Reserve Power: When inventor meets informercial, Part 1

Ross Rubin contributes Reserve Power, a column focused on personal perspectives and products.

They come from across the country to a conference room at Telebrands, the Fairfield, NJ-based infomercial marketer that serves as the arbiter in the TV show Pitchmen. It was Inventors Day, an event that the company holds around the country about every six weeks. Those who submit the best ideas to are invited to present. At stake, the chance to design Telebrands' next hit product and become a millionaire. And all that stood between them and fortune was a convincing pitch to the judging panel (made up of CEO A.J. Khubani, his wife Poonam Khubani, and marketing advisor Don Braca) and a permanently installed five-foot long model of a PedEgg -- invented by the Telebrands CEO in '97 -- signed by company well-wishers.

In some ways, Inventors Day was not so dissimilar from any number of high-tech conferences where hand-picked entrepreneurs present their ideas for products to a panel of judges, but with at least one of the judges here backing up his favor with funds. I was struck, though, by the rawness of this capitalist exercise, and noticed several key differences between the low-tech and high-tech pitch:

Price. It's not uncommon for companies creating software or websites to offer at least a baseline version of their software for free, but -- outside of cell phones and cable DVRs -- it's often a tough model to make work for hardware. According to the Telebrands CEO, the ideal price for a gadget marketed via infomercial is less than $20. Contrast that to demo conference debutentes such as the $99 Fitbit, the recently announced sub-$100 silent wakeup and sleep-tracking product by Lark, or the $99 panoramic video capture add-on by Kogeto.

Ecosystems. In contrast to high-tech pitch shows that focus on dancing around internet giants, infomercial pitches exist in a world that is virtually devoid of consumer tech powerhouses such as Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook. There were no products that required a Web site or a smartphone app, no high-minded concepts to grasp. In the world of infomercials, the elevator pitch is the only one. However, clever inventors sought to create accessories for high-volume products ranging from plastic soda bottles (a plastic ring designed to maintain carbonation and reduce storage for recycling) to brassieres (disposable adhesive tabs that keep bra straps from slipping out from under blouses and other garments).

Utility. Of course, even an inexpensive product must be useful and exhibit the elusive wow factor to be marketed successfully on air. One of the dismissed ideas was a waist-high beverage holder that could be used at outdoor parties on a stand, or planted in a campground as a stake in order to prevent beverages from being misplaced or knocked over -- likely not a painful enough problem to encourage consumers to part with their credit card numbers.

(Looking for more? Check back next Saturday for Part 2 and the conclusion.)

Ross Rubin (@rossrubin) is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Reserve Power are his own.