Bob Brooks got a business education at the prestigious Johnson Wales University in Rhode Island. Now he runs a $1-million-a-year ecommerce company on the Internet. It all makes perfect sense and all seems to be as it should. But to borrow a phrase from broadcast legend Paul Harvey, “now you need to know the rest of the story”.
Type “Baron Bob” into Google and the first thing you see is a link to BaronBob.com and WonderfullyWacky.com. This is where you can buy, among other things, the dancing Caddyshack Gopher, Anger Management Dolls and Talking Napoleon Dynamite Plush Dolls. There are about a thousand weird and wacky gift ideas on Baron Bob’s site, some of the very popular ones you, well, you have to go to the site to see.
So a guy in New Jersey gets a big time business degree to sell whoopie cushions on the Internet? How does that happen? The circus came to town…
PeC: You’re not going to do that “ran away with the circus” story are you?
Oh absolutely. Except I didn’t actually run away with the circus. I had already been to school for entrepreneurship, a long, fancy word that I still can’t spell. But then I went to the circus and saw the entertainers—clowns—and, I thought to myself, I could entertain. I was class clown in grammar school, the class clown—officially—in high school; I could get paid for doing that. Well, the next thing you know, when someone called me a clown I said, “I resembled that remark”. From there it went to magic and I was a comedy magician for 16 years. But, you know, there was a time when I started to get burnt out doing show after show after show. So I was looking around for some other creative avenue. And in a way that is how the “gallery” (BaronBob.Com) came to be. Originally, the gallery was about way out websites. In those days everyone had a platform and everyone was creating websites. There were a lot of tongue-incheek sites that were pretty far out. My idea was to do a quick review on these whimsical websites (and link to them). The business model was that visitors who came back to read my reviews and see the websites would eventually buy barbeque sauces.
PeC: Was it your own barbeque sauce?
Oh no. It was just somebody’s “homemade barbeque sauce”. It could have been poisonous for all we knew. But the model was flawed, we used email to get people to come—this was before spam became an issue—and we couldn’t depend on people continuing to come to the site. Plus, my heart wasn’t in it. I went from sending daily emails to weekly emails to occasional emails about wacky websites. And I never did sell any sauce.
PeC: Was there an upside at all?
Yeah, in the process of looking for wacky websites we found wonderfully wacky products. That’s how we found the tequila-flavored lollipops, with a real worm. We found five-toed wonder socks, the Pet Rock, and we found Captain Beard’s Steak Sauce, which is a whole ‘nother story. Anyway, for about a week it became “wacky websites and products” and then like the flick of a switch it went from Wacky Web Sites to the Gallery of Wonderfully Wacky gifts.
PeC: So once you made the transition you pulled out all the stops in finding wacky products?
Yeah, we started with the web platform and then we got into trade shows and then people started recommending products to us. Eventually, inventors started bringing us stuff. But it really started with just surfing the web.
PeC: So Wacky Website Picks became Wonderfully Wacky Products and Baron Bob.com?
That’s right. You know something like “wonderfully wacky,” when it’s online it’s fine, but when someone has to retain it, it’s not. I mean, it has every other letter in the alphabet. It’s a rough ride. But Baron Bob, I would say, is no better. We get people spelling it with two “r”’s, and we get b-e-a-r-i-n—I think they know about my bald spot.
PeC: Besides email how were you driving viewers to the site in those days.
We go back to “GoTo.” That was a wonderful bit of business where for a single penny you could buy a search term if nobody else had bid on it. GoTo was a portal and a wonderful thing. Then Willy Wonka (i. e. GoTo) closed their doors and Magnificent Clicks came to be. Then it was Overture, Yahoo! and Google.
PeC: So here we are 16 years since the circus stole your heart and mind and eight years into the wacky products business. How many wacky products are there?
Easily approaching a thousand.
PeC: What’s the wackiest one that comes to mind right now?
That’s hard to say. But still to this day the tequila-flavored lollipop with a real worm was one of the first things we found and it hasn’t lost its wackiness over the years.
PeC: And is it still a big seller?
