Of Mice and Men: How An Entrepreneurial Tale Became a BookPublished: February 27, 2002 in Knowledge@Wharton
Kyle Harrison came up with the concept of a computer mouse in the shape of a golf driver while sitting in a Dallas bar one day in 1995. While the idea didn’t quite lay dormant – Harrison modeled it in class while he was an MBA student at Wharton a few years later – the oddball mouse didn’t occupy much of Harrison’s time either. At least not until his Wharton roommate, John Lusk, got to thinking they should go into business together.
Lusk and Harrison were Wharton students during the peak of the dot-com boom. Almost everyone in their class wanted to follow the seemingly inevitable road to riches – or at least six-figure starting salaries – that working for dot-coms or their consulting companies assured. But Lusk and Harrison wanted something different, something more entrepreneurial.
Help came from Wharton marketing professor Len Lodish, who lent them $20,000 in seed money to launch the MouseDriver after the two entrepreneurs had introduced the item as part of a class project. Now, three years later, Lusk and Harrison have sold tens of thousands of MouseDrivers, and they recently came back to Wharton to promote the book that tells about their travails, The MouseDriver Chronicles.
As they were starting their company, Lusk and Harrison sent out an on-line newsletter to friends and classmates and kept their own daily diary of what was unfolding. "We [wanted] to have something our grandchildren could read [that told] about what we did," said Lusk, who admitted also that keeping friends and family apprised of their progress could lead to sales of MouseDrivers in the future.
"The newsletter became the mentor and advisor we never had," said Lusk. "It got us our first warehouse. It gave us product ideas. We found sales reps through it. It [provided] consulting opportunities."
What it didn’t do was get them the $10 million in first-year sales they had projected. The two entrepreneurs admitted they were wowed by dot-com dreams and somewhat specious dot-com projections, and they pointed to E-Toys as an example of the times. E-Toys said it only wanted 5%-10% of the $55 billion U.S. children’s products market each year. But, of course, that $3 billion to $5 billion never came the defunct company’s way. "It is all a lot harder than that," said Harrison.
The two persevered, however, and eventually got the upscale retailer Brookstone to bite on their product. Through virtually giving away prototypes of MouseDriver to stores in San Francisco, where the two ended up moving after Wharton, they discovered that the product sold best when placed by the cash register and priced at about $30. "The buyers were going to be high-end impulse gift buyers," Harrison said. "Microsoft Mouse may have more features, but this was the mouse people would give as a gift."
Brookstone bought that sales pitch and sold enough of them around Father’s Day in 2000 to bring Harrison and Lusk their first big check - $26,000. "It lifted our spirits," said Harrison. "We knew we could make it."
In January 2000, about the time they had sold the first MouseDrivers to Brookstone, Lusk and Harrison had also gone to the Professional Golf Association trade show in Orlando. Back then it was still Internet boom time. "We didn’t spend much for our booth. We didn’t have much of a budget," said Lusk. "But next to us was Greens.com, which spent about $500,000 for a booth with two wet bars. We got good overflow from that."
Lusk said they also resorted to "grass roots tactics," like waiting until everyone went home after the first day of the show and replacing all the mice on computers at the booths with MouseDrivers. "We made some people mad, but others liked them and it generated some sales," he said. "We ended up spending $10,000 there and got $20,000 in direct sales."
That was no Microsoft, to be sure, but it was worth the time. The show also gave the entrepreneurs a little comeuppance. They thought they were hot stuff, getting MBAs from Wharton, said Lusk. "But in this industry, there was no premium on an MBA. Some people never heard of Wharton; they just wanted to know if you had a cool product. So we had to suppress that part of our ego and move along."
Yet it was clear that some people indeed thought the MouseDriver was cool. The show and the newsletter generated a little bit of media attention from places like CNN/SI and Golf Digest. That resulted in some placement in high-end catalogues and golf course pro shops. By year’s end, Lusk and Harrison had sold 46,000 MouseDrivers. Their revenue was $538,000 and their gross margin was a whopping 64%. Most of the money went right back into production and marketing.
"We always had a story, which was that we were two guys who decided not to go into a dot-com and instead tried to do a fun product," said Lusk. "But the whole idea was to generate sales, not just publicity."
Still, the publicity didn’t hurt. Inc. Magazine loved the idea and put Lusk and Harrison on their cover in January 2001, just as the dot-com bust was happening. Suddenly, the Wharton guys who eschewed that trail looked pretty hot. Local San Francisco media and some business publications picked up on the story. Then a literary agent called them and said there was a book – and maybe even a movie or TV show in their story.
Despite their skepticism when the literary agent chatted them up in San Francisco – "We ate our lobster bisque and laughed at the idea. We liked the idea of a free lunch," said Lusk – several publishing houses seemed interested. Fortunately, the two had kept their diary and newsletter all along. Those became the basis for The MouseDriver Chronicles. Lusk and Harrison said the movie rights have not been bought, but they have been told there is a possibility for a TV sitcom based around their story.
The latest triumph, such as it is, for the two is that there is now a knockoff of the MouseDriver. A company called E & B Giftwares is selling a less expensive "Golf Club Mouse." Lusk and Harrison have had contact with E & B and even sent company officials signed copies of their book as a sort of nudge that the two know the knockoff is out there.
But, in fact, E & B might be part of the entrepreneurs’ exit strategy. "It may be that the best buyer for the company would be E & B, if we decide to sell," said Harrison.
In any case, the two are looking for other products, but there probably won’t be a MouseDriver II. "We’re not going to be people forever marketing the oddball mouse. No hockey puck mouse. Not every tchotchke (trinket) mouse," said Lusk. "The key is that you have to be passionate about the product. I couldn’t be passionate about being the Sports Mouse Guy.
"It was fun to do this and to do the book," he added. "But not again. We want to stay in business together, though. After all, that is the story everyone would want to write about when we do our next thing."