Self-help, however, is not all smoke and mirrors. Meeting in small groups, creating a community, having someone to call in the middle of the night—these can be a safety net for anxious parents, whether or not their kids are in real trouble. The appeal of the original Toughlove concept is as much about the process as its end result. Parenting advice, after all, tends to boil down to common sense. The question for the new Toughlove is whether money can be made off it.
At this point, Toughlove is a kitchen-table crusade, and Feibush has been supporting it substantially out of his own pocket. He has invested, he says, “hundreds of thousands of dollars, probably close to half a million.” Today he spends a lot of time in New York, pitching the company, looking to raise between $3 million and $4 million of initial capital for the launch—hiring a staff, producing the video and audiotapes, making the infomercials to sell those tapes, finding a publicist to make sure the bookers at the Today show extend an invitation to Dr. Ron. “People are floored by the type of project that we’re doing and by the type of returns they can get,” Feibush says, adding that he’s been in talks with many well-known banks, Bear Stearns among them.
The point is not the wisdom or originality of Toughlove’s ideas. It’s the network—the communal experience, the nebulous currency of support. “Misery loves company,” says Feibush. “But not in a bad way, you know?”
But with the March rollout only two months away, Feibush is far short of meeting his goals. One venture capitalist who passed on the opportunity to invest did so, he says, because he wasn’t convinced Toughlove could generate the same sort of revenues as Weight Watchers. “Weight Watchers, I’d bet, makes most of its money selling food,” he says. “I just don’t see Toughlove having those kind of consumables. Maybe a best-selling book, but that’s it.” For this financier, the whole Weight Watchers model was a bit dubious: “For one, Weight Watchers has never been controversial, so there wasn’t that risk. Plus I think Weight Watchers is something like 40 years old. It built over time. Igal is trying to do the same thing in only a couple of years.”
Feibush tries to deflect investor skepticism about Toughlove by reminding them that it is “a time-tested program that works and has already saved millions of lives.” He will point out that one of the elements that makes Toughlove such an airtight plan is that it already has a built-in network of support groups. Indeed, these are claims that one can imagine having a certain sound-bite appeal, though the truth is more complicated. Toughlove has never formally kept track of families in the program, and all success stories are anecdotal. As for the groups, ever since Feibush took over the organization, many of the diehards dropped out. The dejected board members immediately launched their own nonprofit called Standup Parenting, recruiting former Toughlove parents to join until Feibush and Toughlove took them to court. Other splinter groups have also formed.
Feibush dismisses these potential competitors. “They don’t have the resources. We have a brand name. We have an authority in Dr. Zodkevitch. Now we’re able to expand. You’re going to remember Toughlove from a pure marketing standpoint.”
A long, pensive pause.
“Do you buy what I’m saying? Do you concur?”