Do You Have An Unusual Idea?

Written by: Elaina Zuker

Protect your great idea – it could be worth a fortune!

In the early ’90s, I gave a speech to about 300 businesswomen, entitled “How to Manage Your Time for Success.” It isn’t the most unusual topic, but a trendy one.  After the talk, I handed out a simple handout of tips and exercises.

Afterward, two women came up to me and asked if they could “use” my handout packet. A few questions revealed that they were the Circulation Managers for Working Woman magazine. They had a readership at about a million. They wanted to use the booklet as a “premium” free gift for new subscribers. 

I was delighted. But since this was my copyrighted material, I couldn’t allow the magazine to reproduce the booklets.  Instead, I would sell them the booklets they wanted.  Soon after some negotiating, they ordered 100,000 copies of a 12-page booklet, which I wrote, designed, and printed. I only began the project once I had a signed Purchase Order from the company.

The profit margins weren’t huge. However, I now had a unique product stemming from an unusual idea. Part of our agreement was that they would have the exclusive use of the booklet for the life of the promotion. The qualifier was that it appear only in the “women’s success magazine” category.

I began thinking about other publishers who might want to use it as a premium to boost circulation. Now I had one success story to help me sell the concept. Subsequently, I sold the idea plus several thousand copies of the booklet to McGraw-Hill Magazines, Inc. Magazine, AdWeek, and a few other business magazines. These orders were not as large as the first one, but I learned a lot about how magazine circulation worked. An unusual idea was progressing.

One day I was rushing up Sixth Avenue in New York, among all the skyscrapers, taxis, food vendors, garment racks and tourists, trying to get to an appointment. I was thinking about my new “side” business.  My curiosity was what company would be large enough and have a big enough budget to buy a large quantity of my Time Management booklets?

I had just passed Radio City Music Hall, and across the street from it, the Time/Life Building. Time, Time, I mused. Time Magazine!  Wouldn’t Time like to offer their subscribers some great ideas and tips on Time Management? An unusual idea began to grow in thought.

I spent a few weeks researching their organization, learning how they promoted their circulation and who the decision-making executives were in their marketing department. After many unreturned phone calls, I finally got an appointment. I was to meet with Mark S., a young, up-and-coming marketing executive.

We had a great meeting; he immediately got the idea I had in mind. He began brainstorming to expand it into three booklets, illustrations included, and in full color. Two weeks later, Mark had gotten management approval for an initial test.  They would test this offer against several other free items via massive mailings.

They began with a test order of 5,000 at a low price. We negotiated a much higher unit price should the test be successful and the need for more realized. The issue was important since I had to invest so much money for illustrations and printing for the first 5,000. I ended up taking a loss.   

Accordingly, I insisted on a signed “if-then” contract to lock in the order and the price for the larger quantity. Several months later, after they had completed many tests.  My 3 booklet set, the “Personal Management Portfolio” had garnered the most replies. Mark called to give me the heads-up that they would order a whopping 250,000 sets of the booklets! It was the largest order I had ever gotten. Almost miraculously, an unusual idea was becoming a well-worthwhile effort.

While it sounded fabulous, there were significant hurdles for me as a small-business owner. I had to order the entire quantity for delivery to Time’s Fulfillment Center. The order was to their specifications within a tight deadline. No printing company would go ahead with my order unless I had a “letter of credit” from my bank.  The letter was to guarantee the printer would get paid. I was now responsible for the entire order. If there anything went wrong, I’d have to re-do it at my expense.

While it was the most significant order of my life, I was also plenty scared. I knew nothing about managing a printing project of that size!

I hired a “production manager” to fly to Miami, where the printing was taking place, and supervise the project. I came down a few days later to begin the grueling proofreading process; checking, checking, checking. There was zero tolerance for errors. In the years afterward, no one has ever found a single misplaced comma.

Two semis loaded up at the printers’ and delivered the sets to Time’s headquarters in Tampa. I also ordered another Twenty thousand sets to send to my office. Because of the enormous quantity of Time’s order, I could purchase these at a rock-bottom price. 

After returning home to New York, relieved that all had gone smoothly, I got a call from Mark. “The booklets are so successful; we want to purchase another 100,000 sets!” While it was exciting, it also meant I had to go back to the printer and begin another colossal job.  

This time, both the printer and the bank were super-cooperative. The second job went smoothly. In total, I sold 350,000 sets.

Another idea unfolded.  I was a founding member of the National Association for Female Executives, which published a monthly magazine. I asked for a meeting with the president, the first male president they had. I proposed a similar premium product to promote their circulation. I obtained permission from Time Magazine to avoid a conflict of interest. Time nearly finished its promotion. They had no problem with my using my copyrighted material with another publisher whose audience was exclusively women.

He agreed to try it. We redesigned the covers and did some editing of the materials to make them more suited for the businesswoman audience. Once again, we negotiated a “rollout” price, should the test prove successful, and signed an “If-then” contract. They did several test mailings. It was a great hit.  My one unusual idea grew into an order of 250,000 sets. We now call it “The Success Trilogy.” I ordered an extra 20,000 sets of these, as well, and have since sold almost all of those.

Looking back, it was an unusual idea that began with a talk to a group of women in New York. Agreeing to speak resulted in the sale of almost 750,000 booklets. It also launched a lucrative division of my company, creating and producing premium products for most major magazine publishers in the industry.

The bonus is that those booklets helped hundreds of thousands of people set goals, manage their Time, and learn to become more successful.  In conclusion, pay keen attention to your unusual idea!

Related: Do You Unknowingly Contribute To The Downward Momentum?

Elaina Zuker, EZInfluence, is an eLearning designer, Influence expert, Influence Speaker, and an International Best-Selling Author. Her books include The 7 Secrets Of Influence, A Swift Kick In The Cant’s.  As a keynote speaker, she has addressed meetings and conferences in industry, government and professional associations.