Added On: Monday, June 29, 2009

Pitch Perfect

Entrepreneur develops products we didn't know we needed


Not long ago, the Infomercial King had a revelation.

A.J. Khubani, the CEO of Telebrands of Fairfield, had spent the morning gently sloughing dead skin from the feet of "The View" co-host Sherri Shepherd with his top-selling PedEgg and demonstrating the virtues of his other as-seen-on-TV products. (Joy Behar wielding the neon green oscillating GoDuster was a sobering vision.)

Though it's been more than 20 years since his company broke into television with his blockbuster Ambervision sunglasses -- "the most amazing breakthrough in vision technology since glasses were invented" -- Khubani had long taken a behind-the-scenes role, seeking out or developing promising products and figuring out how to sell them to the consumer, but leaving the actual pitching to professionals like the bombastic Billy Mays or the urbane Anthony Sullivan.

In an industry on intimate terms with hyperbole, Khubani, 48, walks softly and carries a big Rotato. He is naturally shy, admits to being anxious in social situations, and friends and colleagues describe him as a great listener. But as the 25th anniversary of Telebrands approached, he found himself making the rounds of TV shows to tout his never-knew-you-need-them products.

The day of his appearance on "The View," PedEgg sales at Walgreen's stores doubled. "There's really something to this PR," he marvels.

Son of immigrants
Khubani goes by A.J. because his given name, Ajit, is hard for some people to pronounce. He's the son of Indian immigrants whose families hailed from the region of British India known as Sindh, which became part of Muslim Pakistan when Britain partitioned the subcontinent in August 1947. After the partition, Khubani's grandfather, who had made a modest fortune in real estate and finance, fled across the border with many other Hindus, leaving behind everything but what he could carry.

He lived in a refugee camp for a time, and though he had enough money to establish his family in an apartment in Bombay, now Mumbai, he sank into a severe depression and died penniless, Khubani says. Khubani's father put off an arranged marriage to set up an importing business in Nigeria. When that failed, he returned to India to try exporting; he struggled there, too.

Khubani's father did marry the daughter of fellow Sindhi refugees, and after the birth of their first son, Azad (now Ozzie), he decided to try his luck in America. He sailed east, making business contacts in Hong Kong and Japan, and eventually landed in New York. He took a job as a bookkeeper and got an apartment on the third floor of a walk-up in Union City, but used the contacts he had made in the Far East to begin importing cheap pocket transistor radios into the United States.

Within four years, he was able to buy the apartment building he lived in. His wife and son came over from India and, in 1965, the family, which by then included A.J. and Ashok (now Chuck), moved to a three-bedroom ranch house in Morris County's Lincoln Park.

Khubani got his first job when he was 11, delivering the Paterson Evening News for $10 a week, and he also cut grass and shoveled driveways. "I just liked the idea of making money," he says. He was a gearhead from an early age -- youngest brother Anand (now Andy) says Khubani was a "phenomenal" model maker -- and when he was 12, he had enough money to buy a 70cc Honda motorcycle to tool around the woods near his house. He comparison shopped and found one for $340.

At 16, he started working at the Marriott Hot Shoppes at the Willowbrook Mall, where he earned $2.10 an hour. It was below the minimum wage, but he was told he could collect his share of tips, of which, it turned out, there were "not very many." He cleared tables, cleaned bathrooms, vacuumed the carpet. "I learned a lesson," he remembers. "I just learned how to work hard."

The next year, he got a job delivering pizzas and eventually began managing the restaurant after school and on the weekends. He even thought about putting off college and tried to convince his father to invest in a pizzeria for Khubani to run. "That did not go over very well."

Ensconced in his home office, a high-ceilinged room with carved bookshelves, a fireplace and a towering mantle, Khubani shrugs when asked if he's happy that his father turned him down. "You never know where that could have led."

Like father, like son
While studying business administration at Montclair State University, Khubani also worked in his father's importing business as a bookkeeper. One day, his father showed him a mail-order watch ad and suggested he do something along the same lines.

With $7,600 from his savings, Khubani bought an ad in the National Enquirer for a Walkman-style radio, which his father imported and sold to him on credit. He sold about 2,000 radios, and handled the paperwork and shipping himself, but only broke even.

He tried a few more products and finally hit it big with a pair of massaging slippers. He made $200,000. He was 25.

Khubani also can credit his marriage to the massaging slippers. His parents had been trying to arrange a meeting with an accomplished young woman, who had a master's degree in political science and a promising career as an actress. The problem? She lived in India.

Khubani refused to consider traveling halfway across the globe for a date, but when he started having production problems with the slippers at the factory in Taiwan, his father offered to pay for the trip if he would stop in India to meet Poonam.

Early in the visit, he decided to order some pasta Bolognese at the hotel restaurant and fell deathly sick. For three days, he lay in bed (when he wasn't in the bathroom), and for three days, Poonam stayed by his side (when he wasn't in the bathroom). He fell in love. When her father came to visit him, Khubani asked to marry her, and her mother sent over a photographer. He was still in his sickbed.

