How legendary copywriter Joe Sugarman gets his creativity

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Last year I took a little bit of time off to go to my sister’s wedding on an estate in Hawaii, and when we got to this place, my wife looked out and she said, “This is gorgeous.” We’re from San Francisco and we’ve never seen so much grass. My brother looked around at the house where the wedding would take place and said, “This is giant. Forget the wedding, this is going to be an amazing experience with an amazing wedding on top of it.”

I looked at the house and I immediately zeroed in on the bookcase and I said, “Hey, that’s Joe Sugarman’s book. What’s that doing here? That’s the copywriter, the guy who used to sell those BluBlocker sunglasses on TV. I used to read his book instead of hanging out with my friends when I was in school.”

My sister said, “You know that guy? This is his place. This is his home where we’re doing the wedding.” I said, “Yeah, I know him. I studied him forever. I love him.” So I asked my sister’s new mother-in-law if she would introduce me so that I can have Joe Sugarman here on Mixergy to do an interview and here he is.

Joseph Sugarman is a legendary copywriter and bestselling author. His books include “AdWeek Copywriting Manual,” “Triggers,” and “Success Forces.”

Joe Sugarman

Joe Sugarman

BluBlocker

Joseph Sugarman is a legendary copywriter and bestselling author. His books include “AdWeek Copywriting Manual,” “Triggers,” and “Success Forces.”

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Full Interview Transcript

Andrew: Hey, everyone. My name is Andrew Warner. I’m the founder of Mixergy.com, where I’ve interviewed over a thousand entrepreneurs about how they built their businesses. I do it because I have an audience of entrepreneurs who want to learn from other entrepreneurs, want to keep building their businesses, and my goal is for you to be listening to this interview, to use what you’ve learned, and then to come back here and do an interview yourself so you can teach other entrepreneurs how you did it.

Well, last year, I took a little bit of time off to go to my sister’s wedding on an estate in Hawaii, and when we got to this place, my wife looked out and she said, “This is gorgeous.” We’re from San Francisco. We’ve never seen so much grass, and then the grass ends in the ocean, which is even more beautiful. My brother looked around at the house where the wedding would take place and said, “This is giant. Forget the wedding, this is going to be an amazing experience with an amazing wedding on top of it.”

I looked at the house and I immediately zeroed in on the bookcase and I said, “Hey, that’s Joe Sugarman’s book. What’s that doing here? That’s the copywriter, the guy who used to sell those BluBlocker sunglasses on TV. I used to read his book instead of hanging out with my friends when I was in school.”

My sister said, “You know that guy? This is his place. This is his home where we’re doing the wedding.” I said, “Yeah, I know him. I studied him forever. I love him.” So I asked my sister’s new mother-in-law if she would introduce me so that I can have Joe Sugarman here on Mixergy to do an interview and here he is.

Joseph Sugarman is a legendary copywriter and bestselling author. His books include “AdWeek Copywriting Manual,” “Triggers,” “The Seven Forces of Success.” I have the physical versions of these books, but they’re all available digitally on Amazon too, which I’ve been enjoying. His company, JS&A Group introduced dozens of new innovations, including the pocket calculator, the digital watch, cordless telephones, and computers sold through ads to what I think must have been skeptical audiences who were by the end of the ad so convinced to buy it that they pulled out their credit cards and bought.

The company later focused on selling those BluBlocker sunglasses I mentioned earlier. I remember as a kid watching them on television. People would put the BluBlockers on. They’d be amazed by what they saw, and I would go scream and beg to my parents to please buy me those glasses just so I could see what they saw.

Today he’s here. I want to find out how he did this, how he built up his business. I want to find out where his creativity comes from and how I could express that kind of creativity too. More importantly, how you, my listener can do that.

This whole interview is sponsored by two great companies. The first will help you hire your next great developer. It’s called Toptal. The second will do your books for you better than you ever could do it yourself. It’s called Bench. I’ll tell you more about them later.

First, Joe, welcome.

Joe: Welcome to you.

Andrew: Is that house the house that BluBlockers built? Is that your big success?

Joe: Well, yeah, BluBlocker was a big success. Are you talking about the property out in–

Andrew: The property. I guess broader terms, was that the big success of your career?

Joe: BluBlocker was.

Andrew: It was.

Joe: What’s interesting about success–this might be an interesting insight–I have found that you can go along going in the direction you think you should be going and then all of a sudden something comes up and directs you 90 degrees in a different direction and that’s where you’re going to make your success. That’s the case with BluBlocker. We were selling electronics. I wasn’t selling sunglasses. I was selling all kinds of electronics, digital watches, whatsoever.

I just happened to be driving down the 405 in Los Angeles and I was with a friend of mine. We were driving to see a new product. He hands me a pair of sunglasses because he saw I was squinting. I put them on and I stopped squinting. It was really amazing. I said, “What’s the story with these?”

