With Kevin Harrington, Inventor of the Infomercial (“As Seen on TV” pioneer), original shark on “Shark Tank”, author, and columnist for Forbes magazine
Steve sat down with Kevin Harrington, the inventor of the infomercial and one of the original “sharks” on Shark Tank, to talk about becoming a successful entrepreneur and how to build your brand. That’s the subject of Kevin’s book, Put a Shark in Your Tank.
Inventing The Infomercial
Kevin had an “Aha!” moment back in the 1980s, staring at the test pattern bars that appeared on most TV stations from midnight till six A.M. The advent of cable television had spawned dozens of new TV channels, but there wasn’t yet enough programming to fill them all, 24 hours a day. The thought that occurred to Kevin was why not fill that empty, late-night airtime with program-length advertisements for products. The deal he offered local cable operators was simple: he’d produce the programming, the “infomercials,” and in return for airing the programming, the cable operator would be paid a percentage of sales.
Thus was born the half-hour commercial for now-famous products such as Ginsu knives and the George Foreman grill.
From there, Kevin moved on to create a joint venture with the Home Shopping Network. Basically, he created infomercials for HSN’s best-selling products and arranged to have them aired worldwide. Like his original infomercial idea, the joint venture with HSN went from zero to literally hundreds of millions of dollars in just a short period of time.
(Steve noted that he and his clients who bought shares in HSN when it went public “did pretty well”.)
Kevin’s role as one of the original sharks on the TV show, Shark Tank, which provides the opportunity for fledgling entrepreneurs to secure venture capital to fund their business, was a natural outgrowth of his infomercial work. There were people constantly coming up to him with, “Hey, I’ve got this idea for a product.” But, of course, they needed funding to get the product to the marketplace. So, Kevin joined the original team of sharks when the show debuted in 2009. It’s since gone on to become a huge hit, with versions airing in many different countries, helping to launch businesses worldwide.
The Little River Band And Growing Your Brand
Steve was intrigued by a column Kevin wrote for Forbes where he used the 40+ years of success of the Little River Band as an example of creating a successful brand.
Creating a successful brand is about making the jump from “hot new thing”, like Uber, to a household name, like Starbucks. That’s accomplished by establishing a unique set of values associated with your products or services and successfully communicating those values to customers. That’s what building a brand is.
Kevin wrote in his column about how founding member, Wayne Nelson, of the Australian rock band, the Little River Band, successfully built a brand for the band that has it still going strong more than 40 years since its founding in 1975. The band’s longevity is due to Nelson taking care to keep the band’s sound (A) unique, and (B) distinctive, the two key ingredients in any successful brand, the elements that make your business stand out from the crowd, and something that’s easily recognizable, such as the Nike “swoosh.
Kevin advises that a key factor in building and maintaining a brand is hiring new employees that fit well with your brand image. He wrote in his column, “Not a single founding member of the Little River Band is still in the group…”, but the musical qualities at the heart of the band have never changed. That’s how you sustain your brand image beyond the original founders of the business. One thing you need to do, especially as your company grows larger, is make sure that the people in your HR Department thoroughly understand your brand. That’s the only way you can be sure of them finding new employees who will help perpetuate your unique brand image.
It’s one thing to create a brand for your business, but it’s another to sustain it over time. To do that, you have to be able to adapt and evolve. Oxiclean is a great example of this. It started out as a single cleaning product but, over the years, its parent company, Arm & Hammer, was smart enough to broaden the market for Oxiclean by including it as an ingredient in dozens of other products.
You also have to be able to adapt in terms of how you market your brand. The “old media” was print ads and TV commercials. The “new media”, like so much in our lives today, is centered around the internet. Twenty years ago, the term “social media marketing” didn’t even exist. Nowadays, a social media marketing expert is likely to be one of the highest-paid employees at a major company like GE or General Motors. Steve noted the critical importance of staying in touch with the times and keeping on top of the newest ways to market and keep your brand relevant.
Build A Team To Build Your Brand
Kevin’s parting piece of advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is to assemble a solid team of people, be they key employees or just members of a board of advisors, who can help you succeed in all the various, necessary aspects of creating a successful business. Gather a team of people who can help you raise capital, help you get publicity, help you establish credibility, and help you in operational mode. Successful entrepreneurs know the wisdom of securing the help of experts rather than trying to do everything yourself.
To learn more of Kevin’s secrets to being a successful entrepreneur and building your own brand, check out his columns for Forbes magazine.
