Excerpt: 'The Wisdom of Ginsu'

Ed Valenti and Barry Becher are the guys who created the first infomercials with their commercials for products like the "Ginsu knife." But wait there's more! Now the Ginsu guys have written a motivational book called "The Wisdom of Ginsu."

The two draw on their experiences building a business on their wits and breaking all the rules to find lessons for work and life.

And for those who were always wondering, "ginsu" doesn't mean anything, in Japanese or any other language. The two made the word up. And the product was not made in Japan but in Ohio.

To find out more about these two ginsu guys, visit their Web site, www.ginsuguys.com.

Read two chapter excerpts from the book below:

Chapter 4


I'm not sure where the word zig comes from but I think our English partners used it often. It was meant to imply "good move." In business and in life we are all faced with decisions. Forks in the road, so to speak. Just as we always do, you should try to train your mind to look for the zig, the alternate way of doing something. Whether overcoming obstacles or making a decision, many times there are options. You just have to look for them. Our entire careers were, and continue to be, based on looking for the zig. I seriously doubt that if we followed the traditional way of doing business we would have ever come up with Ginsu, let alone be in this business at all. Logic dictated that the television direct response business was all about record offers, not products. Therefore, we should have avoided selling products entirely, especially products such as cookware and painters.

As Mr. Spock of Star Trek said repeatedly, "Logic dictates." Logic dictated that we should have stayed out of the knife business. With so many knife offers on TV and with everyone having a drawerful, how could we make money? We did all of these things and more because we zigged when everyone else said we should have zagged. If you think about your life and the decisions you have made, perhaps there was an opportunity for you that you may have passed up because your thinking was one-dimensional. I believe there are always alternatives. They are, however, not always visible. Learning to think differently will make them appear. It's truly amazing. Try it, it works.

Here's a simplistic story, but the point is well made. I remember my first trip to Disney World. Because I had never been there before, naturally I was intimidated by its vastness and worried about the lines. I remember reading in a book from an expert on the park that the shortest times in lines were possible if you always pick the lines on the right (many rides have two or more lines feeding into a ride). Why? He wrote that for some unknown reason people tend to always go to the left when given a choice of two lines. Therefore, the right line moves faster into the ride. I tried it, and it works. Wow, I thought, what a zig! Here's another really good one.


We were nearing the end of our first year in business and we had pumped up Miracle Painter sales to 20,000 sets per week. We felt enormously successful taking in $200,000 a week. We were on top of the world and only foreseeing better things to come. Then disaster struck: United Parcel Service went on strike!

Now, back in the 1970s, things were a little different than they are today. Actually, they were a lot different. You see, the credit card and 800-number system we are so accustomed to using today were just in their infancy back then. The use of 800 numbers had just started, and most people didn't believe that the call was really free. How could monopoly AT&T (at that time it was the only telephone company in the country) not charge you for a call? "They must be sneaking it into your phone bill somewhere," said my friends. I must admit that I was suspicious, too, until I found out that the call was paid for by the receiving party. However, a great portion of America was suspicious of 800 numbers and wouldn't call one. What's more, most people felt more comfortable calling a local number to order. It gave them the confidence that they would indeed receive the product and that the offer was legitimate. Life sure would have been easier for us if everyone trusted the phone company, but because they didn't, we had to set up local answering services with local phone numbers in every city that we ran our commercials in.

Furthermore, because there was no method of taking credit card orders over the phone, if a person wanted to order a Miracle Painter, he would either have to mail a check or order it COD. In the beginning about 90 percent of the people ordered COD, so our method of shipping was with UPS. United Parcel would (and so would we) add a fee for handling a COD order and attempt delivery of the product three times. If UPS could not deliver it and get the money, the company would return the product to us. Of course, we had to pay UPS for shipping and COD charges even if UPS didn't deliver the product and collect the money. This occurred about 10 percent of the time with the Miracle Painter. After UPS collected the money it still took about three weeks to forward it to us. You can start to see that a lot of our money was constantly held up in transit. We were getting about 20,000 orders a week, so 18,000 were probably CODs, and after three weeks, UPS owed us about $600,000. That's a lot of money now, but back in the 1970s you could practically buy a new Learjet for that kind of money.