He says, “Don’t think you’re going to sell them because they’re made for astronauts and they’re like $300 a pair. They block all the blue light.” He gives me this whole pitch. I said, “This sounds terrific. This would make a great mail order item.” He says, “No, the company is going out of business.” I said, “Okay.”

We finished the meeting. I fly back to Chicago, my hometown. I’m preparing an eight-page catalogue for United Airlines, eight pages, one of the pages dropped out because the company went bankrupt. I had to fill that one page and I only had like a couple days to do it. So I called up my friend and I said, “Those astronaut sunglasses that you’ve got, please, could you send me a pair? I’ll get them made. I’ve got two months to get them made. But I’ve got to get an ad done in a couple days.”

He sends me the pair. I photograph it real quick, wrote a real quick ad, ran it in this insert. It was the bestselling product not only in the insert but that we’ve ever had. It was selling like crazy. So I saw that, and then I started running print ads. Just to give you an idea how much we sold, I sold about 100,000 pairs from the print ads we ran, which was like six months.

I discovered infomercials. President Reagan just allowed the FCC or FTC to allow those. So I did an infomercial. I had never done one before, never been on TV before. But I thought this would be a really good TV ad. Everybody thought I was nuts. It was just a pair of sunglasses. How could you spend a half hour selling a pair of sunglasses?

People don’t realize that television is an entertainment media. If you can entertain your customers, they’ll keep watching. So we created this infomercial. Remember I said we sold 100,000 pair in six months. Well, with this new infomercial, we were selling 300,000 pair in one month.

Andrew: Wow.

Joe: 300,000 pair in one month, primarily from TV. So I went from selling electronics to all of a sudden my focus was totally not on BluBlocker sunglasses. I’ve built that up so we’ve sold 20 million pair. I earned enough money to buy that beautiful facility in Maui. That’s really a funny story because I just recently sold it.

Andrew: Yeah.

Joe: I just recently sold it. I had it for about 22 years.

Andrew: What was the funny story, acquiring it or selling it?

Joe: Well, I guess acquiring it was easy because I had the money from my BluBlocker experience. How I discovered it is interesting too, really an example of karma. We were selling BluBlockers, and I get this letter from this lady in Maui and it says, “Dear Mr. Sugarman, I just want you to know that I was looking so forward to getting your sunglasses, but what happened is the UPS guy delivered them to my front porch and my dog chewed them up. Could you please replace them?” And of course we replaced them. We took the garbage that she sent.

She was so impressed. She says, “I can’t begin to tell you how I’m impressed with your service and how good you are and how nicely you handled my request.” So she says, “Please let me know if there’s any way I can help you.” I said, “We were going to come to Maui to do a shoot. You’d be perfect for that shoot.” She said, “Okay. I work at the Four Seasons hotel, but why don’t you come out to my property where I’m babysitting, so to speak, and it’s beautiful out here and we’ll do the interview out here.” So I said, “Okay, fine.”

So I went out to this place called Makena, the town. I look around it’s absolutely drop dead gorgeous, beautiful place. I said, “Who owns this?” She says, “Oh, it’s the Japanese.” “The Japanese?” “Yeah, they bought it, but they’re in trouble right now and they might have to sell it,” because there was a recession taking place in Japan. So I said, “Let me know.” So we did the interview, and then about a month later I get a call. She says, “Yeah, the Japanese want to sell. They’ll give you a really good price.” So I bought it right away.

Andrew: Right there.

Joe: I spent 22 years improving the property and making it even more beautiful than it was back then. That was the story about buying that property.

Andrew: At its height, how much did BluBlocker generate in revenue?

Joe: Oh my goodness. That’s funny, but I never figured it out. We sold 20 million pair. You figure an average of $25 a pair.

Andrew: That’s 20+ million pairs over how long?

Joe: It’s been over . . . We’ve been in business 30 years.

Andrew: I see.

Joe: At the height, of course, we were selling 300,000 pair a month. Now we sell a few thousand, but that’s it.

Andrew: I’ve been looking at some of your ads because people still post them online as I think I might have sent to you or to Debbie. They’re annotating them. They’re studying them. They’re copying them by hand. How do you come up with this stuff? Here’s one you have in your book. It says, “Warning to all Bear fans: The Patriots will solidly beat the Bears and here’s why.” And you kind of bring people in.

Joe: The Bears will solidly beat the other team.

Andrew: Oh, maybe I’m misreading it. But you were basically taking a position saying, “Here’s the team that’s going to win. The one you love is going to love.”

Joe: No, the one you love is going to win.

Andrew: I see. Okay.

Joe: The one you love is going to win. We’re betting that the Bears are going to win and to prove that, we’re going to sell you a computer. If the Bears win, we’re going to cut the price in half and if the Bears lose, we’ll sell it at full price. Well, the Bears won. There was a lineup of people–we had a retail store–there was a literally a lineup of people all the way around the block waiting to pick up their computer that they were getting for 50% off. The funny part about it was that we were making a nice profit on that as well.

