People have been stealing my ideas for inventions my whole life. Back in the 1960s, when I was in kindergarten and my mother was pregnant, I told her there should be a way for her to know whether she was going to have a girl or a boy. But I am not bitter toward the inventors of the sonogram. A few years later, frustrated at not being able to reach school friends on the phone when I wanted, I declared that there ought to be a method for getting around the busy signal. I have choked down my resentment at being overlooked as the originator of call waiting.
But now it was my turn. A few weeks ago, my husband and I were engaged in our usual evening festivities: lying on the couch like a couple of beached manatees while he flipped channels. He landed on an announcement for QVC, the home shopping network. In the nanosecond before he flipped onward, I heard the hostess mention “new product search.” I demanded he go back. I learned that QVC representatives would soon be at a hotel near me looking for their next blockbuster item.
This must have been like that moment in 1928 when Alexander Fleming, gazing into a petri dish and seeing that mold had killed bacteria, discovered penicillin. Watching the QVC ad, I realized I had in me a product America desperately needed: Hairmuffs.
Before I describe Hairmuffs (although they are really self-explanatory), here is the background on how my breakthrough came to be. Recently, I was waiting to pick up my daughter at school. It was cold, and I was wearing earmuffs. Another mother—a friend of mine—and I were talking when she interrupted our conversation to say, “You look so incredibly nerdy in those.” It wasn’t that I minded looking nerdy, but the vehemence with which she said it made me recognize that I had fallen below the minimally accepted standard of sweatpants-clad, unshowered, work-at-home motherhood.
But with Hairmuffs I could wear my earmuffs and be stylish. As I explained in my online QVC product application form:
It’s freezing out and your ears are red and painful. So you put on a pair of earmuffs—and you look like an overgrown elementary-school student. Hairmuffs to the rescue! With Hairmuffs you can keep those tender ears cozy and no one will ever know you are wearing earmuffs. Hairmuffs are earmuffs that have been covered in a variety of hair colors and textures—one sure to match anyone’s own tresses.
When I read the description to my husband, he declared that Hairmuffs were “hare-brained.” But wasn’t my darling manatee surprised when a few days later I showed him the return e-mail from QVC with an appointment time. “Maybe they give everyone a slot,” he said. Then a bizarre thought struck him: “Maybe they like Hairmuffs.”
It was time for me to manufacture Hairmuffs. I realized I needed a companion product for women with short hair or for men. So I came up with NoHairmuffs—a pair of fake ears attached to earmuffs. With a week to go before presentation day, I started to search for my raw materials. It turns out there is not a large market for fake human ears. Days of calling to costume stores and magic shops turned up nothing. I finally purchased from the Cinema Secrets Web site an Alien Dome Cap ($16), which came complete with realistic latex ears.
The Saturday before my Monday appointment, I went to the mall to get the rest of the ingredients for my prototype. The hair attachments kiosk had everything I needed, but I was stunned at the prices. Each small swatch of synthetic hair was $5. Buying enough in brown, black, and blond cost $62.87. I started to panic when I was unable to locate any earmuffs. It was 27 degrees outside, but the department stores were displaying sandals and swimwear. I started scanning the crowds—I was ready to approach someone wearing earmuffs to buy a pair directly. Almost everyone had something stuck in their ears, but they were all electronic devices.
I finally found earmuffs at a variety store, for only $2.99 each. Buying enough Velcro and glue cost another $19.93. When I added all my expenses, Hairmuffs production costs were $110 a set. I had told QVC I could wholesale Hairmuffs to them for $17. Now I understood it wasn’t Kevin Costner’s fault that the budget for Waterworld got so bloated.
I turned my dining room table into a sweatshop and spent all Sunday afternoon manufacturing. Finally I put on my brunette Hairmuffs, which gave me a Princess Leia look, and showed my husband.
“I admit I didn’t think you could do it,” he said. “I thought you’d be up crying at 2 a.m. the night before, with fake hair and earmuffs glued to your head. It turned out 100 times better than I expected. You have a very appealing product.”
“Really?” I asked.
“No, but you seem a little depressed.”
Then I put on the NoHairmuffs. My 9-year-old daughter burst into tears and ran to my husband saying, “Make her take them off!” My husband explained the fake ears were for my work, and she calmed down. It had snowed all afternoon, and when my husband and I went out to shovel the walk, I convinced him to wear NoHairmuffs, while I wore Hairmuffs. No one even noticed me, but people walking by did a double-take and scurried away on the icy sidewalk when they saw him.
