In a squat brown office park in Fairfield, New Jersey—the headquarters of the Telebrands infomercial empire—five men and one woman are gathered around a long conference table, trying to figure out what’s wrong in your life.
On any given morning, they might ponder how bad cat litter smells, consider how hard it is to cut wrapping paper in a straight line, or wonder why fruit rots so quickly in a refrigerator. In the silver-wallpapered reception area, a flat-screen TV shows their ads in a continuous loop—an infinite sequence of encrusted grime vanishing from dirty pots, a little white dog trying to jump up onto a bed. Lining the walls are floor-to-ceiling foam-core displays of the company’s latest hit products, including a pacifier-style light that promises whiter teeth (over a million sold!), and a peel-and-stick adhesive lightbulb (installs in seconds!).
Today, vice-president of finance Bob Barnett has an idea for reducing household dirt. “We know we like products with tape,” he begins. “So what happens if you take a doormat that has ten sheets of tape on it, each sheet is good for three days? You walk in, you step on it, and it cleans off your shoes. After a few days, you just rip off one sheet and then get another sheet,” he continues, growing more excited as he goes. The idea draws murmurs of assent from the group, both for its can’t-miss “keep your house cleaner!” promise and the potential for arresting TV visuals (garbage cans full of the debris the mat collects in a year’s time).
Next up is CEO Ajit “A.J.” Khubani. “Dust mites,” he booms, as a monstrous image of a beetlelike insect flashes onto the projection screen.
“They eat dead skin,” he continues. “Their droppings cause allergic reactions in humans. The average mattress doubles weight over ten years as a result of being filled with dust mites and their debris. Each dust mite produces twenty droppings a day. The average bed has about 2 million dust mites, and it ranges from a new bed, which has 100,000 dust mites, to a ten-year-old bed, which has 10 million dust mites. Imagine! Ten million times twenty droppings a day. How much is that, Bala?”
“Two hundred million, A.J.”
“So what’s the idea?” Khubani continues. “We’ll do a spray solution, which is now available only in very limited markets. People typically change their sheets on a weekly basis. So we’ll present the problem, repeat the horrible facts, gross people out, get their attention, and then say here’s a simple solution. Everybody sleeps in a bed, so every viewer is a potential customer.”
Bob Barnett looks concerned. “I wouldn’t want to lay down on a bed I sprayed with a chemical,” he says.
“It would have to be nontoxic,” says Khubani. “But people spray Febreze all over their sofas and sit on their sofas every day, so I think we can overcome that hurdle in the creative.”
Raj Shahani, vice-president of new-product development, chimes in. “You know what would be a scary shot?” he asks. “Show a beautiful bedroom and then go close and you’ll see all these mites and then see your child is sleeping with them.”
Khubani continues, arguing with himself. “We show people this commercial and they’re going to start itching all over. They will be lying in bed watching TV and they’re going to say, ‘I can’t sleep anymore.’ But the other side is this, everyone is sleeping fine, they don’t really have a problem, do they? Bob, do you have a problem?”
“When you told me the story yesterday, it made me itchy. I think we could get across the idea and that people will go out and buy it,” he says.
“People will think, If I’m not spraying my bed at night, I’m not doing a good job,” says Khubani. “If they don’t spray down once a week, they’ll start to feel itchy, start to feel gross. Should we pursue the research?” Heads nod. “Okay. Thanks.”
Someday, an anthropologist who wants to understand the neuroses and embarrassments of current American life will need look no further than the devices sold via infomercial by Khubani, 47, who has built an empire on guarantees of perfect vegetable slices and freedom from dust. The company’s hits include mini-stairs that allow old or obese pets to climb onto the sofa ($30 million in sales to date), a credit-card-size magnifier-flashlight for aging eyes ($30 million), a bright-lights-and-goo tooth-whitening system ($40 million), a seamless torso girdle ($20 million), and a whirring implement that promises salon-style manicures at home ($30 million).