Andrew: Yeah. You bought them for $250. You were selling them for $400, which was still much cheaper than people expected. How do you come up with ideas like that?

Joe: Well, first of all, the product came to me because the company was in trouble and they needed to liquidate it. They asked me if I would help them liquidate it.

Andrew: That part I get. The part that I’m amazed at is that you would come up with this creative way to poke people to get their attention with this offer that I don’t know where it comes from. Is it divine inspiration? Is it some other process?

Joe: You mentioned I used to teach a seminar. So what’s the real key? Well, the real key is do what I did. I read every book I could read on copywriting, marketing. I just became an expert in that particular area. When I became that expert, then ideas would flow to me. Another thing too that was interesting too, I used to give seminars for several years. I learned more from the seminars than the students did. I really learned a lot just by teaching what I knew.

So, anyway, the third item is to explore life in its fullest. In other words, if you have an opportunity to do something unusual, go ahead and do it. The more you do, the more things you do, the greater the insight that you can get and more creative you can become.

Andrew: Let me break that down. When you say that you read a lot about advertising, a lot of people read about a topic that they’re fascinated by. Do you have a process for remembering what you read, for organizing it? Is it a notetaking process? Is it some other system you have?

Joe: Not really.

Andrew: No? Okay.

Joe: Not really. Again, if you experience life, if you read all the books, if you just–oh, and another thing is just keep writing, the better you get. I’ve proven that many times, especially with my seminar participants. I have some beautiful examples of their success. The more you write, the more successful you become.

Andrew: You mean rewriting. I read once that you said your first draft would be worse than maybe even some of your students, but you keep rewriting it. Is that what you mean, or do you mean in general write a lot?

Joe: That’s part of the editing process. Yeah. Some of my best ads I wrote once, made a few little corrections and boom, it took off.

Andrew: Okay. So it’s just writing in general. Keep doing a lot of writing and you’ll get better and better at it, and that’s what happened with your students.

Joe: It happened with me. I look at the ads I wrote initially and it’s embarrassing. I point these out to my seminar participants. If you start like this, that’s fine. I’ve had seminar participants–I had this one farmer who sold grapefruits. That was his project. He’d hire an ad agency and they’d do the job for him. He wasn’t really satisfied. He saw my ads and he says, “I want to find out what the real secret is.”

He came to my seminar and he studied. He went back home and he wrote his ad and he sent it to me. He says, “Joe, what do you think?” And I said, “My god, this is terrific. You followed all the principles, go ahead, run it. It should do well.” Well, he did. He ran the ad. It ran for 10 years. He sold thousands of grapefruits. It had made him millions, literally millions. That’s the way it goes.

Andrew: Which of your books is a good first book to read for someone who wants to learn your writing process? Is it “AdWeek Copywriting Manual”?

Joe: That’s a good question.

Andrew: I know you’ve got it up there.

Joe: This is one of the. . .

Andrew: Did I say the “AdWeek Copywriting Manual?” It’s the “AdWeek Copywriting Handbook.”

Joe: Handbook, I’m sorry. Yeah. Okay. So this book, it goes into the all the various points. It’s very, very helpful. And then as an advanced concept, this is called “Triggers.” It’s the psychological triggers that cause a person to buy. They’re very helpful because once you start writing copy and you start picking up some of these psychological triggers, you get motivated to buy.

Andrew: What’s one of those triggers, for example?

Joe: Well, for example, curiosity. You want to build curiosity so when they start reading your ad, they don’t stop until they finish and go to the end.

Andrew: I see.

Joe: They do that by building curiosity.

Andrew: I have an example of your curiosity in action. Here it is. “You’re probably expecting our typical sales pitch, but get ready for a shock. Instead of trying to tell you what a great product the MagicStat Thermostat is, we’re going to tear it apart unmercilessly.” And then you go into, “When we first saw the MagicStat, we took one look at the name and said yuck.” And you just keep going from there. I just have to figure out what else you guys hate with it and why are you spending money on an ad for something you hate? It’s such a well written ad.

Joe: Well, what we did was the company came to us and they said, “We’re doing marginally well, but we’ve got a great product.” And I said, “Okay, if you’ve got a great product and you’re doing marginally well, let me just take a look at it.” They told me the name of it and how it works and all that kind of stuff. I said, “Okay. I’ve got an idea. In order to build a curiosity, I start knocking the product, calling it stupid, calling the name stupid, really blasting the product.”

But I said, “There was one feature I liked and that feature was how easy it was to install.” The big fear that people have when they buy a thermostat is they have to hire an electrician to install it. So I said the greatest feature was how easy it is to install.

Andrew: You don’t even need an electrician. You can do it yourself. The wires are all color coded.

Joe: Right. The red goes to the red. The blue goes to the blue, and you’re in business and you’ll have all the benefits of this product, which are numerous and they’re going to love the benefits. The funniest letter I’ve ever received came from this woman who said, “I read your ad in The Wall Street Journal or whatever it was and I just want you to know I could not stop reading it. I read the whole thing. I was not interested in a thermostat. I am not interested now in a thermostat. You wasted my time to read that ad, but I want you to know how compelling that copy was.” So I really appreciated that. But the point was I made it so you were so curious and one word led to another.

