Pet Rocks, Blue Oceans and Magic Millions

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We spend a lot of time talking about how important it is to research and sell into a hungry market.

It’s often the deciding factor in success or failure. But, every once in a while, something odd happens. Someone comes along and creates a solution to a problem we never knew we had. And, in doing so, they literally create a market, a hunger, out of thin air.

According to Super70s.com, in 1975…

Advertising executive from California named Gary Dahl. Not content with traditional pets, which he considered too messy, costly, and misbehaved, he had taken on a clean, cheap and well-behaved rock as his pet. When told of his choice of pets, his friends first thought was that he was stoned. However, they soon agreed it was a good idea and Dahl spent a few weeks preparing a Pet Rock Training Manual. Topics included: “How to make your Pet Rock roll-over and play dead” and “How to house-train your Pet Rock.” Little did he know that fame and fortune was just a stone’s-throw away.

Dahl packaged the rock with his manual in a cardboard box designed to look like a pet carrying case and began selling them at $3.95 each. He introduced them at a gift show in San Francisco in August of ’75 and, as an ad executive, was savvy enough to create a press release which he sent out, complete with his picture, to virtually every major media outlet. In October Newsweek carried an article on the fad and dozens of local newspapers picked up the story. Soon even staid Neiman Marcus was carrying them. Dahl’s personal 15 minutes of fame culminated with an appearance on Johnny Carson’s The Tonight Show!

By Christmas of that year, depending who you ask, somewhere between 1 and 5 million pet rocks were sold and the trend came to a screaming halt.

Not a bad way to score quick millions and have some fun.

But, the bigger lessons here are:

  • For every rule, there is an exception – Selling into an existing market is far easier than creating a new market. But, if you have the backbone, the bank account and the idea, creating a new market or going “Blue Ocean” can often be far more lucrative, but…
  • If you’re going to create a new market, do it with a unique, protectable solution – Creating new markets is almost always extraordinarily hard work, often takes a lot of money and comes with a huge educational burden (you need to teach your prospects why they can’t live without you). If you can surmount these challenges, you can create near uncontested market space. It’ll take years for anyone else to catch up. Unless…
  • If you create a new market with a fast & fungible product, expect a short lifespan – On rare occasion, the burden and work needed to create a new market is minimal, as was the case with the Pet Rock. All it took was a wacky idea, a few weeks’ work and some great PR. That’s cool, a small team of people had a lot of fun and made a few million bucks in a matter of months. Just know, the easier it is to create a market, the faster that space will be contested. This is the basis of pop-trends. One person kicks them off, a week later a million others knock them off. So be ready to strike hard and fast, then move on.

So, got a Pet Rock in YOUR pocket?

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16 responses

16 responses to “Pet Rocks, Blue Oceans and Magic Millions”

  1. Great topic!
    What do you think of market research about Dallas pet movers for example?
    I would say that local online business niches (any type) are extremely lucrative.

  2. Hugh says:

    I’m sure for every pet rock success story, there are hundreds or thousands that fizzle out and die, leaving the creator broke. That game’s not for me.

    I always think of the classic example of the Sony Walkman as a product that people didn’t know they wanted until they were told they needed one. Talk about creating a market where there previously wasn’t one!

  3. Brandon W says:

    I’ve been saying lately: “You’re better off making the best Pet Rock, ever, than making another mediocre iPhone or Facebook app.”

    Standing out with a clear, simple product will make you a lot more money than another half-assed “me too” product in a saturated market.

  4. I still can’t believe people bought pet rocks…amazing.

  5. Sean Aiken says:

    Reminds me of Seth Godin’s purple cow concept.

    To stand out, do something remarkable.

  6. Jon says:

    lol reminds me of the cabbage patch kids in the 80’s

  7. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Fields, remarkablogger, Ping Pong the Fish, Alison Kramer , Ed Gaile and others. Ed Gaile said: Reading —> RT @jonathanfields: Pet Rocks, Blue Oceans and Magic Millions – http://is.gd/74YZH […]

  8. One BIG exception here Jonathan, if all your products are created on-demand – it means that when things go nuts on you (in a good way), you are fine and when sales go down, you didn’t invest into excess inventory.

    Jon

  9. Werner says:

    I wish I understood the psychology behind why people are willing to line up and pay good money for nothing.

    As a kid, I remember watching people grab these Pet Rock’s, sitting in a box lined with fake grass, from the front display table in Abraham & Strauss and then wait in a register line to fork over $4.50 for it.

    Later while walking home, I stooped to pick up a rock and examine it. I marveled at the guy who was able to pull this off and even more so at all the people who bought them – and then tossed the rock into the weeds.

    BTW: The pet rock mania was such that I remember a few people opened Pet Rock Cemeteries. Once a Pet Rock “died” people would pay a nominal fee to have their beloved cemented into a little wall with other dearly departed rocks in a sort of outdoor mausoleum. Unbelievable…

    • “I wish I understood the psychology behind why people are willing to line up and pay good money for nothing.”

      What I think you’re missing is that they weren’t paying for ‘nothing’, nor were they buying a rock. They were, initially, announcing support for a silly 70s idea, then, before long, they were joining a tribe.

      Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the thing you’re selling is the thing you’re selling. What you’re selling is whatever is in your customer or client’s mind. Only way to succeed is to sell them something that’s already there.

      Portable music players aren’t an exception; they’re just an exceptional version of selling something folks didn’t *know* was in their heads—but it was, it definitely was.

  10. GEON says:

    What is today’s pet rock – the iSlate?

    Its better to have tried and not made it – than not to have tried at all.

    The best market research is a product or service. Analysis paralysis kills more products than any market force could.

  11. There’s always a market for the novel. That didn’t get created. I think we have to be careful with our wording: are we really creating a new market?

    Did Crocs create a new market? No, people already wanted shoes. Crocs were just (unfortunately) the next big thing in shoes. Clogs already exsited. Croc’s unique take on clogs did not, in my opinion create a market. They created a fad.

    Did the iPod create a new market? No, music players already existed. A music player market already existed (though Apple fired it up).

    Did Red Bull create the energy drink market? Even if there were predecessors, nobody knows who they are, so I say yes, Red Bull created the energy drink market.

    Toyota created the hybrid car market. When people think of hybrid cars, they think of the Prius. The general car market already existed of course, but it’s not often a new segment in such a huge, well-established market gets created. I would say the minivan was the last time that happened in the auto market.

    Maybe instead of trying to meet hungry market needs in the most obvious way, it pays to look a few steps ahead at more imaginative, non-obvious ways.

  12. Ryan Hanzel says:

    Hey man great post, I don’t have much to say on the marketing topic that has not already been said in previous comments but I loved reading about a guy making millions selling rocks as pets. I am sure there was more to it than that but this article made my night!

  13. Denise says:

    Great Post. I have thought about this for a long time. I love trendy stuff but even more the trends that become a part of life.
    Do you remember the first time you paid for drinking water? I do, it was at Woodstock, August,1969. The paper cup of water was a nickel and that moment is as fresh as the water that day – look what happened…

  14. I think the pet rock is every marketers dream. For a short haul, anyway. And the lessons learned are very apt.

  15. […] There’s no prizes for guessing that number 2 is where the dosh is, is there? (There can be exceptions to this – like the guy who invented pet rocks.) […]