And if your customers don't have that emotional connection, you're going to be the one who feels like a sucker, especially if you're stuck with a warehouse full of 50,000 toilet plungers that double as toothbrushes. Even the pet rock guru himself admits, "For a few years, I was guilty of believing my own publicity and thinking I was invincible." Indeed, Dahl now has a successful advertising agency, but he's never repeated the success of the pet rock, which he describes as "just a happy accident."

Yet almost 25 years later, the phone still rings off the hook with inventors calling Dahl, seeking his expertise, his connections and financial help. "I'm usually polite enough to say 'No,'" sighs Dahl. And reporters still routinely phone him, too. "I really get tired of these calls," says a weary-sounding Dahl. Ah, if only we all had such problems.

Selling the Dream

The term "dream" is not easy to use, particularly when discussing business. Some could say it's clearly a cliché, both difficult to define and too vague to clearly express a business concept. Often people resent being associated with such an ethereal term, feeling that it belittles the seriousness of their business activities. Yet a dream is a catchy image that best describes what ignites our imagination and desires.

A company's creativity can transform common products into dreams. For example, today Levi's jeans are about as far from the coal miners' trousers as you can get, Nike sneakers are a lifestyle statement more than exercise shoes, the movie "Titanic" is far more than a well-documented story on the ship's tragic sinking, and Viagra represents much more than just an anti-impotence pill.

Connecting with the customer's imagination has become an obligatory path to business success. They are no longer content just satisfying their needs-they want to fulfill their dreams.

When attempting to create a product that you hope will fulfill your customers' dreams, keep the following points in mind:

  • Interpret the spirit of time to understand which dreams will capture the customer. Dreams are shaped by culture. It was the "flower-power" generation's love for the underdog that created a cultlike emotional following for the Volkswagen Beetle. The baby boomers' desire for independence and freedom cinched success for the Sony Walkman and Nike sneakers.

    Artists, people of culture, scientists and thinkers foresee and often provoke the changes that shape a culture. By integrating their intuition into an organization, a company can better tune into the times. Just as artists search endlessly and randomly for inspiration, a company should constantly explore unrelated fields and approach business eclectically in order to create dreams. It's hardly surprising that the companies with the most eclectic approach to business are ground-breakers when it comes to initiating trends and tastes.

  • Create products and services designed and engineered to convey intense emotions. Companies cannot survive merely satisfying consumer needs. Today, most companies can provide zero-defect products that perfectly perform their function. This is no longer a differentiating quality that, on its own, can sway the customer. Companies that rely strictly on marketing and discounts to promote otherwise common products will never win any emotional hold on their customers' minds. To achieve the type of commercial success that establishes a brand for years to come, a company has to infuse emotional qualities that connect with customers' strongest desires into its products and services.

  • Practice "dreamketing." No matter how fantastic a product is, it cannot stand alone to represent a dream. A Ferrari in the potholed hell of a city traffic jam is anything but a dream. A dream is not a product, it is an experience.

    Reaching the market is no longer enough: We have to touch (in an emotional sense) our customers' imagination. The first concern of the "dreamketer" should be to create an evocative and seductive brand, one that can spark desire and set the customer's mood. Since customers should never be awakened from their dreams, the dreamketer should ensure that the company's communication, distribution, special events and any type of customer relations consistently support the brand's mission to build that dream in customers' minds.

  • Choose the customer. There is a fundamental difference between a customer and a consumer. The consumer is a statistic, a hypothetical figure symbolizing millions of indistinct people who mechanically buy goods for their functional and utilitarian worth. A customer, on the other hand, is an identifiable individual, with a specific personality and highly selective and distinct tastes, who is emotionally bound to the company's creations. Being a consumer or a customer is a question of purchasing attitude. The same person could be both a customer and a consumer. After all, a company is only as worthy as its customers are.

  • Choose a creator. To surprise customers' imaginations, you must prophesy what they will want tomorrow. The inspiration must come from within the company. A company must develop, at all levels of the organization, a culture that actively promotes original experimentation and aesthetic research. For this to happen, it must hire creators who can lead the organization toward an original and recognizable company taste. Products and services cannot be revolutionary: Customers have to be ready for them. It's up to the creators to heed their aesthetic sensitivity in determining which dreams can become commercial successes.

  • Support creators with a creative organization. Creators alone cannot create dreams. They can provide the vision and the inspiration, but dreams are not made by a single person. Dreams are emotional experiences that require many ancillary activities performed by many gifted people. To create dreams, creators must be supported by a group of individuals with profound product knowledge who can crystallize the vision and the ideas into products and services that exalt the customers' desires. Creativity is the most important quality for achieving business success (or any type of success, for that matter), and companies selling dreams are key examples to which any type of industry should turn to learn how to enhance this most precious and scarce resource.

  • Seize any possible chance to magnify the customer's perceived added value. Art, which appeals mostly to our emotions, is the foremost example of the maximization of added value: Consider the astronomical prices paid for some colors on a cheap canvas painted by a famous artist. Since a company that sells a dream is actually selling an experience rather that simply a product, it has several chances to influence its customers' perception of added value.

    Chateau Rothschild is a perfect example of this concept. It is one of the best wines in the world, and its beautiful labels are nearly as prized as the outstanding contents of its bottles. To achieve long-lasting financial well-being, companies must welcome impulse and steer clear of typical short-term pressures form shareholders and analysts. A company must build a financial structure that allows risk-taking. The role of the financial manager should not be to help a company avoid risks, but rather to enable it to take the risks. With no risks, there are no dreams, since dreams, by definition, are never born of the norm.

    Excerpt from: Selling Dreams How To Make Any Product Irresistible by Gian Luigi Longinotti-Buitoni (Simon & Schuster)

Creating A Sucker Society

... or at least your own little piece of it. You have a product or service that you love, and you want everybody else to love it. Well, you'd do well to read Robert B. Cialdini's book, Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion (Quill Trade Paperbacks). Cialdini is a professor of psychology at Arizona State University in Tempe, and he's done a considerable amount of research on how commerce crazes start. If you want to start your own fad, his three top rules are:

  • Expensive equals good. "There's a classic story about Chivas Regal, the Scotch, which when it began was really a moderately priced Scotch that didn't differentiate itself from its competitors," says Cialdini. "They decided to raise the price substantially above any of their competitors, without changing the product a bit. Sales took off. If people don't know much about the product, then they just revert to the stereotype, expensive equals good. This must be worth the money."

  • The scarcity effect. If people like your business, less may be more. Cabbage Patch, Beanie Babies and Furbys are crazes in point, says Cialdini, as was the hype surrounding "The Phantom Menace" release last spring. "They made it a scarce resource because people want more of what they can get less of," says Cialdini.

  • There's safety in numbers. If you can give the impression your product is popular, it will become more popular, Cialdini contends. He elaborates: "In one study, they had a group of five people stare at an empty spot in the sky and see what would happen. Almost everybody who walked by cast a glance at that empty spot, and many joined them to stare up at the empty spot. When they had one person stare at that spot, they didn't get near as many followers. So there's safety in choosing what a lot of people have chosen: You're probably going to be right."

Contact Sources

Girard Productions, (810) 774-9020

Magnetic Poetry,,

Total Rebound, (800) 4-REBOUND,

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