The other thing I have, the other principle I have that’s really important–by the way, all these principles apply to social media and to the internet, all the principles apply and there’s no exception, really. But anyway–where was I going?

Andrew: It was something about the MagicStat maybe and it’s okay if you don’t remember. I don’t remember it either. I know there’s someone listening going, “Andrew, I was about to say,” but I was deep in the conversation.

Joe: We were very successful, by the way, with that MagicStat Thermostat. We sold them for something like 10 years. Then I get a call from the manufacturer. We established a brand name for the product. We established a sales volume. We established everything. I remember what I was going to tell you.

But anyway, then I get a call from the manufacturer and they say, “Joe, I want to let you know that from now on, Honeywell has bought our company for millions of dollars and I just wanted to thank you for all the help.” I look at that and I say, “What the hell? All the work–I created the brand, I created the desire.” I said, “Next time I’m going to create my own brand name.” That led, of course, to BluBlocker.

Andrew: I see.

Joe: The other thing I was going to say too was that you want to create curiosity. You want to have a headline that causes you to read the subheadline. You want to have a subheadline that causes you to read the first sentence in the copy. The first sentence of the copy should be short and brief and everything but should lead you to the second sentence and the third sentence and the fourth sentence. Pretty soon if you get past the second or third paragraph, you’re going to read the whole ad. The goal is to create the curiosity in the beginning of the ad to really get that person to read.

Andrew: I want to ask you about how you said you knew that people didn’t like the name. You knew what people felt about how tough it was to put this thermostat in their house. I want to understand how you understood what was in the customer’s minds. But first, let me do my ad. Actually, Joe, as I do my ad, can you pay attention and then rip into me afterwards as to what I could have done better? I’d love to hear a professional ad writer’s feedback on my ad reading. You up for that?

Joe: Okay. Go ahead. Go for it.

Andrew: Joe, I’ve been doing these ads for a company called Toptal for a long time?

Joe: What is it?

Andrew: It’s called Toptal. I’m telling people if they want to hire developers, they can go to Toptal. Well, there’s someone who I interviewed who knew me for a long time who sat there and said, “I’m not going to follow what Andrew’s saying.” For a long time he did not believe for some reason. I do not know why. Instead, Joe, he did 20 interviews, then 30 interviews looking for the perfect developer to hire for his company. Finally he said, “You know? I’m going to listen to what Andrew says. Let’s try it. What do I have to lose?”

So he goes to Toptal. He signs up. They introduce him to 2 developers, not 20 or 30. They say, “Here are two developers.” He talks to one, he’s great. He talks to the other, he’s amazing. He hires the second developer. His CTO, the guy who’s in charge of managing the code at the site says, “This guy is so good, he can do my job.” And now, Derek Johnson, who signed up for Toptal has hired the developer from Toptal for more than full-time, and the two of them are working together and continuing to produce great products.

If anyone out there is listening and wants to try Toptal instead of doing all these interviews and hire the best of the best, go to Toptal.com. Well, not just Toptal.com, anyone can go to that. But I’m going to give you a special URL where they are giving Mixergy listeners something that they’re not giving anyone else. Really, you can look online, Google all day. You won’t see this.

They’re giving Mixergy listeners 80 hours of developer credit when they pay for their first 80 hours. That’s in addition to a no-risk trial period of up to two weeks. You can’t hire someone with a trial period of up to two weeks. Nowhere else can you get this offer except for Toptal.com/Mixergy. Go sign up and I’m looking forward to talking about you in a future Toptal ad there.

All right, Joe. What do you think?

Joe: One question–you didn’t spell out Toptal. Is it Top Talent or Top. . . how is it spelled?

Andrew: You know what, I should actually make a note to finally do that. You’re right. T-O-P-T-A-L, Top as in top of the mountain, Tal as in talent.

Joe: Okay. That’s a great name if you understand how it’s spelled.

Andrew: Right. Otherwise it might sound like Top Towel or something and what does a towel have to do with this? Yeah.

Joe: No, that’s good. It’s an interesting story. You listen to it. You follow it. It’s fine. People are going to read that, especially people who are frustrated with the talent they have. You certainly covered that and you saved a lot of time by cutting to the chase.

Andrew: Joe, what do you think of this storytelling thing? I started the interview with a story and then I look down at the time and I say, “I’m two minutes into this interview already and all I did was talk. Nobody needs a story for two minutes. I should do a one-sentence description of who Joseph Sugarman is and just move on.” But I went with a story because it felt right. I noticed your first response came in the form of a story. Why are stories so effective, and are they worth the extra time that people are going to have to invest to listen to them?