Disclosure: The opinions expressed are those of the interviewee and not necessarily of the radio show. Interviewee is not a representative of the radio show. Investing involves risk and investors should carefully consider their own investment objectives and never rely on any single chart, graph or marketing piece to make decisions. Content provided is intended for informational purposes only, is not a recommendation to buy or sell any securities, and should not be considered tax, legal, investment advice. Please contact your tax, legal, financial professional with questions about your specific needs and circumstances. The information contained herein was obtained from sources believed to be reliable, however their accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed. All data are driven from publicly available information and has not been independently verified by the radio show.
Steve Pomeranz: Ever wonder how some businesses turn into cultural icons while so many don’t? My next guest has spent much of his adult life answering this question. He is known for being one of the original sharks on Shark Tank and some see him as one of the most successful entrepreneurs of our time, a person who saw an opportunity and succeeded at becoming a TV commercial pioneer because this man that we’re going to meet momentarily invented the infomercial. My guest is Kevin Harrington. Hey, Kevin, I’m so glad you’re here.
Kevin Harrington: It’s fantastic to be here. It’s a great day. Sunny Florida, I live in and thanks for having me.
Steve Pomeranz: My pleasure. So I understand that you were watching TV one night way back in 1984, and back then, when it wasn’t the 24/7 type TV we get today, when the programs went off, you got some color bars and nothing happened, but you had an idea. Take us through that.
Kevin Harrington: So today you’ve got hundreds of channels, all kinds of programming. There’s way more programming than anybody’s going to be able to see it in a daytime. But back in the early days, in the early ’80s, when I was getting there as a young entrepreneur, turned my TV set on at midnight, and there were bars on the screen. I’m like, “What’s going on? I’m paying to get this cable that just launched, they didn’t have enough programming.” So I said to myself … the light bulb went off, it was my Eureka moment, “What if I gave them products after midnight that they could just put on these channels where they’ve got bars on the screen, and I’ll give him a percentage of sales?”
So when I went to the cable operator, they said, “You give us the programs, we’ll run them.” So I started producing what I call these low budget infomercials. This was back in the early ’80s, and we started with Ginsu knives and different things like that. And then we got into fitness with guys like Tony Little and the Jack Lalanne Juicers.
Steve Pomeranz: Sure, yeah.
Kevin Harrington: … all of this stuff. I’m running around with some pretty powerful guys like George Foreman, even. So, it was a lot of fun, and they credited me as being the inventor of that term, the infomercial in those early days. But it’s been hundreds and hundreds of these kinds of products that’s given me the ability to create some of these great brands across all these different platforms.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, many years ago, I interviewed Ron Popeil and then the successor to his organization.
Kevin Harrington: Sure.
Steve Pomeranz: We had a lot of fun talking about, and that’s not all, you know?
Kevin Harrington: Yes.
Steve Pomeranz: That was a lot of fun.
Kevin Harrington: Set it and forget it was [crosstalk 00:02:32].
Steve Pomeranz: Set it and forget it.
Kevin Harrington: Ron is a true pioneer himself. He’s an amazing guy.
Steve Pomeranz: I know, I know. Now Kevin is on a cell phone, so folks bear with us. He’s trying his best to speak clearly, and so on. So let’s move on. And then you formed a relationship with Home Shopping Network, which was really in its infancy, not … I think it was in its ’80s, wasn’t it as well?
Kevin Harrington: Yeah, well, my original business, Quantum International became a public company recruiter, 500 million in sales annually, stock exchange, New York Stock Exchange company, 500 employees. Then as things happened, entrepreneurs, they buy the shell. I sold, I moved on, and who was standing there waiting for a deal? Home Shopping Network, which that’s what brought me to sunny Florida, 1994. Now, I’ve been down here more than 20 years now. I moved here to form venture with Home Shopping Network, and that was called Home Shopping Network Direct. And we took the most successful products from Home Shopping and put them into infomercials and took them around the world. And that was another business that went from zero to hundreds of millions of dollars pretty rapidly.
Steve Pomeranz: Wow.
Kevin Harrington: Very successful. One time with HSN, and that was the mid-90s.
Steve Pomeranz: I remember when HSN went public, we bought some shares and we did pretty well with that too. That was a great idea that I don’t think the public really kind of caught on to, until much later. And then you got involved with Shark Tank. Tell us about that.
Kevin Harrington: So here I was an entrepreneur. People were coming to me with their ideas, and inventors and just anybody across the board, folks like Tony Little, “Hey, I’ve got this fitness thing. Would you take a look at it?” So I was the guy who was investing in their projects, and so Mark Burnett—little did I know, he was doing a show called Shark Tank—is like “Kevin, I’ve got a real estate lady named Barbara Corcoran and the FUBU guy, Daymond John, but I need a shark that deals with inventors. And so, I was that shark and I did the original pilot in 2009 and 175 segments over the first number of years. It’s been six years now that I’ve been affiliated with the Shark Tank brand, and, wow, what a brand it’s created. It’s the show that’s inspired millions of people and it’s been one of the hit shows on ABC Network that now runs in reruns.
