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STRATEGY

The Ride of His Life

Robert Klick's fifth business wowed Oprah, bowled over Kelly Ripa, and put him cheek by jowl with Russell Crowe. Too bad this amazing celebrity run had to end in work, work, work.
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You might say the idea landed in Robert Klick's lap. While bouncing his then two-year-old daughter Maddi on his knee, Dad noticed something was missing from the pony ride. In full mad-scientist mode, he gutted a rocking horse. Fake fur, toilet paper tubes, and duct tape soon filled his suburban Minneapolis home. Using Maddi--and later, infant son Cameron--for in-house research and development, Klick tweaked his invention for weeks until, voilà , the Po-Knee was foaled.

And the foal had legs. In a rollicking sequence of events, which started last February, Klick has become what he describes as the Forrest Gump of the toy world. He has befriended the president of QVC and partied with Oscar winners and bantered on-air with Oprah--not once but twice. Top toy magnates now seek him out. "It's weird," says Klick. "This thing is a celebrity magnet."

It's also a moneymaker. So far, Klick has sold roughly 14,000 units and grossed $500,000, against a total investment of $110,000. Now he wonders, could the Po-Knee become the next Mr. Potato Head? The windfall might be so great, Klick dreams, that his wife could quit her job, the college fund would be flush, and he'd be free to spend his days tinkering. But for a 39-year-old guy who enjoys bouncing from one business to the next--this is his fifth--the worst thing may be an idea that demands total devotion.

And They're Off!

Klick's story starts in earnest a year ago this month, when he traveled to New York City to attend Toy Fair, the annual industry convention held at the cavernous Javits convention center. In the months before the event, Klick had refined the design, added a neighing sound chip, and lined up a manufacturer in Hong Kong. He had 200 Po-Knees stacked in his home. He also had a provisional patent. The agenda for the trade show was simply to drum up interest, maybe make a couple of deals. His wife, parents, brother, and friends planned to make the trip with him, though several almost bailed when the government raised the terrorist alert to orange for the city days before the show. More problems ensued when the clan arrived to find New York City inundated with 10,000 protesters of the war in Iraq. There were heavily armed military personnel in the streets and cops on every corner. That was followed by a nor'easter, which blanketed Manhattan with two feet of snow. The daily trudge to Javits was miserable. "Three of us had to haul all the Po-Knees through the blizzard," says Klick, "and my banners didn't make it."

One benefit of the weather, however, was that tickets to Live With Regis and Kelly were easy to come by. Hoping to get noticed, the Klicks brought a Po-Knee, which caught the eye of the nine-months-pregnant Kelly Ripa during a break. She promised to show the toy on-air later that week. The Po-Knee's television debut seemed to be at hand. But then Ripa went into labor, and the segment never materialized.

The Clubhouse Turn

Back at Toy Fair, however, Klick was having more luck. A few specialty retailers agreed to sell the Po-Knee, pricing it at $49.99. Though Toys "R" Us wouldn't bite, "all of the old-time buyers loved it," Klick recalls. Then a young licensing representative from Universal Studios stopped by the booth. He'd come to see a man about a horse.

Though Klick "had never even heard of Seabiscuit," plenty of other people had. Hollywood expected the movie, based on the bestseller about a Depression-era racehorse, to be a big hit. But Universal had found few licensees that were right for its prestige picture. Because the story appealed to grandparents--Klick's prime customer base--and because Universal offered him a sweetheart deal, Klick happily signed on as a licensee. As a thank-you, the studio invited him and his wife, Shannon, to Los Angeles for the movie's premiere. The couple walked the red carpet and lived it up at the afterparty. They met Seabiscuit stars Chris Cooper and Jeff Bridges, who autographed a Po-Knee blanket. "I introduced myself to Bridges from one Preston Thomas Tucker to another," says Klick. To date, the licensed line has made up a third of sales.

The Quarter Pole

Walk into Klick's warehouse near the purifying waters of Lake Minnetonka and it's immediately obvious that Po-Knee is a family operation. Bratwurst in the Crock-Pot and Christmas carols on the CD player keep the energy up as various friends and family members wander in and out, offering their help.

Klick had a typical middle-class upbringing. Neither of his parents owned a business, yet they have always supported his oddball ventures (see chart, page 84). "It's hard to have a child who is an entrepreneur," says his mother, Carol, as she labels boxes of toys. "You want them to do well but it can be tough to watch. But who knows, maybe the Po-Knee will rescue us all."

She isn't the only relative helping out. Klick's biggest break came when his sister Nancy, a stay-at-home mom in Colorado, entered him in an invention contest. QVC would select seven inventors to appear on Oprah. The talk-show audience would vote to pick a winner, who would then get to pitch his or her product on the shop-at-home network. "Nancy sent the letter on Wednesday," Klick recalls, "and Saturday morning I was picked up in a limo at O'Hare."

