In 1982 I was single, 29 years old and pretty much of a bum. By the end of the next year I had my very own nuclear family with three kids and a mate. Somewhere between Goodwill, K-Mart and the grocery store I realized I needed to get a career, fast. I went back to college, but being an art student didn’t bring in much money. After a few years of poverty I decided I should learn about business and become a real businessman.
I had taken a marketing class so I already had all the theory you could ever want. It was time to apply that theory in a real life experiment. I decided to come up with a product and enter the marketplace. I had almost no money, so I needed a product that was available with cheap off-the-shelf parts, was immediately recognizable so I wouldn’t have to advertise, was something lots of people needed, was cheap to ship and just plain easy to sell.
I thought about how everybody loses the little red tubes that come with spray cans...the ones that come with WD-40 or Liquid Wrench spray lubricant or with brake or carburetor cleaner. The tube fits into the spray button on the top of the can. One size tube fits them all. Maybe you know the story, you buy a can and it has a skinny little red straw taped to it. Once you remove the tube there isn’t any way to reattach it to the can so it gets lost. Almost everyone I knew had a memory of seeing WD40 on sale and buying another can, just to get the tube.
I called up WD-40, asked them to sell me tubes and they refused. The fellow I talked with went on a long rambling discourse about how customers had sued them for ridiculous accidents. For instance, some fool had been so stupid as to put a can of WD-40 on a hot car engine, the can blew up, the solvent caught fire, burned them and they sued WD-40. Those idiots should have read the label and seen that WD-40 is flammable. If they had purchased Liquid Wrench instead, they would have had a product that did the same thing, but wouldn‘t blow up, as it isn‘t flammable. It isn’t WD-40’s fault that they have a more dangerous product. Only an idiot would buy a more dangerous product, so they deserve what happens to them. For some reason it didn’t bother me that by selling tubes I might be cutting into WD40’s bottom line.
Anyway, I searched around some more and found the company in New Jersey that made Liquid Wrench spray tubes. I ordered around 25,000 ten inch long tubes for about a hundred bucks. The extra long tubes could be bent to get into hard-to-reach spots without tipping the can over. It sounds like a lot but it fit into a space the size of three toasters.
I made up counter displays and then set about figuring out how to package them, but every method cost way too much. More than the tubes cost. I finally found these little hand operated machines that were for wrapping tape around the neck of plastic bags and I could use them for taping together six straws. I hired my daughter and her friends to bundle them up while they watched TV. I imagined a cottage industry with hundreds of American kids watching TV and bundling up my tubes. Schools could do fund raisers. It would be fun.
I started to call around to auto parts stores but to my surprise, nobody would carry them. One store said they charged manufacturers for space on their counters and they didn’t want my product anyway. “Nobody comes in asking for tubes.” they’d say. Well, of course nobody asks for a product that doesn‘t exist yet! Another store said they weren’t pioneers, that they don’t carry any new products. That was a weird idea, I thought. Finally, I called up my local Ace hardware store and asked for the manager. “I buy a couple thousand dollars worth of stuff from your store,” I said, “and I have a new product I need to test market. If I gave you some, would you put them out on your counter?” “Sure”, he said in a friendly way, “our store is used all the time for test marketing.” I brought them down, he entered them into his computer and they were placed right next to the register for fifty cents a bundle. Someday, when I was actually selling them, I’d get a quarter a bundle wholesale.
The manager said his store was a model store that other managers came to visit to see how he did it. He was near a big building materials store, and his stuff cost more, but he was still getting customers to come and buy. I dunno how he did it.
So I waited and waited to see if they’d sell. Two weeks later he called to say he’d sold them all and wanted some more. So I brought him more and he showed me his program for tracking products. He said my product was a double A item. It turned out there were two things he tracked, the markup and the number of items sold. Well, my tubes had 100 percent markup and he was selling a bunch of them, like candy bars (the other thing we all go to hardware stores for). He said that 10 percent of the items in the store accounted for 90 percent of his sales. He had to have the other 90 percent of slow selling stuff there or customers wouldn’t come in. I imagined stuff sitting on his shelves for years, doing nothing.
A few days later a friend of my daughter’s said her mom had purchased a bundle, not knowing I was the source of the tubes. All of a sudden I felt like I was somebody in the community. I was the WD40 tube King.
I called around and got another store to carry them, but I was bored already. I didn’t care enough to bill the second store. Still, I ordered another 25,000 tubes. I was wondering how to keep track of all these future orders and shipping and making displays and stuff. It didn’t seem like much fun to make a few bucks here and there. I mean, it looked like I’d only make about five dollars a month per store. Big deal.
But then Jeff, the manager of my local store, said he was going to the annual Ace convention and would talk to the Midwest buyer about carrying them. Then Ace would do all the distributing. I could just ship them to the central warehouse. He said there were five thousand Ace and True Value hardware stores. Hmmm, five dollars times five thousand stores comes to 25 thousand dollars a month. I could live on that, I thought. I could even send my brother some money, which isn’t usually in my nature. It would be like winning the lottery. This business stuff isn’t all that hard, I thought.
So he goes off and comes back and says the Midwest buyer will call me. I wait around and a few weeks later I get a phone call. The monotone-voiced guy says “I’m the Midwest buyer for Ace and I’m only calling you because Jeff asked me to. I don’t want your product and even if I did want your product I wouldn’t buy it from you. I’d ask WD-40 to bundle them up and I’d buy them from them.” No matter what I said nothing would budge him.
I was pretty depressed. All my great plans dashed. Not only he wouldn’t buy them from me, but he might away steal the whole product idea. Poop.
A while later I ran into Jeff at my local Ace hardware and he said the Midwest buyer had asked WD-40 to bundle up tubes, but they refused. At Walmart sometime later I saw two packs of WD-40 spray cans with five extra tubes in them. Poop. WD40 was trying to make sure I didn’t have a chance.
And then something marvelous happened. Suddenly WD-40 came out with a redesigned spray top that required a tube that was a thousandth of an inch smaller diameter. My tubes wouldn’t fit in their sprayer anymore! And I realized that little old me, with a few hundred dollars invested in my little business, had caused WD-40 to retool their line. That could have easily cost them hundreds of thousands of dollars. It meant little old me, with maybe thirty dollars in retail sales and zero in profit had caused a big old company to freak out and change. I felt powerful and expansive. It meant I had made some sort of entry into the marketplace and I had actually created an effect. And perhaps, in some small way, even if those folks who had gotten hurt by WD-40 hadn’t gotten any money for their injuries, I had helped by making WD-40 screw themselves out of a bunch of money anyway.
Now, twenty years later, I have a tub full of ten inch long tubes and I haven’t figured out what to do with them. I tried chewing on them like Huckleberry Finn, but they make my throat sore. I thought about giving them away, but that would just cut into Liquid Wrench’s sales, and I would rather have them win against WD-40, so that’s out. I thought about making a gizmo to resize the tubes at one end to fit the new cans, but that’s way too much work. One of these days somebody will come up with something they are good for just as they are. For a brief, shining moment I was the WD40 tube king, and now my tubes lay hidden like a crown in my basement.
Copyright 2002 by Maxim Hurwicz.
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