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The Ab Roller King Is Back, And He’s On Kickstarter

An infomercial legend on design plagiarism, inventing, and why you’ll never have a six-pack.

The Ab Roller King Is Back, And He’s On Kickstarter
[Photo: Don Mason/Getty Images]

Don Brown was a personal trainer in the 1990s when a client with a back problem complained they were having a tough time doing crunches. Back at his desk, he began folding a paper clip into a rocking device shaped like a capital “G,” and asked a pipe bender to scale it up for humans.

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[Photo: courtesy Don Brown]
His clients loved it. They wanted to buy it. Two years later, his Ab Roller hit the white-hot ab-infused infomercial market. Ten million Ab Rollers would sell in stores and late-night TV spots–and that’s not counting dozens of knock-offs. He later had a hit follow-up called the Ab Coaster, and has helped other entrepreneurs take their own inventions to market, including the Barbie-bucking Lammily Doll.

But in recent years, the infomercial veteran has successfully switched to crowdfunding–with the app-connected Stealth Interactive Core Trainer, which raised $380,000 in its initial Kickstarter run in 2016.

[Photo: Stealth Fitness]
On a phone call with Co.Design, Brown dished about the ab wars, the new era of crowdfunding, knock-offs, and how nothing really changes–especially when it comes to mankind’s never-ending quest for a shredded core.

[Photo: courtesy Don Brown]
Co.Design: So I want to line up my history a bit. You came in with the Ab Roller. I think the electrostimulation belts had already had their day in the sun? And was it pre or post the ab wheels?

Don Brown: No, the Ab Roller came way before the electric belts! The original was the Abdominizer! It was a rocking snow sled way back, maybe the late ’80s. You just laid on it and rocked back and forth. Then came Tony Little’s Ab Isolator. Then my Ab Roller phase . . . then there was the Ab Doer. Then the Ab Slide, with the wheel that rolls back with a spring that pushes you back. Then there was the Ab Lounge, which I thought was a total joke–then it sold 6 million of ’em! Then you had 6 Second Abs, again, totally a stupid little spring for easy abs and an easy crunch, and now it was people getting up off the floor. They didn’t want to be on the floor! Then my Ab Coaster hit and kind of woke things up again.

Co.D: Have we reached peak ab? Or is peak ab yet to come?

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DB: I’ve always said abs always sell. For some reason, this whole sexy six- pack never stops selling. Men want six packs, women want a flat belly . . . even the younger generation, it’s all about the bikini bridge. All I can think is it must be hardwired. Look at the cover of every male and female fitness magazine, and it’s always “Flat Abs ASAP!”

Nothing, as well you know, will ever give you a six-pack. Eighty percent of what your abs look like is determined by what you put in your mouth. These infomercials, unfortunately, show people what they want to see. That sexy six-pack on a beach? That’s not going to happen. But people still believe it.

[Photo: courtesy Don Brown]
Co.D: You launched your first crowdfunding campaign a few months back, for another ab device, and it was a huge hit. Has the infomercial officially given way to the Kickstarter era?

DB: You nailed pretty much my future path. With the TV infomercial world fading down, I kind of got away from TV infomercials, and I’ve been following crowdfunding. But I didn’t want to do a campaign until I understood it and could do it successfully.

After spending years in the infomercial business creating products, mostly fitness products and as seen on TV, the older population–which I happen to be in–are the only people who watch TV infomercials anymore! The younger generation is all about social media.

Co.D: How does Kickstarter promotion compare to infomercials? It’s got to be easier now than dealing with trade shows and investors like you used to.

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DB: It’s not that it’s easy to get money from the crowd, and it’s not that it doesn’t cost you money to get money from the crowd. Because you have to go out and create prototypes, which you’d have to do to pitch an investor. Just like producing an infomercial, there’s a lot that goes into it.

But now, it’s a lot less expensive. Let me give you an example. An infomercial would cost anywhere from $50,000 to a million. But a crowdfunding campaign is a one- to three-minute video, and you can spend anywhere from $2,000 to $30,000. So the good news is you get the money from Kickstarter instantly, where a TV infomercial, you test it.

The model of an infomercial was try to break even–as many people to buy on the phone or online–to cover your media cost. When you spend a million or 2 million doing that, it didn’t cost you anything. Then everybody wants it when they show up at Walmart.

Co.D: So you’re saying, just like people use Kickstarter to prove a market today, that’s actually what you were doing 20 years ago on TV.

DB: [Right.] Have you seen Micro Smores? I was at my beach house. With my daughter. It was raining out. She put a marshmallow on a paper plate and I watched the whole thing explode and fall apart in the microwave.

[Photo: Micro S’mores]
I was in China making the Ab Coaster and thought, ‘I wonder if I could make a s’more in a butter dish?’ And it worked perfectly. So I created the Micro Smores cooker, did a whole infomercial, and it just failed. I was like, what the hell? Finally I went to QVC and had them sell it, and it just exploded. A million dollars’ worth. And I’m like like, what the heck? So I created another infomercial . . . I was getting calls from Tristar, Telebrands, the big infomercial houses begging me to let them do an infomercial. So I let them both do infomercials, and they both failed.

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So how come it blew out in QVC? Here’s what I discovered: QVC has an audience of grandmas, and making s’mores in the microwave is very cool to do with grandkids. It took me $300,000 in infomercials to understand that–to understand that market was so perfect for a cool gadget you could use with grandkids.

Co.D: And that lesson would have been a lot cheaper on Kickstarter. What has surprised you about the transition to Kickstarter so far?

DB: What shocked me was, the number one [buyers on my campaign were] past crowdfunding supporters. That’s the number one buyer, other than friends and family you send there initially to get the surge that pushes you into the river of the crowdfunding maniacs. The people who’ve backed my project, some of them have backed 1,200 projects. They’re like QVC addicts!

Co.D: So whether it’s on TV or the internet, you’re always selling to the zealots.

DB: And that’s the problem, there’s still such a disconnect [from what people want on Kickstarter and] with the average person looking to purchase on retail. From an infomercial standpoint, it’s the same thing. Only 5% of the world buys from TV. The rest for us wait until it’s at Bed Bath and Walmart.

Co.D: Do you think advertising something on Kickstarter well before it’s to market makes the process of knocking off designs easier? Have you seen the story with the Fidget Cube, where it was knocked off before it hit the market?

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DB: You know, I’ve been a victim big time. My Ab Roller product was one of the most successful hits in the mid-’90s. It sold probably over a billion dollars in revenue, and that product was knocked off by something like 30 companies because it was on TV.

But it started when I went to a trade show that was packed. At my booth, there were manufacturers taking pictures, who filed a Chinese patent using my brochure as their patent art.

They literally had [their cloned] product on QVC within four to five months of showing at that show. Then, a nightmare of knock-offs. The patent office lost my patent. You can’t imagine how much we spent in litigation. We spent probably $12 million to $15 million. Fortunately, we were making money, and I settled a bunch of lawsuits.

If there’s a hot product, it doesn’t matter. You can’t think you can control knock-offs through patents or anything. My Ab Roller had a very strong patent, but you have to litigate it. With Fidget Cube, those guys nailed it. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much proprietary there.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started Philanthroper.com, a simple way to give back every day

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