How many times in your life have you had a “great” idea for a big money making scheme? How about a tennis ball that glows in the dark or a headlamp for a dog?
Sounds dumb? Well, wait until you read about 10 really, really simple dumb ideas that made millions.
Let’s take an idea that is more irritating than dumb: The Smiley Face. In the 1960’s, a Worcester, Massachusetts commercial artist named Harvey Ball designed a smiley face for a local insurance company. It was part of their “friendship campaign”. Well, he got $45 for 10 minutes work, but (and this is a big but) he didn’t copyright it. Then in Philadelphia in the 1970’s, two brothers Bernard and MurraySpain designed a smiley and added the dreaded “have a nice day” slogan. They made money on the tee-shirts and coffee mugs that bore the smiley and nice day slogan. But the champion smiley face money maker is a London based company called predictably “Smiley Faces”. They cornered the market in smiles by registering the trademark rights to the bright yellow smiling face in over a 100 countries. Wal Mart tried to challenge this and lost. In 2012, Smiley Face’s U.S. revenue was a staggering $167 million.
From Billy the Big Mouth Bass to inflatable wavers and plastic wishbones, here are the ten dumbest ideas that made millions.
Kim Levine was a stay at home mom with small children. One day she was watching her husband put out deer corn and a light bulb went on. Why not sew up a pillow, stuff it with corn and then heat it in the microwave. The corn would held onto the heat. And, Voila. Nice warm pillow for kids to snuggle with. At first, she sold the pillows at local stores and at craft fairs. Her nice idea went big time when she landed a contract with Saks Fifth Avenue. She has made millions, written a book called Millionaire Mom and has her own website soliciting “million dollar ideas” from the world at large.
Here’s an idea. Start a website for funny cat pictures. With captions. Picture a hysterically funny cat (a LOLcat) with a caption that says “I can has cheezburgers” and then invite others to submit funny cat pictures with sayings. That’s just was Erica Nakagawi and Kari Unebeasami did in 2007. Inspired by a meowing cat, they grew the site to 10 million views a month and then sold it to a group of investors for $2 million. Icanhascheezburger now has nearly 100 million views a month, has spawned 6 blogs and is one of the most popular websites out there. Can you imagine the original pitch to investors. “See, it’s this web site, with funny cat pictures . . .”
8. Antenna Balls
Antenna balls (or antenna toppers) go back to the 1960s when Union Gas started putting out an orange ball with the logo “76” on it. Disney produced a Mickey Mouse antenna ball in 1991 and went on to produce over a hundred different kind of balls. In 1995, Jack in the Box began its smiley face antenna ball campaign. The cute little creatures sport antlers for Christmas and helmets for football season. They claim to have sold 17 million of the cute critters. Even Wal Mart has its own lucrative line of antenna balls. Unlike some of the other businesses on this list, the humble little ball has made a lot of people very rich.
7. Million Dollar Homepage
Let’s say it’s 2005 and you’re a young man in Wiltshire, England who wants to make money for college. What do you do? Get a job at McDonalds? Hit your parents up? Alex Tew decided there was a better way. He set up a web site, “The Million Dollar Home Page”, with 1 million pixels. The idea was simple. You could buy a pixel for $1 and display a tiny image that is displayed when you move a cursor over it. Sounds dumb? Maybe. But it was a first, a precursor of web sites (hundreds of them) that do the same thing. And Alex? He made over $1 million, enough to afford an education and then some.
6. Pet Rock
It was the 1970’s and California advertising executive Gary Dahl was joking around with friends, brainstorming the idea of an easy to care for pet. One friend suggested a pet rock. “Right”, said everyone. But Dahl liked the idea and found one or two investors who agreed. It took a few weeks to get it right. He got a few department stores on board. It was not just a rock, the rock became a creature with a trainer’s manual and a box pet house. The manual was full of gags, mock seriously explaining how to teach the rock to “sit” or “shake hands”. Over the six months the fad lasted in 1975, the idea went viral and Dahl made millions and had his 15 minutes of fame with TV and public appearances. No word if he ever taught his rock to roll over. But then, he probably couldn’t care less
5. Wacky Wall Walker
In the early 1980’s,Ken Hakuta took some squishy, elastic material (elastomer) and formed it into an octopus-like shape. When you threw the thing against the wall, it appeared to “walk” down. Nicknamed “Dr. Fad”, Hakuta began marketing the cute little wall walkers in WashingtonD.C. Sales were underwhelming until The Washington Post ran a wacky piece on the equally wacky toy. Within months, millions and millions had been sold (Kelloggs put them into cereal boxes as toys) and Hakuta made a cool $80 million. Now, if he could figure out how to get the thing to walk back up the wall . . .
4. .Billy the Big Mouth Bass
Talk about really irritating. Well, not at first, but after a while you will be throwing things at it. Billy is a plastic fish that sings, an animatronic device that turns it head towards you and sings (in a really horrible voice) “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” and “Take Me to the River”. Clerks working in stores where the thing was sold and sold, were crazy by the end of the first day. Invented in 2000 by Joe Pellettiere of Brass Pro Shops, the fish was a big hit for its manufacturers Gemmys (the people who brought you Pete the Repeat Parrot).
Think of a vacuum cleaner with hair clippers attached and you’ve got the idea. Run the electric clippers through your hair, get a really bad haircut, but no mess. The Flowbee is a hair clipper with a hose that attaches to a vacuum cleaner. It was the brain child of California carpenter Rick Hunts, who patented the Flowbee in 1987. At first he demonstrated the thing at State Fairs and then moved on to infomercials. By 2000, he had sold 2 million.
This is a really bad app for the iPhone. It has a range of farting sounds you can play to really annoy just about everybody. An electronic Whoopi cushion. You pull up the app, choose a fart, say the “Jack the Ripper”, then push the red button and you get a delightful fart sound. Developed by Infomedia, it was number one on the app chart in the run up to Christmas 2008. The research and development much have been really . . . interesting.
1. Plastic Wishbones
In 1999, Ken Ahroni was sitting around the Thanksgiving table with his family, watching his sisters squabble over the lone Turkey wishbone. Presto, an idea was born. Why not give everybody a wishbone, albeit a plastic one. And Lucky Break Wishbones was born. “Everybody needs a lucky break”, they say. It took him several years to get the snap just right so that his bones broke in the right place, but since then Ken has sold millions and millions of the little luck bringers. You can buy a 10-pack online for under $9. Stock up in time for the holidays.