Mark Pahlow | Crain's Portland

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Mark Pahlow

Background:  

Archie McPhee is a Seattle-based novelty dealer. It began in the 1970s in Los Angeles as a mail-order business and, in 1983 it opened a brick-and-mortar-store named after the owner's wife's great-uncle. Through the years, the company's line has expanded far beyond rubber chickens. It became a popular Seattle tourist attraction and even helped launch Ben & Jerry's Wavy Gravy ice cream at a party on the premises.

The Mistake:

I think being ahead of the curve probably fits into the mistake category. We create and market novelty items of popular culture, which we sell in our Seattle store, online and to wholesalers. Our products are generally funny or absurd. That’s what we do here, and we’re always researching and brainstorming ideas.

I read a story a few years ago that became a big viral thing. It said that this huge number of spiders, maybe hundreds or thousands, will crawl into your mouth and ears while you sleep. In response to that, we made this product called Ear Guards. Made from material like hotel shower caps, we screened spiders onto them. They go over your ears, and the idea is you put these ear guards on so spiders don’t crawl into your ears.

We thought we were ahead of the curve on that. But it was just a massive failure. We still have thousands and thousands of them left, if people want to buy them.

And then, did you see the movie 'The Big Lebowski?' Remember the Dude and Walter carry Donny’s cremated remains in a Folgers coffee can? Then they throw the ashes in the ocean, but they blow back on them? We liked the idea of coffee cans for human remains. We called them Modest Urns. We made a line for humans, which included a sticker that said, “Hello, I was so-and-so” and little suggestions for obituaries. We did it for pets as well.

We thought it was pretty funny, and we thought it was time for people to confront their mortality and to cut back on funeral expenses. Just do a coffee can. It’s cheap and environmentally sound.

Turns out, we again were ahead of the curve philosophically. The Modest Urn was an enormous failure as well. At trade shows, people would just kind of look at us like we had horns or martian ears. It was one of those incredulous kinds of looks where they’re nervous being around you because you were bringing up death.

Similarly, we created a spray jinx remover. It was a little play on New Orleans-style voodoo. If you felt jinxed, you could spray this pleasantly smelling spray into the air. But we think that was too dark for people, maybe a little too real that people might need this product.

There’s really no way for us not to keep taking chances.

The Lesson:

Generally, when something doesn’t take off, we usually start lowering the price to see if that helps. But most of the time you just totally miss on one of these products in this field, if people don’t get the joke.

People typically buy our stuff and give it to someone else. They think they have found the perfect funny gift for someone. Thankfully we have many products people find funny and purchase. There’s really no way for us not to keep taking chances.

The lesson is that within reason, we have to keep making mistakes. If we start becoming reticent and hold back, we wouldn’t have the incredibly monstrous hits we’ve had on our hands. Like, the Hander Pants, which are briefs you can put on your hands. We think they do so well because everyone of a certain generation can relate to “tightie whities.” Tom Cruise in 'Risky Business', or Brian Cranston when he starred in 'Malcolm in the Middle,' he was always in his underwear.

We also created a horsehead mask that went viral, with people wearing it on YouTube. We’re not sure why, probably because the design had an emotional look. And people love horses. We thought, 'Let’s just try a horse.' It wasn’t a sexy animal like sloths are now. It was kind of a fluke, but that’s just it.

The librarian action figure was amazing in that it swept the entire world for a year. People have so many deep connections with books and libraries and librarians. These equally absurd things that we have gone and done have sold tremendously well for us.

We work on about 50 to 100 new products a year. We’re in a finger puppet period, and monsters and zombies. We have to keep making mistakes. But now we try to mitigate our exposure by paying more for smaller quantities of things until we know they’re hot sellers. We say we will pay 10 to 30 percent more for someone to make so many boxes rather than pay for a whole container. It can cost $20,000 to $50,000 for a container, and if you make a mistake at that level, it can be colossal.

Right now we’re contemplating the pangolin renaissance. They’re an endangered animal, but some people still eat them because they believe they’re magical. We’re going to work on some pangolin products and hope people want to buy them.

Follow Mark Pahlow on Twitter at: @McPheeCEO

Pictured: Mark Pahlow. | Photo courtesy of Chris Pahlow.

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