DON'T bother building a better mousetrap. If you really want the world to beat a path to your door, come up with something nobody's ever seen before. Something daring, maybe even a little off the wall. And, preferably, fun.
That's the advice of Ken Hakuta, an entrepreneur who describes himself as ``the Ann Landers of the fadlorn.'' Mr. Hakuta's mission is to help people who dream of launching an innovative product idea. Nicknamed ``Dr. Fad,'' he gives callers to his hot line free advice on how to make their product the next Pet Rock.
Judging from the 2,000 to 5,000 phone calls he gets each month, there are plenty of dreamers out there, and an exuberant range of dreams. Hakuta delights in them all.
``There are kind of intellectual ones, like dehydrated water tablets,'' he chirps, like a child showing off a new toy. ``These are tablets that you take on camping trips. Because the water is very heavy, they dehydrated it, so you add water to make water.''
There are also comical ones like The Leg - a life-size, trouser-clad limb. ``Last night I ordered room service in the hotel, and I stuck the leg out of the door. There was quite a long hesitation before this guy opened the door,'' Hakuta chuckles.
Then there's Celebrity Dirt. One day Barry Gibson, a truck driver from Lansing, Mich., called the fad hot line (800-USA-FADS) and said he had been buying cases of dirt from historic places like Lincoln's birthplace and Custer's last stand. He was planning to market it as ``antique dirt'' and wanted suggestions. Dr. Fad's advice: ``This is a world where more people read Star magazine and watch `Entertainment Tonight' than read history books, so why don't you do Celebrity Dirt instead?''
Mr. Gibson drove out to California with a long shovel to get some dirt from the homes of stars. He was hoping he'd make news by getting arrested, but Joan Collins, Madonna, Michael J. Fox, Dolly Parton, and other stars didn't appear to mind. ``It's quite easy,'' he says. ``You just reach in through the gate.''
Celebrity Dirt got plenty of publicity anyway, but so far it's made more headlines than money - only a slight profit from gift shop sales in the United States and Canada. Nevertheless, Gibson has nothing but praise for Dr. Fad's help, which included advice on packaging and a promise to put up bail if he got arrested. ``I was real skeptical at first,'' he recalls. ``You're always waiting for the give-me line when you call a number. But it never came.''
Judy Lineberger of Alexandria, Va., another of Hakuta's fadsters, came back from a recent gift show with $250,000 in orders for her product - glitzy sunglasses, neckties, and suspenders made of mirrored tiles. She, too, has enthusiastic praise for Dr. Fad: ``There's an energy about Ken that makes you believe in yourself, because he believes anyone can do anything they put their mind to.''
Hakuta's hot line assistance ranges from explaining basic steps of marketing a product to helping develop in-depth strategies. With so many calls, he has to be choosy about which ones he returns. ``The reason I can't talk to more than 200 fad people every month is that when they get hold of me, they have to tell me their life story. I don't blame them; I would be that way, too. It's because it's their million-dollar baby.''
How well he knows.
Hakuta doesn't look like someone who would start a craze himself. His modest manner and styleless clothes seem more suited to the quiet little import-export business he ran up until 1982. For years the Harvard Business School grad was content to send ironing board covers to Japan and karate uniforms to America - until the day he laid eyes on a rubbery eight-legged toy his parents had sent their grandsons from Japan. When thrown against a wall, the sticky octopus flipped over, flailed about, then took a wobbly walk downward to the floor. As he watched the creature boogie down, Hakuta knew he was looking at a winner.
Ten days and a few phone calls later, he had bought the worldwide rights to the Wacky Wallwalker, as he called it, for $120,000. No matter that he didn't have the $120,000. He had a bold imagination and the moxie to put it to work.
To get media attention, he distributed samples in the neighborhood of his local paper, the Washington Post. A Post reporter took the bait and wrote a story on how the Wallwalker was going to be a big fad. Then ``CBS Evening News'' did a spot on it, generating more than 1,200 calls from buyers and reporters. Hakuta fanned the flame by dashing into fancy restaurants frequented by media people and slamming handfuls of Wallwalkers against the wall.
Before long the Wacky Wallwalker was one of the hottest fads ever to hit the toy industry. But Hakuta didn't stop there. When initial demand for the Wallwalker began to cool, he built it up all over again by making the creature scarce. Then he sold huge numbers to Kellogg Company and Wendy's International Inc. to use as gifts with purchases. To date he has sold more than 200 million Wallwalkers, the largest quantity of a toy ever sold in the US. And he's made $20 million in profits.
Philip Thurston, a Harvard professor who remembers when Hakuta was working on his MBA, is not surprised by his success. ``He was the kind of person you like to see do well. Ken was hardworking, practical, thorough, and also willing to be imaginative.''
The story of the Wacky Wallwalker and what it taught Hakuta about marketing form the basis for his latest venture, a book entitled ``How to Create Your Own Fad and Make a Million Dollars.'' The book shows how fads work and describes the creation of famous ones like the Frisbee, the Hula Hoop, and the gourmet chocolate chip cookie. It tells how to recognize an idea with million-dollar potential and give it an irresistible name, then how to get the rights for it, find financing, stir up media attention, and deal with distributors and trade shows.
It's lively reading that makes fad merchandising sound like fun as a hobby. Also pretty risky.
``Yeah,'' Hakuta concedes, ``I could have had $300,000 worth of Wallwalkers in my basement and nobody would want them, and I could have lost the house. It's a very fair world out there - no risk, no return.''
How can you tell if your idea is promising enough to justify the risk?
``Generally, successful fads have some kind of play value, like the Frisbee, Slinky, Silly Putty, my Wallwalker,'' Hakuta says. ``They're generally inexpensive items, impulse items. They tend to be rather useless items, too. They provide a few minutes of amusement.''
When he's not helping adults pull the strings of consumerism, Hakuta works on his nationally syndicated TV show for children, ``The Dr. Fad Show.'' The Saturday morning program, due to start in September, will be a sort of ``Star Search'' for the cleverest inventions by kids.