Joe: Absolutely. That’s probably one of the strongest triggers that we have and that is storytelling. I was once asked to spend an hour talking about storytelling. I said, “How can I spend an hour talking about storytelling?” So, I started looking over some of the ads that I had written and my goodness, most of those ads were fabulous successes. The one for BluBlocker, I tell the story of how I discovered it. There are a few other stories that I tell.

So storytelling, why is storytelling so great? People get kind of hooked. They start reading it and they’re curious and they keep reading it and keep reading it. Storytelling is very, very powerful. If you can tell a story around your product or service or how you discovered the product, that’s what we do with BluBlocker. How did I discover BluBlockers? How did I feel when I put them on?

Andrew: Why does someone care about–I know I do, but I don’t know why I care. Why do I care about how you discovered the BluBlocker sunglasses? Why should we, when we’re creating a product and then selling it, if it’s software, tell people how they came up with this? Why do they care? Don’t they care about the result that it’s going to deliver for them?

Joe: Yeah. But it was a story. I don’t think I could have sold it without putting in that story. You’ve got to remember too, I wrote that ad within a day or so after I received the pair. I took a photograph of it and ran it. It shows the point that I wanted to make before was you’re going along doing what you think you should be doing and all of a sudden you’re going 90 degrees in a different direction and that’s where you make your success. Well, I was in electronics. I wasn’t in sunglasses. I used that as a turning point. I didn’t do electronics. BluBlocker sunglasses, that was my total focus.

Andrew: I find the reason an origin story matters–I try to get my interviewees to tell it–it gets the person who’s listening to care about the person who’s going to be talking about selling and explaining, that if we don’t care about them, we’re not going to care about what they say.

Joe: That’s a good point. Greed plays a big role. If somebody you dislike offers something that’s too irresistible, it’s hard to say no. But I agree. I think you want to come across as being likeable. Of course that applies to the internet as well. One of the things that’s one of my triggers is honesty. The more honest you are, the more happy people will be to deal with you. I found that to be true. There were a lot of times–the thermostat ad was a good example. I was very honest about it. I was very honest about how bad it was. The results were fantastic.

Andrew: I do find that it’s disarming to see you put down the product. It makes me feel like you’re more honest, that you’re giving me a balanced view of the product. Is that why it’s effective?

Joe: Yeah. People trust you. Trust is another issue, another trigger. People absolutely trust you. They feel, “Well, he’s telling us maybe it’s not a good name,” but yeah, that seems like a really interesting product. I’d like to try it.

Andrew: I have a friend who’s now selling his company’s stuff, his software and partnerships with them to Google and Facebook and other companies. I said, “How do you convince them when you guys just got started?” And he said, “Well, one of the things I do is I go in and say, ‘I actually don’t know very much right now. My customers are paying me to learn.'” He finds by admitting that he doesn’t know everything about what he’s about to tell them, it takes away the hammer they want to beat him over the head with and it allows them to accept that the rest of what he’s saying is truthful and he’s not coming to pump himself up.

Joe: Absolutely. Good point.

Andrew: I found in software that talking to customers is really important, to understand what they need, to understand how to create it, to understand if they’re following along with the flow of the software, to understand if the ads they’re writing and the landing pages all communicate things that matter to your customer.

I’m wondering back when you were selling the MagicStat, when you were selling those old computers, before you could just reach out and text and email someone, how did you reach out to people like thermostat customer to understand that they don’t like installation, that that was an issue for them, for example?

Joe: Times have really changed. Now what we did was we put all kinds of ads in magazines. We were advertising in just about every magazine you could think–Wall Street Journal, Playboy, you name it. We were in those publications. That’s how we spread the word. Now with the internet, it’s so much easier because first of all, you can test very inexpensively. When we would test, I’d place a small ad in the southwest edition of the Wall Street Journal, which is the smallest edition and the results that I got I used to run the ad or decide to run the ad.

You might not know this, but I am probably the biggest failure you’ll ever interview on your show, primarily because I have failed so many more times. I used to fail nine out of ten times. But it was that one success that I would write the ad for that would just explode my sales. You never knew–direct marketing is very counterintuitive. You never really know what works and what doesn’t until you test it. Bless you.

Andrew: Thanks.

Joe: I’ve had more people allergic to me.

Andrew: I hit the mute button and I sneezed. But how would you understand that people were intimidated by installing a thermostat? How would you understand why someone rejected one of your ads? Would you? Was there a way for you to follow up with them?

Joe: Yeah. Very good point. I knew that because I had run other products that required installation and they bombed.

Andrew: And how did you know that’s why they bombed?

Joe: Because they had all the benefits that I normally put in an ad but it didn’t sell. There are a few exceptions. Let me give one exception that was a great success. We had this ion generator. Not the ion generator–let me talk about something else. The ion generator was a big success. But we had this other product which was a burglar alarm. It required a little bit of installation. It was so difficult to sell.