Klick was up against the likes of Mop Flops--slippers that clean the floor--and the Bear Backscratcher, a wall-mounted device for itching tough spots a la Baloo in The Jungle Book. While some of the inventors seemed nervous before the taping, Klick cracked jokes in the green room. A natural performer, he marches in the local St. Patrick's Day parade dressed up as the "Irish Elvis." He has also fronted a series of bands over the years, including a grunge power trio called Milk Gone Bad.

Cameron appears to share his dad's affinity for the limelight, for when Klick brought him on-air for a Po-Knee ride, the toddler's face lit up. A loud "Awww" enveloped the studio and the Po-Knee rode to victory. Rushing to the stage to celebrate with her husband, Shannon "hugged Oprah first," Klick recalls with a laugh. "The baby won it for you," a smiling Winfrey told them afterward.

"The Po-Knee works," says QVC president Darlene Daggett, "because it's nostalgic and makes people smile."

Down the Stretch They Come

At precisely 8 p.m. EST on October 30, 2003--literally moments after Oprah aired on the West Coast--Klick appeared live on QVC. At precisely 8:02:50, the last of 1,200 Po-Knees was sold at $29.82 a pop--the price reduced per QVC, which likes to move as many units per minute as possible. When Klick noted that orders placed after 8:03 would not arrive in time for Christmas, the phones still kept ringing. Viewers placed upward of 3,600 orders during the eight-minute segment, providing Klick with the first large-volume validation of his idea. "The Po-Knee works," says QVC president Darlene Daggett, "because it's nostalgic, family-centric, and makes people smile."

QVC has since had Klick appear a second, and a third, time. And Oprah's producers invited him back a week after he was on QVC to tell her audience what had happened. "I don't think the pope, or even Dr. Phil, has been on Oprah twice in one week," marvels Klick. His follow-up fell on the day that Russell Crowe was a guest. Waiting backstage, Klick chatted with the Oscar winner, himself an expectant father; he regrets not comping the Gladiator.

The Finish Line...

Over five-pound steaks and martinis at Minneapolis's toniest chop house--where a waiter recognizes him as that guy from TV--Klick asks: "What do I need to do to get $5 million in the bank?" Of course, it's far from proven that the Po-Knee will ever be worth that much--though on eBay, bids for the chronically sold-out toy have climbed as high as $250.

Since Oprah, Klick has gotten calls from toy-industry types with game plans for rolling out the Po-Knee. The Magnetic Poetry magnate has become an informal adviser, and the guy who reintroduced pedal cars is hoping to invest. He boasts contacts at Wal-Mart, which is the leading toy retailer in the U.S.

None of the options seems quite right to Klick.

Specialty retailers claim they won't touch the Po-Knee once it hits the mass market, but some potential backers argue that Klick should blow the thing out quickly. One side of him relishes the challenge of creating the next Rubik's Cube, and yet he says he has little interest in the managerial minutia involved in turning an idea into a thriving business. On the other hand, his story seems so central to the success of the toy that it's hard to imagine it in the hands of an outfit like Mattel. If he's going to go it alone, he should probably hire a professional manager soon.

With top licensers already signing deals for next year's holiday season, and Toy Fair just around the corner, Klick feels pressure to move quickly. He's also paranoid about knockoffs: "It's only a matter of time before the Po-Knee becomes the Pho-Knee," he frets. He is trying to step back and absorb the madness, rather than feeding off the adrenaline. "When I was younger, I'd leverage myself like crazy, an entrepreneur on crack," he says, "but with Po-Knee I don't believe my own hype; I'm much more critical. Maybe I'm even holding myself back, hiding in the warehouse waiting for everyone else to say go for it before I make a big move."

"Inventing is fun," he adds, "and I've got so many things up my sleeve that maybe pursuing other ventures is the way to go." Giddyup.

Sidebar: The Assorted Pursuits of a Serial Entrepreneur

A. In the 1980s, Klick builds a successful jewelry kiosk business, which spreads across a dozen malls from Duluth, Minn., to Annapolis, Md.

B. It's 1993, and Klick starts Le Boudoir, a lingerie boutique in St. Cloud, Minn. Neither the shop, nor Klick's mullet, survives.

C. Klick and a buddy then launch a profitable business selling fine art prints.

D. A kit-car hobby turns into a venture, as Klick retrofits Pontiacs with fiberglass bodies (from $5,000 to $25,000) to replicate European sports cars.

Patrick J. Sauer is a staff writer.

Last updated: Feb 1, 2004




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