Khubani’s particular talent lies in identifying a certain sweet spot of angst: the unsolved everyday inconveniences that buzz away at a volume that’s just barely audible—recognizable when shown on television, yet not so incapacitating that people have already figured out how to solve them. Telebrands products, as silly as they can be, are a form of therapy, and Khubani a kind of healer—the kind who doesn’t mind padding the bill by treating ailments you didn’t even know you had.
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.
Meanwhile, the mail-order business was changing. In 1984, Ronald Reagan had lifted restrictions that limited the number of commercial minutes per hour, a move that gave rise to the modern infomercial. It didn’t take long for Khubani to realize that TV offered direct-response possibilities that his print ads couldn’t touch, and that his gimmicky products were well suited to the infomercial arc: Show the wrong solutions. Show the Telebrands solution. Tout the additional benefits of the product. (The StickUp Bulb doesn’t get hot, the Flat Fold Colander doesn’t let nasty sink water back up onto your pasta.) For some devices, show testimonials from “real people,” for others—particularly medical implements—an expert in a white coat. Sweeten the deal by cutting the price in half or doubling the order for the same price, or throwing in a second gizmo for no extra charge. And always end with an imperative: Call now.
With the help of what he now deems a “corny” TV graphic of UV rays entering a human eyeball, his Ambervision shades became an actual household brand, his first. “I was playing blackjack in Atlantic City with my wife, and the dealer asked me what I did for a living, and when I said I sold Ambervision glasses, he said, ‘Oh, I know those glasses,’” says Khubani. “It started happening all the time.” Khubani cashed in on their as-seen-on-TV fame by selling the specs to Herman’s Sporting Goods, Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target. By 1992, he’d moved 15 million pairs.
In 1998 (the year of the Great American Steak House Onion Machine, which slices onions into floral blossoms), the Khubanis started construction on a 21,000-square-foot home in Saddle River. “A nice house,” says Khubani.
At the mall, Khubani pays close attention to the kiosks that sell things like backpacks, acne cream, and Celtic jewelry. “Small entrepreneurs run these kiosks,” he explains. “They react quicker to hot items.”
He stops in front of a rack teeming with hair extensions of all shades and textures. The clerk comes over, a young Asian girl, with a mass of bronze ringlets attached to her head. “That’s the product, right? It looks great. How well does this sell?” The clerk shrugs. He turns to me. “It’s an instant hairstyle, and it would make a great TV demonstration, a great before and after,” he says. What he doesn’t like is the variety—customization might be a trend in other businesses, but for him, it’s a headache. He walks on.
The next kiosk is more promising, with flexible, waterproof, thin computer keyboards.
“Why would anyone want to buy this?” Khubani demands, by way of greeting the clerk. “Everyone has a keyboard. Why would they need this one?”
“You can clean it, if you spill coffee on it, it’s no problem. You can fold it up, and it’s portable, very portable,” says the clerk.
“How’s it selling, pretty well?”
“It’s best selling,” says the clerk. “It’s not an item you can find in a lot of places.”
“You take American Express?”
“That’s exciting,” Khubani says to me, carrying away his booty in a plastic bag. “You can spill on it, and that’s a good TV demonstration. See? We just found a product. It’s not that hard.” (Several weeks later, however, Khubani is no longer excited: “I took it home and played around with it. It was cumbersome to use, and it was odd trying to type on it. I thought the consumer satisfaction would be fairly low, so we dropped the idea without any further investigation.”)
The hard part, in fact, is accurately predicting demand, which Khubani’s test-launches sometimes fail to do. To roll out five new items, as Khubani will do this year, he’ll film infomercials for at least twenty and try each one out for a week. Each trial needs to generate double its advertising costs to make it to a full launch, which involves buying millions of dollars in national advertising time and ordering between a half-million and a million pieces.
Not all products that test well ultimately succeed. In 2004, Khubani lost millions on AirPress Massagers, bright-blue plastic space boots that stimulated muscles when inflated. After a strong debut, he ordered $7 million worth. But demand fell off quickly, the phone stopped ringing, and those that did sell had a leak. “I thought the market for massage was bigger than it is,” he says.