What we found was something amazing. That was that people would tear out the ad from the magazine and then months later order the product. What was going on? I found out. It turns out that when somebody buys that product, it’s because somebody in the neighborhood was robbed or somebody was affecting their family and they were concerned or something was happening that frightened them. So they had cut it out initially and then they bought from it eventually. That was an interesting insight that I got.

Andrew: I see. So, if you know that, is there a way for you to speed up their purchasing decision or encourage more people to rip out the ad? Is there something you can do with that?

Joe: You can give a sense of urgency, for example. You can bring in greed. If you buy this right now, instead of paying $100, your cost would only be $50. I would say, “Save the product because you never know when somebody in your neighborhood is going to be robbed.” I’d bring that up, the fear factor.

Andrew: I imagine today finding some way of figuring out when there was a burglary in the neighborhood and then mailing the people around that person’s house to say, “There was a burglar here and you might want to buy this to protect yourself.” Today the data is so much more available.

Joe: Very good point. Yeah. Absolutely.

Andrew: Which of your ads were you proudest of that looking back, you feel like, “This is the one that I would like to be remembered for?”

Joe: Wow. I guess BluBlocker would have to stand up pretty tall. But I think the first pocket calculator which led to other electronic–we were the first ones to introduce to the pocket calculator. We were the first ones to introduce the digital watch. We were the first ones to introduce many of these innovations in electronics. It’s hard to say which one was my favorite, but I would say probably BluBlocker only because the sheer volume. It’s like I worked my whole life to reach a point where I was with BluBlocker.

And then the other thing that I’m most proud of is the fact that we really initiated and started the toll-free number. The way that started was we’d get calls for our electronic products on the phone and they were from people who were going on a trip and they couldn’t wait to send in the coupon with their signature and wait for us to ship the product. They said, “Could you just ship it? I’ll give you my credit card number over the phone?” So, we think, “Okay. . .” So, we did that. We accepted them for about six months and we never got ripped off.

Now, it was illegal to take a credit card order over the phone. The credit card companies said, “No, you can’t do that. You’ve got to have a signature of the customer.” I said, “Wait a second. This is such a great opportunity. We’ve got the toll-free number.” I said, “I’m going to put in my ads in the coupon, very small type, ‘Credit card buyers call toll-free.'” I put that in there. We were deluged the first day. We sold out the first day. I had to bring in extra operators, everything to take orders.

So, I kept doing this. My competition, my competitors, I was always friendly with them. They said, “Joe, how are you doing it?” “You wouldn’t believe how we’re doing it.” “I bet you get ripped off a lot.” “You wouldn’t believe how often we get ripped off.” We weren’t getting ripped off at all. We were providing a service that people really appreciated.

Then I get a call from AT&T. They were the people that were selling the toll-free numbers. They said, “Mr. Sugarman?” I said, “Yes.” “We know what you’ve been doing.” I said, “Uh-oh, I’m now in trouble. I’m going to lose my business.” They said, “No, we think what you’re doing is really great. We want to run a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal on what you’re doing and all credit card orders to be taken over the phone because what you’ve done, we’ve followed you and your business just boomed from that.”

Well, they ran this big and pretty soon everybody was using toll-free numbers. Catalogues literally became–it started a whole revolution. The catalogue industry just grew dynamically from that point on. I’m most proud of that because it took guts to do it. I had to break the law, so to speak, to find out. Hey, you never know.

Andrew: You were innovative in a lot of places. You mentioned earlier that you didn’t have any experience with television but you decided not only to create your first infomercial but to also star in it. How did you figure out what to do to make it interesting?

Joe: Well, that’s a good point. I would have–the infomercial was very much entertainment. We used baseball stars. We used personalities, different things. We made it entertaining. As a consequence, people saw that. Now, the one thing we didn’t do–that was we never let anybody look through the lens in the TV show. In other words, like you said, you were so curious what was it like to look through those lenses. You had to buy the pair in order to know. So, we didn’t allow–

Andrew: You didn’t put it on the camera, for example, and let the camera see through the lenses so we could experience it at home.

Joe: Right. Exactly. When I appeared on QVC, they did that once and our sales were terrible. QVC was a big success. That was huge. They stocked up on I think 20,000 pairs of BluBlockers for me to sell. I would get up and they gave me five slots to sell it in. I get up and the first slot, I sold all 20,000 pair. They were blown away. It was one of the most successful promotions in their history. We were on QVC for 20 years. We were in Walgreens for almost 20 years selling at retail. We did very well. It was very successful.

Why did we get off of those? Because we wanted to sell our products through the internet. A good friend of mine, Tony Hsieh from Zappos, did $1 billion a year in selling his shoes just through the internet. I figured, “We can kind of duplicate that.” So we’ve been doing that.

Andrew: How’s that gone for you, the internet?

Joe: Not as big as Tony Hsieh, but we’re happy with it. It keeps our business going and it’s 30 years now, 30 years for BluBlocker.

Andrew: You’re available at resellers online, aren’t you?

Joe: I’m sorry?