All my segments, the originals, are now running on CNBC and actually around the world and we’re in more than a dozen countries around the world in various languages. So Mark Burnett is one of the finest at producing television. Shark Tank has been a big success, in fact, won an Emmy award. And I’ve loved all the years that I’ve been involved with the brand. So Shark Tank has instilled an amazing [inaudible 00:05:26] in the only entrepreneurs that have been on the show, but any folks that have watched the show. It’s now being taught in colleges and universities and even great schools out of the country. So, it’s an amazing brand that’s been built, so thanks for talking about it.
Steve Pomeranz: My pleasure, but Shark Tank fills a need, and that’s this connect between the people who will always … who are always thinking about things that can improve our lives. You know, the old saying find the need and fill it. But there’s this disconnect between actually the product and actually getting it out there and making it a success, and I think Shark Tank works to help people understand that. And you’re a very good example of someone who has done that really your whole life. My guest is Kevin Harrington, he’s the inventor of the infomercial. As you just heard, he was involved with Shark Tank and Home Shopping in the early days.
Steve Pomeranz: So you’re writing a column on Forbes, and that’s how I found you, Kevin, and one of the columns caught my eye because I’m a musician and it was “Vital HR Lessons From a 1980s Rock Band.” And it was actually a little more interesting to me, as well, because the rock band is Little River Band and the person mentioned in article lives in my neighborhood, and we’ve had some contact together, as I’ve tried to get the Symphonia, which I’m president of, and that rock band together to do kind of like a big concert. But why pick that particular situation to describe how to continue to make a brand successful and last many, many years?
Kevin Harrington: Well, it’s Wayne Nelson, The Little River Band, unbelievable story. Because today, you see these hit sensations, they’re just that, sensation. They come and they go, but The Little River Band, north of 40 years now, out in the marketplace, as you well know, Wayne’s one of the hardest work guys out there, built that brand. And that’s, it’s true testament to building a legacy. And in my world, it’s a guy like Tony Little. Tony Little, we did his first infomercial back in 1990, 25 years ago, but he still continues to keep building product after product, and from fitness products to massage products to bison burgers and just like The Little River Band, they are still at a very high level of … still a factor out in the marketplace, so people knowing who they are, and this is because of the brand-building experiences that they’ve been through, never giving up, and letting people know about who they are. So, it’s an amazing success story,
Steve Pomeranz: Well, you’ve got the four … he’s been around for 40 years, or so. There was an Australian rock band way back when, and now he’s appealing to those who remember him, who have grown older, and now he’s developing new audiences. What is the analogy here for someone, anybody who’s started a business, maybe they’ve got the new hot thing, what kind of companies are really out there besides these new hot companies? How would you define some of the ways that companies develop and mature?
Kevin Harrington: So you know, a lot of companies, it’s kind of a three-step process. They start out as the newbies, and there’s … as an entrepreneur that is constantly launching new products, I’m very familiar with that space and then they’ve got to get through the second stage, which is a fully developed phase now on exposing their talents, the product, and the distribution, and in today’s world you’ve got new media and old media. Old media is the old way, where you had ABC, CBS, NBC. Nowadays, they’re using new media, and all … the Pinterests, and the Instagrams, and the Facebooks, and all the new ways of making yourself relevant and taking yourself to the next step. And that leads then to the third phase, that’s where you’ve built that brand and you’ve managed the leverage yourself, like a Tony Little, like a Little River Band, and just survived the hit-driven sensation, and now you’ve built that brand. So I’ve been involved in more than 20 projects that are done in excess of $100 million. And you know, in the process, they become branded. You know, Billy Mays did it with a product called OxiClean.
Steve Pomeranz: Oh, sure. I remember that.
Kevin Harrington: You know, Church & Dwight, the Arm & Hammer company has now taken OxiClean to that last level of branded and now they’re using OxiClean ingredients in many other products besides the cleaning side.
Steve Pomeranz: One of the aspects of this Little River Band explanation in your article was this idea of auditioning your employees. I mean, this Little River Band is not the same band it was 40 years ago. They have to continually replace people, and they have to get the right people. Talk to us a little bit about that.
