For years, Dal LaMagna has tried marketing fads, but failed miserably at everything.
By his own account, the 40-year-old, Brooklyn, N.Y.-born graduate of Harvard's business school has bombed in more than 30 business ventures, including such esoteric enterprises as designer lasagna pans, psychedelic lighting and drive-in discos.
Strangely enough, it took a backside full of splinters to groom Dal LaMagna for success. It turned him into the self-described "Tweezerman," and made him a millionaire.
In 1979, armed with $500 in cash and a handful of credit-card advances, LaMagna started La Pluck Tweezers, a firm selling stainless steel, surgical-quality tweezers at $11 a pair.
Within two years, Tweezerman Inc., LaMagna's corporate persona, was making $180,000 a year in profits. This year, he expects sales of $1.7 million, selling not only tweezers -- he's sold more than 250,000 pairs since 1979 -- but a entire line of quality grooming products to 2,000 beauty distributors and retailers across the country, including Bloomingdales, Neiman-Marcus and Henri Bendel.
Oh yes, the original La Pluck tweezers now sell for $19.
"My tweezers are not for the discount trade," says LaMagna, who sometimes promotes his product by toting around a six-foot wooden replica of his tweezers. "They're precision instruments, and they last a lifetime."
Regular tweezers, which can be bought in any drugstore, sell for $3 to $5. So why is LaMagna successful selling his higher-priced sets?
"It's whatever the market will bear," he says. "I started selling them at $11, and people bought them; then, I upped the price to $15 and people still bought them. So now, I sell them at $19, and guess what?"
LaMagna is, well, plucky. He blew a $3,000 tuition loan from Harvard on the stock market before he ever started classes. But he got his master's degree.
But unlike his classmates, LaMagna was not headed for a corporate job. Instead, he headed for Hollywood and spent four years trying to finance a horror movie. He lost $100,000 in the deal and survived by painting houses and doing odd jobs. "That was a major reality setback," he remembers.
Then a splinter of an idea struck.
"I was sunbathing in the nude on a redwood deck in Venice, Calif.," he recalls. An unfortunate turn left him with a backside full of splinters that no ordinary tweezers could remove. But a pair of stainless steel industrial tweezers worked beautifully.
He obtained a batch of the industrial tweezers, renamed them "Splinter Tweeze" and tried to sell them at lumber yards. "They thought I was a religious fanatic," he says.
When a manicurist friend suggested he redesign the tweezers with blunt edges and sell them as eyebrow instruments, LaMagna was on his way.
He interested a Swiss manufacturer in making the tweezers on the basis of future sales, then sold them himself door-to-door. He sold his entire stock of 100 pairs of tweezers the first week.
LaMagna sold his tweezers almost exclusively to cosmetologists and people in the beauty trade, who, in turn, sold them to their customers.
Advertising then was mostly word-of-mouth, and it remains much the same today.
"Someone buys a pair of my tweezers, they love them, then they tell their friends," says LaMagna, who devotes 20 percent of his budget to advertising. About 50 percent goes back to the business, another 20 percent to overhead and 10 percent is profit.
LaMagna pays himself a straight $50,000 annual salary "to avoid tax problems."
"The way to create a successful business is to take one thing and specialize," says LaMagna. "If you're going to sell chairs, just sell chairs, but sell the best chairs. I believed I was selling the best tweezers available on the market. I took a product and created a company."