So there we were, shipping 90 percent of our orders through UPS and wham, the drivers go on strike with hundreds of thousands of dollars of our product and money stuck in their system. What was even worse was the fact that we no longer had a method of shipping 90 percent of our orders. If the strike went on too long, we would be in serious trouble, perhaps out of business.

Now, you have to remember there was no low-cost alternative to UPS at that time. There was Railway Express and the post office. Oh yes, I think it was about that time some company named FedEx was starting an overnight delivery service, but it was expensive. FedEx charged more to deliver a letter over night than we did for the whole Miracle Painter. Anyway, we had a serious problem on our hands and it was time to look for a zig.

It seemed as though our only alternative was to use the post office. The problem with the post office was that it charged more than UPS for a 1-pound package and postal carriers couldn't accept cash on CODs. The package recipient would have to go get a money order and wait for the postman to show up a second time with his package. If the post office was at an inconvenient location or the person didn't have the time to go and get a money order, we would lose the sale.

Well, it seemed as if we didn't have any choice. We could hold off shipping for a week or two, but then we would have to use the good old U.S. government post office.

Now, in my research to find an alternative method of shipping our product, I understood that I absolutely needed to zig. After many meetings with the post office officials, I determined a number of things. One was that our product weighed 1 pound 3 ounces in its heavy cardboard sleeve. Two, if it weighed less than a pound and we could put together 100 units to the same zip codes, it would qualify for bulk rate shipping. The post office's normal rate was $1.09 per pound. We were paying 90 cents with UPS. If the product weighed 15.99 ounces, it would cost us only 18 cents to ship at the bulk mail rate. This was shaping up to be a good zig!

If there was any way to get our product down to 15.99 ounces, I was going to find it! I immediately called Mickey and Phil (the manufacturers) in England and told them we had to get rid of the sleeve on the product and find something lighter. Realizing that the phenomenal sales of their product could be coming to an end because of the strike, they jumped on a plane and flew over. They tried thinner cardboard. It didn't work! It was too heavy! So they tried even thinner cardboard. Didn't work! Too heavy! So they figured what the hell, let's try paper. Two problems: the paper ripped easily and everything fell out—also, too heavy! We were in serious trouble.

I don't know if it was Mickey, Phil, or me, but one of us suggested a plastic wrap. They went out and had the Miracle Painter wrapped in thick plastic. The next weigh-in was at 16.1 ounces. Was it possible to use even thinner plastic? We only needed an ounce. They went out, and a day later returned with it shrink-wrapped in ultra-thin flimsy plastic.

During this whole time I was constantly going over to my friend's business to weigh the Miracle Painter. My friend Bill was in the business of melting down precious jewelry and separating the contents into gold, silver, platinum, and so on. Bill had the most accurate scales I had ever seen, and he was kind enough to let me use his equipment. I brought to his office the Miracle Painter shrink-wrapped in ultrathin plastic and asked him to weigh it. He said, "Barry, you are a pain in the ass," but here it goes. "It's 15.98 ounces!" he yelled. I grabbed it, gave him a big hug, and ran out of there. Next stop was the post office, where I was hoping it would meet their packing approval. After banging it around a bit they weighed it on three different scales and then gave me a thumbs-up. Yes!

We now had a way to ship the product without UPS. Or so I thought. When I explained to post office personnel that I wanted to ship bulk mail COD they said there was no such thing. We could ship our prepaid orders bulk mail and save 72 cents on every order, but a COD was still a COD and we would have to use the regular system.

