Successful business people know how to turn lemons into lemonade. Good products can be almost as simple.
In a world of music-playing phones, internet-enabled refrigerators and satellite-based car navigation, some companies have found success with such low-tech products as urine, mud and even air. This is not the "money for nothing" Dire Straits sang about in its classic hit from 1985, but it's awfully close.
The products that we are highlighting show that successful businesses do not always come from multi-billion dollar corporate research and development departments. Indeed, inspiration comes in many forms for these inventors. But all have figured out how to turn something mundane into something people want.
Consider these examples:
From dirt to dollars. For AHAVA, it's about location, specifically the Dead Sea in Israel whose "black mineral mud ... has been shown to contain healing properties that are ideal for the treatment of a wide variety of joint diseases and skin conditions," according to the company's Web site. It's expensive, too. A 12-ounce container was on sale for $9.99 on Cleopatra's Choice.com.
People wanting a bit of Ireland can purchase four bags of "Official Irish Dirt" along with shamrock seeds for $20.
For baseballs with that major league feel, check out Lena Blackburne Baseball Rubbing Mud, the substance used before each game to remove the factory gloss and make balls easier to grip. It costs $50 for a 32-ounce container. (Remember that regular potting soil costs less than $5.)
Bottling water. Of course, the 1,000-pound gorilla of these products is bottled water. This year, more than $12 billion worth of the stuff is expected to be sold in the U.S., according to Beverage Marketing Corp. These days, though, there is a backlash against the industry from environmentalists and some state and local officials.
If water can be repackaged, why not oxygen? For $9.99 for a 3.5-gram can, people can enjoy the flavored oxygen of Big Ox. "Oxygen is known to help with headaches, drowsiness, fatigue during strenuous exercise, helps promote healthy skin, and generates healthy red blood cells for overall well being," says Dan Jungers, the managing partner of the company behind the product.
Homesick for Wales? Then Wales in a Bottle is the product for you. It's air in a perfume-sized bottle, housed in a red box, that sells for $39. "Apparently, it's quite successful," Terry Mills, executive director of Prime Cymru, a local non-profit that helps entrepreneurs, said in an interview. "I believe he's gotten some business from Welsh people in Hollywood."
Foam wonders. Believe it or not, pool noodles have been around for almost 20 years. Canada's Industrial Thermo Polymers Ltd. produced the first foam flotation device in 1988. Since then, they have become a ubiquitous part of lazy summer days because they allow swimmers to aimlessly float from one end of a pool to another. Prices for noodles vary widely. Big ones retail for about $5 each and wholesale for about $1. According to a representative of Pooltoy.com, who declined to give her name, noodles continue to be big sellers. "They cut them up to secure car seats so they don't move," she said. "A lot of people use them for bumpers for their boats."
Pee as a product? In 1986, the folks at Lexington Outdoors, an outdoor supply store in Lincoln, Maine, began selling urine from predators such as wolves, foxes and mountain lions to hunters. The product, known as Predator Pee, unexpectedly became a hit with gardeners eager to keep pesky varmints such as mice and deer away from their plants. "It was a safe bet to follow the market," said Ken Johnson, a co-founder of Lexington Outdoors, in an interview. Business is good, growing at 10 percent to 20 percent a year. The product retails for $22.99 for a 12 ounce bottle. (A 32-ounce jug of insecticide sells for $19.97 at Lowe's.) When asked how he collected his product, he quipped that "It's not bad once you get them to hit the bottles." Actually, the urine is collected from animals in captivity via floor collection drains, he said.
Recycled wonders. Terracyle has taken recycling to a new height, figuring ways to convert trash like juice drink pouches into tote bags and worm poop into fertilizer. Other unique products from reused stuff include baskets made of chopsticks and home furniture from recycled wood and other items.
Heaven and stars for sale. Good entrepreneurs are adept at solving problems or creating needs where none existed before. Take the International Star Registry, which offers people the right to get stars "named" after them for between $54 and $144.95. Astronomers do not recognize the names.
Inspired by the success of that business, two entrepreneurs decided to help people "Reserve a Spot in Heaven." The $15.95 All Access Travel Pass includes a "First Class Ticket to Heaven," an "official" ID card and an "informational guide." Dissatisfied customers of the tongue-in-cheek site can get their money back if they are unsatisfied with the service. "We're pretty funny, weird, goofy guys so it was pretty easy to come up with all the details of the products and we had a lot of fun with it," said Nathan, one of the partners behind the service who declined to give his last name. "Three months later we had finalized every detail of it and launched the site and instantly it became a hit."
Body smoothing solution. Sara Blakely has made millions by figuring out how to get the slimming effect of panty hose without covering her feet, creating Spanx, the hottest thing in women's lingerie since the Wonderbra. Oprah Winfrey has raved about them since 2000. American Idol contestant Carly Smithson credited Spanx with helping her keep a slim appearance on the highest-rated TV show. The Spanx factory in Georgia turns out 36,000 of the body shapers per day. Women are willing to pay top dollar to smooth out their tummies. A set of two "Hide and Sleek Power Panties" sells for $60. The wholesale price for regular panties is about $1. Next up for the company may be Spanx for men, according to company spokeswoman Misty Elliott.
Something new in cup design. Designer David Chodosh thought up The Fizz Cup, a screw-on plastic cup that separates the ice cream from a bottle of soda in an ice cream float, after witnessing a worker at a Baskin Robbins make a Root Beer float that exploded. "It was pretty hilarious," he said in an interview. "Then, it occurred to me that maybe this was an opportunity." So far, Chodesh has sold about 100,000 of his invention. A pack of six retails for $9.99. The wholesale price for regular plastic cups is under $1.
These are the types of products that are so simple that people wonder why they did not think of them first. Remember, though, that if it was easy to invent stuff then everyone would be rich.