The 'American Idol' showdown of the next 'As Seen on TV' Stars

The late Billy Mays said it best: "Life's a pitch. Then you buy."

That's why more than 30 inventors from around the country came to the LAX Marriott last week to pitch their ideas to Infomercial King A.J. Khubani, founder and CEO of Telebrands Corp. -- the direct-to-consumer marketing giant that has made the "As Seen on TV" logo ubiquitous, and turned gizmos as unlikely as the Ped Egg and the Windshield Wonder into million dollar household names.

Khubani founded Telebrands, the largest direct-to-consumer marketing corporation today, in 1983, while still in college. He's got an eye for cheap products that will sell big. And in his quest for finding the next big thing to sell to millions of insomniacs hooked on his late-night infomercials, Khubani has taken his show on the road. He's begun traveling the country, holding "Inventor's Days" where selected inventors are invited to come pitch him in five-minute increments. If he likes what he sees, Telebrands may offer the inventor a deal and ultimately market the product to the masses with its own late-night TV infomercial.

"They have to be able to interest me in a few minutes," he told WalletPop in an interview as he prepared to meet the inventors. "Their idea has to solve a common problem, be something that everyone has a use for. If it's too complicated to explain in five minutes, I'm not interested."

On Wednesday, March 3, he was in Los Angeles, with a panel of judges (including his wife Poonam, marketing maven Nancy Lazkani with L.A.-based ICON Media, and a Telebrands blogger calling himself Tommy Z) to hear the inventors pitch their wares.

The atmosphere was decidedly more American Idol than staid marketing meeting; with a digital timer projected onto the wall to keep pitches at 5 minutes and half a dozen film crews keeping track of the action. It was chaotic, to say the least. Inventors' props cluttered the hallway, and staff from Telebrands and the hotel tripped over themselves trying to keep everyone happy. The presentations were scheduled to start at 9 a.m. but didn't get going until nearly 11. Meanwhile, the inventors themselves sweated it out across the hallway, in the "Inventor's Holding Room."

But nobody seemed to mind. Every man and woman (and one dog) in the room understood what was at stake: Today they were simply people with a clever idea. But if Khubani liked what he saw, their inventions could become the next Ped Egg ... As Seen on TV! -- and bring them fame and fortune. Well, fortune anyway.

Since Telebrands started marketing it in 2007, the humble Ped Egg has sold more than 30 million units. That's $300 million in sales. Not bad for a computer mouse-shaped cheese grater for your feet. Its inventor got a liscening agreement through Telebrand, and, of course, receives royalties. Terms for inventions chosen to be marketed on Telebrands' late night infomercials are not disclosed by this privately held company, but dollar signs were in everyone's eyes.

The inventions ranged from the "Huh," to the "Duh."

There was the man in cowboy boots who'd invented a vibrating horse manure rake, and a woman with an umbrella and slicker in one, designed to help keep your backside from getting wet in the rain. Greg Dipplod had driven down from Glendale, in Los Angeles County, with his 5-year-old son in tow, to pitch his "Kinder-Bib," a bib with a built-in tray so kids could eat in front of the TV and not ruin the carpet. Jim Schlichting, another local, was there with his "Use-All," a spray bottle with a specially-built reservoir that enables the user to access every ounce of cleaner. "You can spray up, you can spray down," he said. "You never have to waste cleaning fluid again."

Martha Curnow and Vicki Ricker, best friends since high school, were here from the Chicago area, looking to pitch their Perslock -- a charm-bracelet-looking lock that attaches a purse to the chair or grocery cart to deter its theft. They got the idea after somebody pinched Curnow's purse from a grocery store cart four years earlier. The women had since put their all into developing and manufacturing a product that not only worked, but was attractive as well.

Dressed in matching pink blazers, the two women said they'd sold nearly a thousand of these units at two recent local trade shows, and that an earlier attempt to pitch QVC didn't go well because they weren't prepared.

This time, however, they were eager and ready to take their product to the next level. Their soundbite: "It's all personal," (referring to the stuff women keep in their purses.) "Lock it up."

Their preparation seemed to hit its mark this time around. Khubani's face lit up when they showed him their product. He looked over at his wife, who fingered the locks with interest. "You just had your purse stolen recently, didn't you?" He watched as the women demonstrated by locking a purse to a chair.

Marketing expert Nancy Lazkani nodded approvingly. "There's a lot of upselling, a lot of add ons you could do with a product like this," she said. Only the Telebrands blogger, a man, didn't immediately get the appeal of the Perslock, although he admitted he did not carry a purse.

Curnow and Ricker emerged from the room beaming. (As of this writing, the duo hadn't yet heard from Telebrands, but were told that it would take up to three weeks before they did. Watch this space to see what the ultimate decision is.)

Robert and Jana White, of Nashville, TN, were in L.A. for the first time ever, having heeded the invitation they received after describing their invention -- the Lap Gym -- on the Telebrands' Website. They were scheduled to fly out again at 12:30 that day, and sat nervously awaiting their turn before Khubani.

When their number was called, the filed into the room and quickly assembled the Lap Gym - think a stick-shift set atop a metal plate designed to fit across your lap and thighs. Robert White sat in a chair to demonstrate how this "portable gym" could work out your biceps and abs, while his wife showed the judges their home-made video.

"Everybody needs to get fit," they told the panel of judges. "But who's got the time for it? We came up with this idea out of our own need. Everyone can use this to get fit."

Although Khubani's first remark was that watching Robert push and pull the prong centered on his lap seemed vaguely obscene, he got up from behind the table to give the Lap Gym a go himself. The idea, he said, was intriguing, since so many Americans opted for time spent on the couch rather than at the gym. Perhaps with some development, the Lap Gym might be something worth pursuing.

As the panel broke for a late lunch, Steve Cohen, all the way from New York City, and his dog "Star" waited patiently in the hallway. He was the inventor, along with his partner, of the "Alpha Pac," a hands-free dog leash that straps over the back and shoulders to utilize the walker's core strength and ensure his position as "Alpha Dog."

"It's a long day, but it's worth it," he said. "When you really believe in your product, you'll go to the ends of the earth to get it out there."
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