Well, I guess we didn't make a full zig out of the scenario, but it counts for half a zig. Well, wait a minute. We still sold about another 300,000 Miracle Painters, and the prepaid to COD ratio changed for the better the more we advertised. It seemed that the more the customers saw our commercial, the more confidence they had that we were indeed legitimate and would ship them the product, so we started to receive a much higher percentage of prepaid orders. We ended up selling about 140,000 additional prepaid orders, so the savings in shipping was about $100,000, which went right to the bottom line. I think that that qualifies for a zig!

We still had a lot of work to do. As two weeks had already gone by, there appeared to be no doubt that we would have to use the post office for CODs. We prepared immediately for the switch over and within days our CODs were going out through the U.S. postal system. A month went by and we were getting our first results from our initial shipment through the post office. The results were dismal. It was apparent that COD delivery by the post office was going to be a failure. If the person wasn't home, the mail carrier would leave one of those little papers saying that the product would be held at the post office for a while and our customer had to go to the post office and pick up the product themselves. It was obvious that the customers weren't doing that about 50 percent of the time. UPS had been delivering more than 90 percent of our CODs! We were suddenly 40 percent of our income. The pressure was unbelievable. I felt like I was holding the whole world over my head, and it sure was getting heavy. Now, I'm the type of person who reads the newspaper from beginning to end every morning, and one morning I was reading an article about the strike, and at the end of the article it said, "...and it looks like the strike will continue east of Chicago." I almost fell out of my chair when I read that. What was this east of Chicago thing? As soon as I got to the office I called the management office at UPS and asked, "What is this East Chicago thing?" They informed me that the strike was only in the eastern region. I asked why on Earth they hadn't told me that before and the reply was, "It wouldn't matter. You would have to bring your product to Chicago for it to be shipped, so we didn't tell you." I was starting to feel that UPS really didn't appreciate our business. In the years to come I would find that that was really an understatement. Here we were, giving them $30,000 to $40,000 a week in business, and UPS didn't even tell us all the details of the strike. Was there a way we could zig in this situation? What if we loaded up trucks with the Miracle Painters and sent them to Chicago? How many would fit in a truck? What would it cost to get that truck to Chicago?

The results were astonishing! We could hire a trucking company, load the truck with Miracle Painters, deliver them to the UPS loading dock in Chicago, and have UPS ship to our customers in Chicago and every state west of Illinois for about the same money it was costing us to ship through the post office. At that time we were getting about 50 percent of our orders from Illinois and the western part of the country, so we had to make this shipping change immediately. Then UPS threw us another curve. UPS said it could give us a Chicago shipper number, but we had to have a local address where the undeliverable painters could be returned. We sure didn't have an office in Chicago, so I relied on the old pals act once again. My friends Lew and Fern, who I had grown up with, had recently moved to Chicago. I called them up and asked them if they would accept the undeliverable product for me in their garage.

They were happy to help and replied, "Sure, why not."

I don't think they or I knew what they were getting into. You see we were selling about 8,000 COD painters a week from Chicago and west of there. UPS delivered about 90 percent, so that means that 10 percent, or 800 units, of product came back to their house every week. After a few weeks Fern called me in a panic, saying, "We have so many painters in my garage that I can barely close the door! Please get them out of here! I feel like I am being attacked by Miracle Painters!"

Now it was the situation in reverse. We had to find a trucker to go to their house, pick up the product, and bring it back to us so we could repack it and ship it out again. Once that was accomplished, our crisis was at least half over. Now that's a zig!

