Created on Thursday, 16 July 2015 00:00
Written by Cheryl Teo Kai Lin
There are millions of get-rich-quick harebrained ideas dreamed up by people that will never seem to take off. But one man with a bizarre idea during the 1970s have earned millions from an unassuming product that is just downright silly; pet rocks. Gary Ross Dahl who died earlier this year at age 78 will forever live on in history for being the man who invented the “Pet Rock”, a simple toy that took the world by storm in the 70s. He managed to make millions through his “ridiculously successful marketing scheme”.
Gary was so good a salesman, he could sell rocks, literally! He began his career as an advertising copywriter but it was one fateful night in a pub during the mid-70s that would change his life forever. It all started while Gary was having a drink at a local bar in Los Gatos, California. People around him were talking about having pets and the difficulties they had in feeding, walking, and cleaning up after them.
Struck by sudden inspiration, whether sober or not, Gary declared that he had no such problems with his own pet. “I have a pet rock,” he loudly announced. His response from the crowd was so well received that he began to toy with the idea, eventually throwing caution to the wind and setting up a business based on it.
Gary somehow managed to find two investors as crazy as him to visit a building supply store and purchase a box of smooth Mexican beach stones for a penny apiece. His idea was to simply create a beautiful packaging to house each stone, and then sell it for a lot more than they were worth. After a whole lot of trial and error, he finally designed a smart cardboard carrying case, complete with air holes for the “pet” to breathe. The stone is then tenderly nestled inside the box on a pile of softwood shavings.
He also included a manual with instructions on how to care for the Pet Rock, which later proved to be a stroke of marketing genius. The little book contained instructions on the care, feeding, and house training of Pet Rocks. “If, when you remove the rock from its box and it appears to be excited, place it on some old newspapers,” it read. “The rock will know what the paper is for and will require no further instruction. It will remain on the paper until you move it.”
It was this hilarious manual that managed to capture the attention of many amused consumers, turning the Pet Rock into a nation-wide phenomenon that made little to no sense. Gary's timing was impeccable, the rock had hit the market at just the right time. The Vietnam War had ended and Watergate was just beginning.
There was a whole lot of bad news going on,” he told the Houston Chronicle in 1999. “People were down. It wasn’t a real good time for the national psyche. I think the Pet Rock was just a good giggle. Everybody needed a good laugh and the media ate it up.”
After the launch of the Pet Rock during Christmas 1975, Gary worked up a media storm, even earning a spot on the legendary Tonight Show. Within a span of a few months, over 1.5 million rocks, sold for $3.95 each, were snapped up, and the demand was more than they could handle.
“I had one phone to each ear,” Gary recalled in a 2011 interview. “I taught my P.R. guy to impersonate me so he could answer my calls.” Sales were phenomenal for a while – Gary moved into a large house with a swimming pool and traded his Honda for a Mercedes.
But with the invention of a great idea comes other businesses trying to piggyback on its success. As New York Times reports, “the simplicity of his idea proved its undoing.” Although he had trademarked the name of his product, he couldn't stop others from selling a rock in a box. Lots of people did just that, and took his idea to new levels. There was the Bicentennial Rock, inscribed with the American flag. And someone started offering college degrees for Pet Rocks, at $3 for a bachelor's and $10 for a Ph.D. With copycats flooding the market, business began to suffer, and in the late 70's, he was sued by his investors and ended up paying them a six-figure judgement.
With the rest of the money he earned from his Pet Rock business, Gary and his wife designed and built the Carry Nations Saloon in Los Gatos. He later returned to advertising, and even wrote a book called Advertising for Dummies, published in 2001. But he will always be famous for his Pet Rock phenomenon. A simple idea that others would probably dismiss as a stupid one earned him a good measure of wealth and fame.
This just goes to show that if you believe in your dream despite the negative stuff that people say about it and strive to achieve it, you might just strike gold.