Andrew: I thought I could go to Amazon and buy BluBlocker sunglasses, no?

Joe: Yeah. Absolutely. They sell our sunglasses all over the world, actually.

Andrew: I see it here. Let me talk about my second sponsor and then come back and ask you about what you did afterward. My second sponsor is a company called Bench. What they do is organize people’s books. One of my past interviewees, a guy name Patrick McKenzie, was a Japanese salary man when I first met him. He used to go to work and not come back home–actually, he would finish work I think past midnight.

Because of the train system in Japan, he couldn’t even take a train back home by the time he was done. He’d have to find a place to sleep near the office so he could go back home to work. He said, “This is not my life. I’ve got to start my own company.” He did. He started this bingo card creator. Teachers all over the world were using his software, buying his software and then using it to create bingo cards to help their students learn.

He was starting to make money from a lot of different teachers, a lot of different customers. He said that keeping track of revenue and expenses was becoming really painful. He couldn’t do it himself, so he asked his virtual assistant to do it for him because he’s a guy who likes to delegate. His virtual assistant did it, but then he realized you know what? This person is good but one little error, one digit being off could end up costing him a whole lot of pain and a whole lot of money because he’d get his taxes wrong.

The guy is living in a different country. He’s an American living in Japan. He didn’t want to make any mistakes. He wanted to get a good sense of where his business was month to month. He could have hired a bookkeeper, but the problem with a bookkeeper is you’ve got one pair of eyes, one person looking at it. If that person happens to take off because they’re sick or they have other projects they want to do, you have zero bookkeepers.

He wrote this long blog post about how he decided to switch to Bench. He wanted to give it a shot. He said this is an honest to god human bookkeeping system that manages your books using humans with software to help the humans but they’re real people keeping track of it. They did such a good job that he started talking about them just to tell the rest of the entrepreneurial world how effective they were for him.

Now what he got was books that were organized that could tell him where his business was month to month and without having to go home every night wondering whether he’s unaware of where his businesses, whether he’s spending money where he shouldn’t, whether he’s spending more money than he thinks he is or whether he’s going to have tax issues at the end of the year.

If you’re listening to me and you’re an entrepreneur, you’re running your own business, you owe it to yourself to talk to Bench because they will help you organize your books better than you could because you’re running your company better than a virtual assistant could because they’re pros at it, better than an individual bookkeeper because they have a team of people and they have the software to make sure their team does the job right.

Well, as you know, here with me on Mixergy if you’re listening to me, they’re going to give you a deep discount off of their price to encourage you to sign up and frankly because they want to know how many Mixergy people are signing up to figure out whether the ad here is effective for them. So, they’ve got a special URL where they can keep track of how well I’m doing for them and where they can give you a discount.

Here’s the URL. If you go to Bench.co/Mixergy, they are going to give you a discount, Bench.co/Mixergy. They’ll give you a Mixergy exclusive and you’ll see it right there on the page. I’m really grateful to them for sponsoring.

Joe, did you then–you’ve said that you’ve failed a lot–did you then–what’s that?

Joe: This is a Batman credit card.

Andrew: Are you giving me your credit card number?

Joe: It’s listed as this is 50 years old. It’s a collectible. I created this for the “Batman” show back 50 years ago. It’s a long story. It’s in my book. I still have quite a few of these left, and I’m happy to share this with your audience.

Andrew: There it is right on your screen now.

Joe: If you want, you can send me a stamped, self-addressed envelope and everybody that does, I will send them a Batman card.

Andrew: If I take an envelope, write my address on the to line, put a stamp on it and then put that in another envelope and mail it to you, you’ll use my envelope to send me that card.

Joe: You can check with eBay, sometimes this thing is worth $30 to $50.

Andrew: Why are you doing this? Why are you giving this away for free?

Joe: I get great joy doing that. I have so much fun at restaurants. You ask them,” What do you take?” “We take all of the credit cards.” I put it upside down, they walk away. You watch them walk away and all of a sudden they turn around and it’s so funny. I have a lot of fun with these and I pass them out to people.

Andrew: What’s the address? Where do we mail for that?

Joe: My office address is 3350 Palms Center Drive and that’s Las Vegas, Nevada, of course, 89103.

Andrew: What are you going to do when someone just pops into your office because they heard your address?

Joe: I’ll give them one. I was involved with this “Batman” show. It’s a long story, but I’ve got thousands of these cards left. One of these days they’re going to be very valuable.

Andrew: One of my past interviewees I think said that entrepreneurship is lonely and that he’s working on his own. Someone showed up at his house. Dane Maxwell, a guy from my audience just flew out to his house said, “I’ll do whatever you need. I’ll help out just so I can learn from you,” and ended up being there. What are you going to be when one of my audience members shows up at your place and says something similar?

Joe: Then I’ll probably fly to Maui.

Andrew: To get away.

Joe: Yeah, you can’t do that because I’m always on the go. I’m either in Maui or I’m here in Las Vegas. Chicago is my hometown. I’ve got family in all these places.