Too much inventory isn’t the only thing that takes a chunk out of Khubani’s bottom line—sometimes he doesn’t have enough. Over the past seventeen years, Khubani has had to write checks to the Federal Trade Commission on three occasions, totaling $925,000, to settle allegations that the company had violated the law by failing to ship orders on time, notify consumers about delays, and make prompt refunds. One year, when he hit the market with a magnetic duster whose static properties were activated with a swipe across a TV screen, he couldn’t get the plumes fast enough to satisfy the crushing demand—and his phone system clogged up as well.
He ran into trouble again in 2003 with the FTC, which alleged that Telebrands, as well as several other marketers, were making false and unsubstantiated claims about electronic muscle-stimulation devices. “This really got me upset,” says Khubani, who opted not to settle this time. “When you go to physical therapy, as I have from skiing accidents, they stick these pads on you and stimulate your muscles to rebuild the tissue,” he says. “So I looked at this ab belt, from a manufacturing and technology standpoint, and I thought, Here’s something that can be made for just a few dollars, and they’re selling it for $120.” The commercial that he produced didn’t make any claims directly, says Khubani, but simply said that the belt offered the same benefits as its more expensive counterparts. The FTC did not agree—it found that the claims were implied in the commercial—and Telebrands agreed not to market the gadget anymore or make similar claims, which wasn’t a hard thing to agree to, because by the time the decision came down in 2005, Telebrands had already sold $19 million of the belts.
Intellectual-property disputes are yet another hazard of the trade. Because big hits are so rare, when one company has a winner, a host of other competitors rush to get spinoffs on the air as fast as possible (hence four imperceptibly different versions of an ab stimulator on the market at once). Last year, Telebrands sued a Hong Kong manufacturer over the Juststick Bulb, an alleged knockoff of the StickUp Bulb. Meanwhile, Cricket Productions, Inc., a rival infomercial firm in Marlboro, Massachusetts, threatened to sue Telebrands over Depend-a-Light, a battery-free shake-and-shine flashlight. Cricket CEO Victor Grillo Jr. claims Telebrands copied his ad frame by frame. Khubani claims his own ad originally ran two years before. “I didn’t steal the idea from them,” says Khubani. “But people are always borrowing in business. The first person that came up with the laptop—how many times were they copied? The first person who came up with the minivan?”
What’s even worse is when an adversary’s product blows his out of the water. A few years ago, Khubani was coasting along on the effortless sales of various abdominal contraptions when the Ab Roller hit the airwaves. Simple, modern, and gym-worthy, the device “annihilated our product overnight,” says Khubani. “In a matter of months, we lost $20 million in unsold inventory, returns from retailers, and so on.” Khubani, also battling a costly patent-infringement claim over his Easy Money coin sorter, filed for Chapter 11 protection in 2000. He followed with a series of hits that included a U.S. map with a slot for each state’s quarter—the company sold 12 million of them.
Things are continuing to go well. This year, he has another triumph on his hands with the StickUp Bulb, which is on track to do $50 million, putting it in blockbuster territory. EarLifts, not so much. In four months, Telebrands has sold 200,000 units, falling far short of the million-piece goal. “I guess there’s a bigger market of people with dark spaces than people who care about their sagging earlobes,” he confesses.
But will anyone care about dust mites? Khubani wasn’t achieving much traction among his Telebrands staff with his bed-spray idea, when along came a proposal for an anti-dust-mite pillow, from a colleague Khubani mysteriously describes only as “a business associate.” It’s hardly a new concept—there are several such pillows already marketed to allergy sufferers and asthmatics. But so far, nobody has had the brilliance to incite a national panic around flesh-eating creatures that feast on human remains—and lurk in the pillow of every man, woman, and child. “The hum you sometimes hear at night?” Khubani asks eerily. “That’s the sound of 2 million dust mites eating your dead skin.” Or perhaps it’s the sound of one man in Fairfield, New Jersey, homing in on your next anxiety.