A couple of months later the strike ended and everything returned to normal. At least we thought it did. You see, we decided to meet with K-Tel International (more on this later) about having them sell the Miracle Painter in Europe. So on December 16, 1976, I took an American Airlines flight to Chicago with the intent of catching a connection to Manitoba, Canada, where the K-Tel offices were located. A few days before the flight I had been watching a TV program called "Terror at 30,000 Feet" in which an elderly police officer is escorting a prisoner on a flight. The detective in the film starts getting pains in his left arm and suffers a massive heart attack, and the convict takes over the plane. Now here I am at 30,000 feet and I start to get strange feelings in my left arm. I was 35 years old at the time and I figured I couldn't be having a heart attack, but I panicked a little because I had just seen that movie. It's a good thing I did panic. I told the flight attendant of my problem and she quickly made an announcement asking if there was a doctor on board. There wasn't, but a nurse showed up and was concerned about me. They asked if I thought I could continue on to Chicago and I felt that I could. When we landed in Chicago an EMT squad immediately got on the plane and started all sorts of medical procedures including performing an EKG, taking my blood pressure, and even starting an IV. Now I was really getting concerned. As the male passengers were getting off the plane they were looking at me as if I was a freak. The females had sympathy and concern in their eyes. They took me by ambulance to Resurrection Hospital, which served O'Hare Airport, and I ended up in intensive care with a heart attack. My day trip to Manitoba turned into a seven-day hospital stay in Chicago.

Let me tell you, that was an eye-opener. I previously told you that I felt that I was holding the whole world over my head during our time of crisis. Well, after the strike ended I still felt that way, but I guess I thought it was okay to wipe the sweat off my brow. When I did that, the whole world came crashing down on me and I had the heart attack. Ed and I had been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day in our offices. That day was the last time I ever smoked anything, and within a year Ed had quit also.

Now it was time for another zig. Within four weeks I was back at the grind brainstorming our next product with the guys and doing all the other things necessary to ensure the success of the company. As I write this I am 63 years old, so I guess the zigs I made over the last 28 years were good ones.

It's difficult to teach people to zig. Hopefully this story will serve as inspiration for you to start thinking in the same way we do. Don't be thrown off your game when others zag. Concentrate on the situation and find a good zig to get you through. We have said and will say again throughout this book about the importance of training your mind to think differently. Picking a man to demonstrate the Miracle Painter in a tuxedo instead of just a regular guy on a ladder is a good zig, picking a Japanese name for a knife that came from Ohio is a good zig.

Think you can't think this way? Think again. Just resist going down the traditional road. No matter how crazy it sounds at first, keep doing it over and over again on everything you do. Eventually it will be second nature to you and you will have learned to zig. So, remember: Don't always follow the crowd; follow your own instincts and unique way of doing things. Experiment, diversify, dare to take calculated risks on a regular basis. In other words, "always zig when other people zag."

Chapter 9

Get Back to Them, or They'll Get Someone Else


Want a great way to increase business, get promoted, be successful, and have everyone say how great you are? Drumroll please…. Return your phone calls! Think about it for a minute: don't you just hate it when people don't return your calls? It works both ways. Most people get very agitated, if not offended, when you don't return their calls. It's crazy, but we now accept that it will take two or three calls before we get one in return, and we can't stop talking about how nice someone is when he or she returns our first call. How many people reading this book have started a telephone conversation with someone who calls back quickly, saying, appreciatively, "Thanks for calling me back"? When you think about it, why should we be thanking someone for performing the most basic of business courtesies? I wonder what our life would have been like if we didn't return the call from the (Quikut) Ginsu factory? Perhaps someone else would be writing this book.

Don't return your calls and you'll never know if you missed that big deal or opportunity that could have changed your life. That important call could be right there on hold, and you are blowing it off by telling your receptionist or secretary, "Put them in voice mail." If you are that good to be able to know which calls are important and which ones are not, then you should be in Las Vegas instead of reading this book on how to improve your life. For every phone call you return promptly, you create an ambassador of goodwill … for you! For every call you blow off, who knows?