Andrew: Makes sense. Didn’t you also buy a newspaper in Hawaii, in Maui?

Joe: Yeah.

Andrew: You did?

Joe: Yeah, I did.

Andrew: Why’d you buy a newspaper?

Joe: Well, it’s called Maui Weekly. The guy was going out of business who owned it. I read his story and I said, “You know, I could apply these same principles that I taught at my seminar. I could use those principles and make the newspaper really very, very popular.” That’s exactly what I did.

I bought the newspaper. I ran it for seven years. People loved it. They couldn’t wait to get the copy in the mail. Finally, I sold it to the local daily newspaper, the Maui News. They ran it for seven years and then they closed it down. But I enjoyed that. That was a lot of fun. It was probably the best job I had in my life.

Andrew: What’s one thing that you did that helped sell the newspaper? What’s one place where you brought in your copywriting skills? I’m looking for it online right now. I’m trying to find an example.

Joe: What did I put in there? I would write stories about different people. I’d have different columns. The columns were hilarious. So I would be entertaining people. I hired a sales staff to go out and sell. So I offered good value. It was just like running a business. It was very much like running a business.

Andrew: Did you trying to follow up the sunglasses with something else that didn’t work?

Joe: Yes.

Andrew: What was that?

Joe: I had a line of health products, stem cell products that helped your skin, that prevented pain, supported your being. So we did that. Also we grew hair, which was a very interesting concept.

Andrew: Grew hair?

Joe: Grew hair. Unfortunately, our scientist, who was a felon, we didn’t know, really misled us. So we had to drop the line because we were depending on him for the research and for the results, but he didn’t supply it. We lost a couple million dollars on that venture.

Andrew: What did you learn with that? Is it just as easy as do a background check on your people?

Joe: Yeah. The lesson is when we found out that he was a convicted felon, we should have cut our relationship immediately. It would have saved us a fortune and it turns out that there was–the one thing I’ve learned in life is you only deal with really good people. If you suspect somebody as being not right, don’t deal with them.

Andrew: Yeah. Do you find yourself using some of the triggers on people in person or with people in person?

Joe: Well, it depends. I can’t think of an example right now. But I’m sure I have, just from–again, it’s all these failures I’ve had. It’s from these failures that I learn things. I’ve probably used them a lot. I can’t think of anything right now.

Andrew: How do you spend your time now?

Joe: Well, I sold my property in Maui, beautiful property which I had for 22 years. I’ve got another house up for sale. So I’m kind of taking it easy for a while.

Andrew: Why? Why scaling back?

Joe: It’s because like I have one home right on the ocean, because you’re on the ocean you’ve got all that salt spray. There’s so much maintenance involved it’s a constant thing. I go there. I’ll spend two or three weeks and make sure everything gets taken care of and go from there.

Andrew: I see. All right. It’s great to have you on here. I remember “Triggers” is the one that got me interested in you. It was just an eye-catching book cover. I remember feeling helpless in high school and college. I couldn’t communicate well. I couldn’t convince people do anything. I couldn’t even my parents to let me grow my hair a little bit longer.

I got so fascinated by books that taught me how to be more persuasive, the books that almost taught me what felt like magic tricks at the time. You delivered. It was helpful and it was one of those books that stuck with me and I’m glad to have you on here.

Joe: Thank you. You’ve a very good interviewer. You’ve covered just about everything I could think of.

Andrew: I appreciate that. Thanks for being on here. Thanks for sharing your stories. Anyone who wants to should actually just ask for that card. I’ve got the address and if you guys didn’t write it down, just let us know and we’ll add it to the comments. You do have a website, don’t you? Isn’t it JoeSugarman.com.

Joe: I think. It’s BluBlocker.com.

Andrew: BluBlocker.com for sure and of course people can see it on Amazon if they want.

Joe: Yeah. You can always Google. Oh, one last thing before we go–Google, they hired me.

Andrew: They did? To do what?

Joe: This guy, they ran an ad, got the results and then the guy bought my book, “The AdWeek Copywriting Manual,” or whatever. He rewrote the ad and it doubled response. He said, “Joe, we’ve got to have you teach all of our marketing people direct marketing and what you did in your book.” So they hired me. For like three days I did a three-day seminar.

Andrew: To teach the people at Google how to write more effective ads, even people who have incredible stats but they want you to do it for them and teach them?

Joe: Exactly. Like this guy, he doubled his response as a consequence. So, okay.

Andrew: All right. I think that book was “The AdWeek Copywriting Handbook.”

Joe: Handbook. Right.

Andrew: Yeah. All of them available on Kindle, which is my preferred way of reading it and paper, of course. And my two sponsors, which I’m grateful for are the company that will help you hire great developers. It’s called Toptal.com/Mixergy and the second one is a company that will do your books for you. It’s called Bench.co. Thanks, Joe and thank you all for being a part of Mixergy. Bye everyone.

Joe: Thank you.


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