No. None of our stuff is a big seller. Not one of our products is more than five percent of our sales.
PeC: Now, over the past few years you have done some other unique things to drive business to your site and to sell wacky stuff. Want to talk about it?
Yeah. We’ve done five years in a row on the Tonight Show for their segment “Far Out Christmas Gifts.”
PeC: How did you pull that off?
It’s a matter of content. Content is king. The media has found us, instead of vice versa. Maxim Men’s Magazine, CNN, The Tonight Show, Washington Post, and USA Today have all found us like anybody has found anything else on the net. They all have their sources and they surf and search. It’s nice that all that happened, but you kind of get lost in that situation, because when it turns the other way and you go looking for them, it becomes “why are you bothering us.” But, with great content or content that matches the terms they are using in their search it works.
PeC: You said your earlier business model was flawed. Does the current model have flaws as well in your mind?
Well, the flaw is, that the bigger we become the more complex it becomes. We used to have the “Quick List” which was maybe 12 items. Now with almost a thousand products you have to become telepathetic.
PeC: You mean telepathic?
That, too. You have to be the guru on “what’s going to move” and “what’s not going to move”. We warehouse everything, except for a few items, like the motorized barstool racers, which we drop ship. So we have to guess right.
PeC: Are you still doing pay-per-click advertising?
We still do pay-per-clicks. We have over 3,000 search terms with Yahoo!, or is it Overture, I get lost on who owns whom now. We don’t have as many words and phrases with Google. Overall, we’re going to have to do a little weeding because we have a few terms that are on the general side. For example, we had “fun”. I’m proud to say we had “fun” grandfathered at a nickel, but it just leads to too many people coming in and too few conversions to sale. Our overall general conversion rate is $21 per sale.
PeC: Do you have a specific conversion strategy that you can share?
I see it more clearly now than I ever have. When you have a customer, you better bend over backwards to keep them. That customer came to you at a considerable cost and you have to retain them. You know, I made a prediction that the conversion tool at Yahoo! would be done away with and used only by people who subscribe. The reason is that it can show how bad you are truly doing—it’s very rude, very rude. When you have so many people coming in to look at so many items, not every visit is converted into a sale. But we look at it long-term, we look at it as planting a seed (like other forms of advertising) and maybe it will blossom into a sale or a customer later on or create a buzz.
PeC: Do you have a lot of repeat customers?
Yeah, we have people who have been with us year in and year out. That’s special, but it also creates a responsibility for us to keep the selection fresh. You can become stagnant quite quickly. And when your competition is only a click away, you have to be careful of that.
PeC: How about some Baron Bob advice for new ecommerce merchants.
The first thing I would tell them is get some toothpicks for their eyelids to help them through the all-nighters they are going to experience. If they’re getting into this for a quick buck, they need to go to the lottery or the racetrack. It’s like anything else, it’s business and you hopefully get out what you put in. After eight years for us there is still a question mark on that. One bad year or mistake can be costly. Like 2003 was our bad year, we just didn’t order (guess) right on the inventory—we should have been called “sold out dot com.” Everything you clicked on was sold out. We could have put up a page that said don’t bother with us, because we have nothing. And, if you’re going to be another cookie cutter template, you might want to consider being yourself. That’s what we do; we put a picture of me flying the biplane drinking a Kamikaze. I’ve been a creative thinker and I like to do things my own way. But in that, I like to do things that enlighten. That goes without saying as an entertainer. I hadn’t thought about it in terms of the things we sell. Just this last Christmas I sat down with a family that I am close to, and this one individual, a teenage girl, had opened all her other gifts and said they were nice and set them aside. When she opened this box and she saw the gift—a talking Napoleon Dynamite Doll, she couldn’t get enough of it. She squeezed it and squeezed it and paraded it around the room. She didn’t know I was behind the present, but I was sitting there thinking about her joy and thinking we, our company, had done that for other people many times over. That was a good feeling, and it still pushes me and empowers me to endure the long hours and everything that is involved. To know that we gave someone glee and some happiness in this whacked out world we live in, is a real motivator.