Now perhaps you are one of those people who doesn't return phone calls because you have nothing to say. Nothing has changed since the last time you spoke and you still have no answer to give the person who is calling. No decision has been made yet, so why call back or take the call? Good strategy, right? Wrong. Why? Because it's unprofessional and could come back to bite you in the butt someday. What could be easier and have more of an effect in creating an advocate for you than saying, "I still don't have an answer, but check back with me in a couple of weeks" (in the case of a vendor) or "I'll get back to you as soon as I have the answer" (in the case of a client). That 30-second call leaves the caller with the lasting impression that you are a thoughtful, courteous, and efficient person to take the time and make the effort to update him. How do you know what role that person will have on your life in the future? You don't. Perhaps he will someday be in a position to give you or your son or daughter a job. Or maybe you'll need a favor someday. Treat all these people as if they will be back in your life someday and will help you. You will be amazed at how fast the word will travel about you and how much your career or business will benefit from this small change, even though you may never hear directly what other people are saying about you in a positive way.

With regard to customer service, have you noticed how much things have deteriorated? It seems that no one cares about business anymore. People are generally rude and lazy, and try to make you think they are doing you a favor just taking your money. Is that the sound of opportunity knocking? You bet it is, so answer the door! Just do the opposite. Be polite, work hard, and treat people right and you'll be amazed at how quickly your career or business is "fast tracked." We have become so accustomed to bad service that it now shrouds itself as routine. We just don't expect anything more. Is it any wonder that when someone goes above and beyond the call of duty, we just cannot stop talking about him? Has he gone above and beyond? No! Years ago, that was the level of service everyone expected, and got. In the movie "Back to the Future," remember the scene when a car drives up to the Texaco station and four men come out in uniforms to fill the tank, wash the windshield, check the air in the tires, and more? Now that was service!

We have been in a downward slope ever since. Here are a few examples of service and people that Ed and I have dubbed "What the hell were you thinking?"


In the ad business, some salespeople show up late for appointments and don't apologize. They leave money on the table by not understanding the art of negotiation or simply not caring. I've said to many salespeople, "I'm sorry. I can't give you any money on this media buy."

Many have responded with, "Oh, okay, perhaps next time." I can't tell you how many times I just wanted to grab them firmly but gently by the shoulders and say, "Ask me why you didn't get the order, please just ask me why. I want to negotiate. Talk to me. Don't you want to make this sale?"

I remember recently going to my favorite hotel in Disney World. When the taxi pulled up, no one was around to take my bags. I carried my own bags in and asked the person at the registration desk where all the wonderful young and polite bellman had gone.

He replied, "All of the great bellman were promoted to managers and now we can't find anyone to replace them. We have little to pick from now."

No wonder even just "good" customer service stands out so much in the 21st century.

Back to the ad business. Very often, the people who work at these various stations and networks don't even return their phone calls. Sometimes when we are looking to spend money we can't even find the sales rep. It might take two or three calls from us for her to call us back. I was trying to reach a representative once on an urgent matter regarding a radio schedule I had booked with her. Because she was out of the office, in desperation I called her cell phone all day to no avail. When she finally returned my call the next day, I said, "Where have you been? I called your cell phone all day yesterday."

She said, "Oh, I never answer my cell phone."

Oh. I see. What a unique and senseless way to waste money and, at the same time, prevent people from giving you more money. Unfortunately, this is a true story. Now, I don't want to give the ad business a black eye, because the majority of the sales representatives I know are hardworking and conscientious. But a few of them, as I like to say, "Don't get it!" Perhaps they should double click the refresh icon on the way they think!

People ask me all the time, "Why is your business so successful when many in your industry are failing?" Simple, I do the basics: return phone calls. Always work in the best interest of my clients. Make my clients and customers feel special. I under-promise and overdeliver. I tell them how much I appreciate their business, and mean it. It's like the cartoon I once read. A salesman goes into a client's office with a big sign that says, "We want your business and we'll kiss your ass to get it." Now, that's the way to get business!

Thanks to the people who don't get it yet! Just think, if they didn't exist, it would be even more difficult to make money than it already is. Not returning phone calls is as silly as what some companies do unwittingly to torture their consumers. They use a voice-mail receptionist that leads to voice mail for departments that leads to voice mail for individuals. Even the voice mail has voice mail!