Kevin Harrington: So yes, as you mentioned, Little River Band, it’s not … the original members have moved on. So this is what it takes to survive and in the hit-driven world. And we talked about OxiClean and Billy Mays, Billy is passed on himself, passed away a number of years ago, but OxiClean has survived and is this huge branded product now for the Arm and Hammer company. So, this is … auditioning your employees is something … It’s reinventing yourself. You know, in my world, we talked about the early days of Home Shopping, and we’ve talked about the infomercial. Well, guess what? The infomercial industry has had to reinvent itself and auditioned for new platforms on a regular basis. We had to go through on the internet phase, which the surge now, it’s moving towards mobile. And a lot of people don’t realize that, in some cases, 90% of the sales of a product aren’t even on TV anymore. It’s happening … I’m in the As Seen on TV industry, 90% of some campaigns are internet and then 50%, well, those sales are mobile. So, that’s what I call auditioning for the next level of whether it’s auditioning employees, auditioning a new distribution platform, you have to stay relevant. You have to stay in touch with the times on what are the new distribution outlets. And in the case of a Little River Band, let’s get some new members here as the original ones have moved on also.
Steve Pomeranz: So it’s really As Seen on Twitter, As Seen on Facebook, As Seen on Google, and on, and on, and on. It’s this endless infinite, feels like, stream of …
Kevin Harrington: To give you an example … I owned AsSeenonTv.com for many years, which was the platform of everything As Seen on TV. Now I own AsSeenonShell.Com, because it’s now going to be mobile. The younger generation, I have a 17-year old that doesn’t watch television anymore.
Steve Pomeranz: That’s right, exactly.
Kevin Harrington: He’s on his mobile phone and his iPad.
Steve Pomeranz: Right, right.
Kevin Harrington: You’ve got to stay relevant.
Steve Pomeranz: Yeah, so there are still people out there, whether it be Richard Branson or Steve Jobs or even way back when Henry Ford, who had learned how to become centers of influence and build these brands. They didn’t necessarily have the original ideas, but they learned how to build the brand and learned how to build the products and create the systems. Where is the common thread here for the small business person?
Kevin Harrington: Well I think the common thread you mentioned a … kind of influencers, and I always loved that term. Becoming a key person of influence is a term that I use, that’s taking your idea and getting it out there through various techniques and becoming a brand of influence, or in the case of an individual, the key person of influence. How did all the sharks, become sharks? When I got the phone call from Mark Burnett, it was because I had become a key person of influence in the infomercial space, and Barbara Corcoran had in the real estate space.
Kevin Harrington: Sure.
Steve Pomeranz: And on, and on, and on. So entrepreneurs need to make themselves known and build their own brand, build the brand of the product, and we’ve talked about, in today’s world, it isn’t just TV, it’s Twitter, and it’s Instagram, and it’s Pinterest, and Facebook, and all of the new media outlets. So becoming branded like that, staying in touch with the times, and keeping on top of the newest ways through market make your brand relevant is critical and important.
Steve Pomeranz: Well, it’s that individual, and not that the company necessarily is unique, of course, all great companies have a differentiation, but when you’re creating your personal brand there is nobody like you. So it’s really the perfect avenue in my view anyway, to say, “I can change things, and I can let the world know who I am because it’s the ultimate differentiation, nobody is going to be like me.”
Kevin Harrington: Exactly.
Steve Pomeranz: Love them or hate them … love them or hate them, they’re there, and they are what they are. So give me a little bit of advice for a person really just got a product, building a company, needs to go out and start to be influencer. We understand the social media part, is there something else that they can do?
Kevin Harrington: Yes. You know, a good example, and I know we’re going to talk about Dawn Dickson from the Flat Out of Heels. She is a young entrepreneur, came out, and said, “Kevin, I want somebody to be on my team.” And I always recommend building the board of advisors, board of directors around you. Support yourself with the team of people that have the skills. And so, she got me to shark, to jump on her team, and now she has a certain skill. She’s an inventor. She brought a shark in, and I’ve got certain aspects that I bring to the table, but I also now have a sphere of influence, Rolodex that I’m bringing to the table from manufacturing to marketing to finance to publicity and public relations.
So, any business that I start … I have a new business I’m starting, I’ve found the former president of L’Oreal, his name happened to be the funny name, Jim Morrison and not the famous musician, Jim Morrison, who’s no longer with us, but he was president of L’Oreal for nine and a half years. He’s part of my team in a new company that I’m launching that involves a lot of beauty products. And why did I want Jim there? Because he spent nine and a half years-
Steve Pomeranz: Oh, better, yeah.
Kevin Harrington: … as then the president of L’Oreal. So, build a team of people that can help you raise capital, help you bring publicity to the table, help you in an operational mode, and all the things across the board that can bring credibility to the young entrepreneur.
Steve Pomeranz: My guest, Kevin Harrington, I think we got a good idea of all the things that you do, Kevin, and thank you for taking your time to share it with us, and this show. Thank you so much.
Steve Pomeranz: Very good. Thank you so much Kevin. Take care.