Each year, Khubani and his team entertain pitches from inventors, interrogate friends and family, pore through catalogues, peruse specialty stores, and even visit state fairs. In February, Shahani was sent to Ambiente, a major consumer-goods trade show in Frankfurt, Germany, where he spent five days on a sprained ankle limping through a sea of sponges, scrubbers, trivets, knives, espresso makers, French presses, pizza ovens, and pasta-makers. He considered, at least briefly, importing a pet-food dispenser that opens when an animal is nearby and closes when it isn’t, a sticker that changes color when exposed to cell-phone radiation, a light-up umbrella, and a “banana bunker,” a plastic container meant to keep bananas from bruising in a lunch bag.
But the banana bunker won’t get a starring role in a Telebrands ad—it probably wouldn’t fetch a high-enough markup to make it worthwhile, but mostly it won’t make anyone feel prettier, smarter, or more capable. Some of the most successful infomercial stories—such as the Tae Bo series of workout tapes, or the George Foreman grill—have promised healthier, thinner bodies. Other products, Telebrands’ in particular, purport to deliver freedom from clutter, dust bunnies, indelible stains, and other plagues of modern life.
On regular commercials, the perfectly complected and coiffed zoom down curving roads in luxury cars to beautiful country retreats; on Telebrands infomercials, the actors can’t drain their pasta without getting scalded, can’t smile without revealing snaggled yellow teeth. Their closets are cluttered and dark, their floors a morass of dust and filth. While their bananas may also be decomposing, Khubani doesn’t see that as a soul-stirring woe—the same reason he nixed a recent pitch for a “fruit motel,” a countertop plastic fruit basket that would keep your oranges from injuring your peaches and your bananas from rotting your mangoes. “We’ve got to get passion for the problem,” Khubani says.
Khubani steers his black Mercedes S550 to the Willowbrook Mall, in Wayne, New Jersey. “I don’t like shopping, not from a personal standpoint,” he says. “I’m the worst consumer on earth; I don’t buy anything.” The most successful product designers often draw heavily on their own biography, says Dan Nosenchuck, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Princeton, who teaches a class on “entrepreneurial engineering” that Khubani helped design and that he frequently guest-lectures at. And some of Telebrands’ biggest sellers have come from Khubani’s own life. When his dog got old and had trouble climbing onto the sofa, Khubani dreamed up Doggy Steps. His daughter, Carishma, didn’t sit still when she had her ears pierced when she was 3 years old and ended up with one hole lower than the other. “When she wears long dangling earrings, the hole stretches,” explains Khubani’s wife, Poonam. “Oh, my God, that kid. I’ve never heard the end of it.”
Flipping through a catalogue, Poonam found an item called LobeWonder, an adhesive disk that affixes to the back of the earlobe to support the earring’s weight. It worked for Carishma, and Telebrands worked out a licensing deal with the inventor. The product, rechristened EarLifts, was one of the first entries of Telebrands’ class of 2007, which includes the Flat Fold Colander and Year Round Tomatoes.
The problem now for Khubani—if you want to call it that—is that he bears little resemblance to the people he’s selling to. He’s made enough money that he’s hired other people to have his everyday problems for him. His housekeeper fixes his egg whites each morning, vacuums the carpet, changes the sheets. Likewise, the lawn is cut by others, the driveway shoveled not by him. “I feel lucky that I’m not burdened with everyday things,” he says. On the other hand, “it’s harder to relate.”
Khubani inherited his peculiar acumen from his father, an Indian immigrant and serial entrepreneur who made enough money importing Japanese-made pocket radios—an inexpensive, sixties precursor to the Walkman—to move his family from a third-floor walk-up in Union City to a modest house in Lincoln Park, New Jersey. The lesson wasn’t lost on the budding tycoon, who made his own first foray into direct mail in 1983, after graduating from Montclair State University. He purchased an ad in the National Enquirer for an AM-FM radio; it broke even, and he was hooked. A few years later, Khubani was reading The Wall Street Journal one morning and spotted an ad for $59.99 sunglasses that offered 100 percent UV protection. He contacted his father’s suppliers in Taiwan, which offered to manufacture them for a dollar a pair. He sold them for $10.
By then, Khubani had already honed the art of the print-ad pitch: On the strength of innovations like a one-head-fits-all wrench, nubby-bottomed massage slippers that work when you walk, and a high-frequency roach repeller, his company was turning an annual profit of $1.5 million. At 26, the newly minted millionaire moved out of his parents’ house and married the former Indian television actress they hand-picked for him. They eventually had two daughters and a son.