"Hi, Ima Unareachable's voice mail is full, if you'd like to leave a message, you can do so in our company's general mailbox." Ever try to reach a living person at one of these companies? How about retail stores? Same thing. Why don't they just say, "Hi, we don't have anyone who can talk to you right now, so if you drive all the way down to our store, we'll be happy to tell you we don't have that in stock."

What's next, will bad customer service be available in all languages? "Hi, if you would like bad service in English, press 1; bad service in Spanish, press 2."

What these companies seem to be saying is, "We'd rather find a new customer than hang on to an old one." Which is really no different than saying, "I'd rather buy a new engine than change the oil in this one!"

Take my most recent encounter with a famous-name super hardware store. I wanted to buy a fence for my yard. I made an appointment for the installer to come over one day between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. No show. I called to complain, and after 20 minutes of voice-mail hell, I was promised a return phone call with a reason why the installer was a no-show. Nothing. Called again, nothing. Called again, nothing. They made me feel like I was Yasser Arafat waiting for Ariel Sharon to invite me over for dinner!

They didn't get back to me, so I got someone else. Not only did their competitor show up on time, but they sold me a fence and now have all of my business.

Now I don't want to pick on these giant hardware superstores, because I'm sure the majority of their workers are hardworking and conscientious, but what is going on here? Where has all the customer service gone? Is there some new subliminal mantra being played in the store's music system that is saying, "Screw the customer; we'll get new ones"? Makes you wonder.

Hey, why should I have to work that hard to give my money away? Never forget this if you are in a client/service business. Your job is to give service, not receive it.

Do you have any calls you haven't returned over the last several months? Call them all today and apologize for not calling sooner. Don't prioritize them, don't rule any out, and don't make any judgments. If you don't finish them all today, cross off the ones you make and finish the rest tomorrow. Or e-mail them some response to "keep the ball rolling."

"But I don't have the time!" you say.

Are you kidding? How can you be too busy to take advantage of a call that could literally change your life? How do you know which one it is? You don't. What you can be sure of is that if you don't return your phone calls, you are decreasing the odds of good things happening to and for you. And can you really afford to lessen your chances for success, when other people are increasing theirs?

Nothing you ever do in business is easier to do and has a better chance for success than returning phone calls—promptly. It's a great way to increase business.

So, is it any wonder that returning phone calls (and e-mails) is both the easiest way to keep your clients happy and discover new ones? And if you're in the client-service business and don't return phone calls, you're dead.

Who would be dumb enough to do that? Many companies whose bread and butter is customer service do it constantly. Do it right and you'll set yourself apart from competitors and other people as being organized, smart, responsive, helpful, kind, and caring simply because the majority of us are "too busy" for what used to be simple, automatic courtesy.

So, here's the deal and the rule we live by. Do what everybody is not doing. Provide really good customer service in a time when it's rare (and everybody is begging for it) and you will be a leader in your industry.

Think something as simple as not returning a phone call can't be expensive. Listen to this:

When we first wanted to do a possible nonstick cookware offer, we naturally contacted as many pots and pans manufacturers as we could find. Mirro Aluminum, the largest manufacturer of cookware in the United States at the time, got back to us quickly and suggested that it send a company representative to meet with us and discuss our needs. Mirro Aluminum followed up right away, and within days we were having serious discussions. Believe it or not, some of the other companies didn't even return our calls. They were too busy trying to sell their products to K-Mart and other outlets, or didn't take us seriously. What did it cost them because they didn't get back to us? Well, let's see, we sold about 3 million sets of cookware for about $80 million. We paid somewhere in the vicinity of $30 million to $35 million for all of our cookware sets.

Remember, it's up to you to be responsive and follow up with folks who are trying to give you money, and you never know which phone call that's going to be. If someone calls you, whether you know who it is or what he wants or not, "get back to them, or they'll get someone else."