Before I set off the next day for my date with home shopping destiny, my husband advised me to have some marketing jargon ready. He said during my presentation I should throw in “ramp up,” “supply chain management,” “price point,” and “efficiencies of scale.” I tried to memorize this as I rode the Metro wearing my Hairmuffs. My confidence built as no one gave me a second look; I was obviously just a chic woman on her way somewhere important, not a nerd in earmuffs.
I took off my Hairmuffs when I arrived at the Sheraton in Arlington, Va. Masses of people were milling about. A woman was carrying a teddy bear; a man was pushing a shower curtain on a stand; another man had a Lazy Susan for displaying prized golf balls; a whole family was there with their sweet-potato pie. I approached a confident-looking woman and asked where I should go. She pointed me toward the registration table. I asked her what she was selling. She was a QVC veteran, here with a new line of moisturizing gloves. She asked about my product. I put on the Hairmuffs.
“That’s cute!” she said with real enthusiasm. “That’s really cute!”
The woman at the desk told me 500 people had registered for the day—one of five such events QVC was having around the country. It looked as if all 500 of us had a 2 p.m. appointment. As we snaked our way around the waiting area, I struck up a conversation with the two 50ish men in front of me. One of them was holding a plastic box filled with Limburger cheese, and the other was holding a plastic box filled with cigarette smoke (he had gone outside to fill it up). I asked about their product.
It was a spray bottle of an odor killer they wanted to start retailing to the consumer market. They were already selling it at hospitals and nursing homes. Mr. Limburger held up the bottle and launched into his pitch. “You’re a boomer,” he told me. This fact meant that before I knew it, I would have an elderly, incontinent parent moving into my home. Unless I used his product, the smell would be intolerable. Once that phase of my life was over, he went on, I would be the incontinent parent moving into my child’s home, and my daughter would need to spray me daily. If QVC accepted their product, I hoped they sold mood lifters in the following segment.
It took an hour and a half to get to the front of the line, and a cheery camaraderie developed. People praised each other’s products and passed around snacks. As I shuffled I listened to the conversations around me. It was clear that as sod busting was to 19th-century Great Plains America, marketing is to 21st-century urban America: the go-getter’s way to success. As we got closer to the QVC review panel, I took a breath mint from a young woman with a line of jewelry. Mr. Smoke freshened his breath with a spray from his product.
And then I was in. A young woman, Lauren, gave me a minute to set up on one of about 20 folding tables around the room. As I put on the Hairmuffs, the jewelry lady next to me spontaneously said, “I like that!” Lauren was more skeptical. “What’s your wow factor?” she asked.
I felt like George W. Bush at the first presidential debate. Finally I said, “You will be warm and stylish. Your kids will want to wear your Hairmuffs. No one else will have them.”
“You’re not selling these anywhere else?” she asked.
I promised her no. I also promised I could manufacture them myself in this country. Then she asked what my wholesale price was. When I told her $17, she shook her head.
“That’s really expensive,” she said. To make her see the value, I took off the Hairmuffs and put on the NoHairmuffs. “This comes with it and it’s for men and women with short hair. It makes a bold statement.” Lauren’s eyes widened but she didn’t speak. The roving QVC cameraman swung around and called out, “I want a shot of this.”
Then Lauren shook my hand and dismissed me, telling me everyone would hear by e-mail on March 15. I hung around and talked to some other hopefuls—a couple with a line of plum sauce, a woman with a book about her visitation by angels—and all had experiences as discouraging as mine.
As I walked to the Metro, I saw the incontinence-spray guys who’d been ahead of me. I called out to them. They were flying—either things had gone really well or they were experiencing the effects of using their product as breath freshener.
“Hey, you were in and out of there like a shot,” said Mr. Limburger. He said they spent a full 15 minutes demonstrating their product. They even met a QVC publicity person. Someone from QVC gave them a phone number and asked them to call in two weeks.
Well, even if I wasn’t going to host QVC’s Hairmuffs hour, I was going to show my belief in making a bold statement. I put on NoHairmuffs and rode the rush hour Metro to my daughter’s school. Though the car was filling with commuters, no one tried to sit next to me. But at school I walked past my daughter’s classmates without getting a reaction. She later explained, “Mom, it’s odd, but all my classmates are used to you, so they didn’t notice your special feature. You’re out there Mom, but I like that about you.”
It was so sweet I wanted to cry. At that moment I didn’t have the heart to tell her that soon enough she would be making Mr. Limburger and Mr. Smoke rich, ordering their product from QVC so she could spray me daily.
Is there something you’ve always wanted to do but were too scared or embarrassed to try? Ask the Human Guinea Pig to do it for you. E-mail me your ideas at email@example.com.