Silly Ideas That Made Millions

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Want to get rich quick? It’s best to have a blockbuster product. But in case there’s no flash of inspiration, don’t worry. There’s still hope. A few lucky inventors, entrepreneurs, and marketers have hit the jackpot with silly ideas that have just the right combination of humor and utility to move tons of units and bring in piles of revenue. Here are 11 ideas that made the cut, and the cash.

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It was the idea that ushered in the modern era of toy marketing, where buzz often overshadows substance (think Cabbage Patch Kids or Tickle Me Elmo). Ad man Gary Dahl, fed up with hearing people complain about pet care, figured he could create a low-maintence pet and cash in to boot. Buying a load of stones from a quarry, he packaged them in boxes with air holes, straw, and a complete care manual. Though the fad was short-lived—its golden age lasted only a few months—Dahl’s overhead was tiny, with the rocks costing about a penny and retailing for $3.95, and he quickly became a millionaire. Meanwhile, Dahl’s core idea has lived on in products ranging from the late-1990s Tamagotchi to the more recent Pet Barock.

LIST-silly-business-santamail-hsmall You'd better not pout, you'd better not cry, and you'd better have gotten your order in before Dec. 15 to get your letter by Christmas.

Yes, Virginia, you can get a reply back from Santa Claus, provided that your parents are willing to shell out 10 bucks. Since 2002, SantaMail has been sending personalized letters to children, complete with the child’s name and a postmark from the town of North Pole in Alaska. The 300,000 letters mailed since SantaMail’s inception show the idea was a smart one. (Until last year, the United States Postal Service offered a similar product for only the cost of postage and a self-addressed stamped envelope.)

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The doting dog owner certainly has doggie clothes. He probably has doggie steps. Maybe he even has a $1,250 pet spa or $3,000 dog perfume. But to show he truly loves his pooch, he’ll need Doggles to protect Fido’s precious eyes. They look odd, but millions of dog owners have shelled out for these glasses, which start at $12.99 and come in two styles and various colors. Even the military has gotten in on the act, purchasing pairs for its four-legged fighters.

A blanket with sleeves: it seems obvious, but this idea is so ingenious that it has managed to support not one but two almost identical products. The Slanket, which is basically the same thing as the Snuggie but a bit thicker, is the neighborhood graybeard, debuting in 2006; the Snuggie is the glamorous newcomer that set off the craze in late 2008. In total, both products—which are locked in a fierce (but comfy and warm) marketing battle—have revenues in the millions.

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There’s a time and a place for bottled water: when tap water is unsafe, unsavory, or simply unavailable. But the sales numbers for Dasani, Poland Spring, Aquafina, and others show that we’re not just resorting to the bottles when absolutely necessary. Indeed, the merchants’ cups runneth over, especially since many brands are simply repackaging tap water and selling it at a substantial markup. Although prognosticators have repeatedly forecast the demise of the industry, Americans’ thirst hasn’t dropped significantly: we continue to consume hundreds of millions of bottles of the stuff every week.

Anyone who’s painstakingly balanced their way through a night in high heels can tell you that comfort and fashion are often at odds, but jewelry that literally forces you to hit yourself might be ridiculous even by those standards. OK, so the slap bracelet—the small piece of metal encased in fabric that wraps around the wrist when struck—isn’t that painful. And that’s probably a good thing, since it’s sold tens of millions of units and become a cultural phenomenon.

Like the Post-It Note, the Slinky was intended for one purpose but found huge success in another. The product was born when naval engineer Richard James was working with springs in the hopes of stabilizing instruments on the water. When he knocked the spring over, it "walked" downward (as seen in the classic TV ad above) and gave him the idea for a toy. The Slinky sold a 100 million units in its first two years alone and has gone on to more than triple that figure since.

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If you’ve never heard of Silly Bandz, you probably don’t know any tween girls. So what are they? They’re standard-size rubber bands shaped like animals, objects, and more. Developed in Japan, they were a niche, semi-highbrow product sold in museum stores as functional office supplies until Robert Croak—whose company produces Livestrong bands—discovered them and began mass-marketing them as an accessory. Even though they retail at less than a quarter apiece, the demand has been huge, with sales reaching into the millions. They’ve even spawned a cottage industry in narrowly targeted copycat versions.

It's a classic example of something people didn't know they needed: a tool that turns a ponytail inside out! The Topsy Tail was a staple of a mid-1990s TV advertising; incredibly simple, the tool consisted of a loop with a handle and sold for $12.95. It attracted enough interest that it made more than $100 million, according to its inventor.

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Christina Leigh Rein managed to turn her own frustrations into a lucrative business. When she became a mother, she was annoyed by the difficulties of carrying around baby accessories: the diaper bags she had were too large or too frumpy, and stuffing diapers into her purse was a pain in the neck. So she invented a better solution, a small, stylish diaper bag for fashionable moms. As she suspected, other parents were excited about the idea, and her company, Diapees and Wipees, has gained endorsements from the likes of Isaac Mizrahi. The bags start at $19.99, but that's a small price to pay for making your child fashion-conscious from the moment he or she enters the world. The company has made more than $1 million in profits, Rein says.

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You've got to hand it to the entrepreneur who puts his goal right out there up front. In 2005, 21-year-old English college student Alex Tew concocted a strategy to pay for his school expenses: he'd create a Web page with 1 million pixels, each of which he'd sell to advertisers for a dollar (small catch: there was a minimum buy of 100 pixels, so that an ad was actually legible). The site sold out, and although Tew said he would only guarantee it through August 2010, it's still viewable, except for a few dead links. Sure, it's silly, but with almost no overhead and a million dollars in revenue, it's hard to argue with this success.

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