Millions from knives
The most promising items, in Khubani's view, are those that exploit everyday aggravations and offer simple, tidy solutions. They need to be easy to manufacture, easy to ship and easy on the wallet -- but with enough markup to keep Khubani and his family in their grand Saddle River mansion, as well as skiing trips, Cancun vacations and private schools.

Alan Oppenheim, the dean of Montclair State's business school, remembers seeing women at restaurants in Asia use hooks to hang their pocketbooks off tables. "It's a great little gadget, and all of a sudden he's making it," Oppenheim says. "I've seen it, but I didn't think to do anything with the idea, but he did. A lot of us would look at it and say, 'I wish I had thought of it.' Well, if it's a good idea, he has."

Khubani first met young pitchman Sullivan in 1994, and when he started his own infomercial production company a few years later, Khubani was one of his first clients.

"What I like about A.J. is that he will weed out," Sullivan says. "It's like someone handing you Justin Timberlake when he was 15 years old. It's being handed something I know I can make work."

In 1986, Khubani sold $11 million worth of folding knives engraved with the Statue of Liberty, which was celebrating its centennial. They sold for $5, and even now, 22 years later, he is reluctant to say how much they cost: "Now, we're getting into margins." (Psst, it was $1.50.)

Business was booming. His wife, some cousins and even his grandfather on his mother's side helped out, packing up parcels for delivery. "He was very happy," Khubani says of his grandfather. "He was happy to be with me, to be at the office. He had a great attitude."

He and Poonam moved out of his parents' house and into a $203,000 home in Wanaque. He sold ultrasonic flea collars and a cycling exerciser, and then happened on Ambervision after going to a shooting range with a friend and realizing how well he could see through the yellow-tinted protective glasses.

The Ambervision glasses were the first product Khubani developed, the first major commercial he launched and the first item he managed to get into retail stores. He sold 15 million pairs.

In 1987, he opened a shipping center in Roanoke, Va., but the family stayed in New Jersey, settling in a 7,000-square-foot house in Franklin Lakes. "When we first moved in and I wanted to get a drink from the kitchen," Khubani says, "it was a long walk."

Almost lost it all
His current home, a peaches-and-cream Tudor-inspired estate on a hilltop, is double the size of his Franklin Lakes home, with a dining room that seats 20 and a double-height den with a 14-foot, roll-down projection screen and fully kitted-out bar. Did we mention the 15 bathrooms?

And he came close to losing it all.

In the mid-'90s, Khubani had invested heavily in the Ab Flex, a bulky abdominal exerciser that retailed for $60. Shortly thereafter, a competitor came out with the Ab Roller and it was an overnight success. Sales of the Ab Flex plummeted, even though Khubani slashed the price to $10.

He scrambled for some hot items and hit on a few, including an Audubon bird clock and a static duster. "When your back is against the wall, you get very creative," he says. In the ยค'90s, he also ran afoul of the Federal Trade Commission because of complaints about merchandise delivery and failure to make refunds. He decided it was cheaper to settle the suits than to fight them. He has paid nearly $900,000 in total, but did not admit any wrongdoing, according to an FTC spokesman.

(The FTC later came calling on an abdominal belt called the Ab Force, saying that the company made false claims about weight loss. An adminstrative law judge agreed, and the FTC filed suit last summer to make Khubani refund the $16 million in sales. That case is still in litigation.)

In 2000, he was forced to file for bankruptcy. His bank sent a foreclosure notice because, even though he had been making payments, the mortgage relied on the financial health of Telebrands. His brother Chuck, who, along with Andy, also are in the direct marketing business, bailed him out with a $2 million loan, but the financial problems took an emotional toll. Khubani fell into depression, couldn't get out of bed in the morning and ended up on anti-depressants and in therapy for a time.

"Everyone hates you when you file for bankruptcy," he says. "You feel like a failure after working so hard to build up your business."

More big sellers
Then God said, let there be light.

Well, not exactly. But the StickUp Bulb, another product Khubani developed, turned into a big seller. Then, a buyer for Bed, Bath and Beyond told one of his employees that the foot product category was "on fire." Khubani mentioned it to his wife, who talked to her pedicurist, who mentioned that some people used a cheese grater on tough calluses.

The PedEgg was born. Since launching the item in September, Telebrands has already shipped about to two million, at $10 a pop.

When he's not curing (or is it contributing to?) American neuroses, Khubani is helping the next generation of American pitchmen do much the same. He's a big contributor to Montclair State University, where he serves on the business school's advisory council, and is chairman of the industrial directors' board of Princeton University's entrepreneurial engineering program.

Khubani had been working with Daniel Nosenchuck, an associate professor in mechanical and aerospace engineering at Princeton, to resolve engineering issues with his products for several years. A few years ago, Nosenchuck invited him to lecture to the class. Now Khubani helps students in the program develop, market and test products. He even flew five students to China to oversee the production of a prototype of one of their brainchilds, a device that would turn a vacuum cleaner to a wet vac. (It didn't test well.)

He also helped to set up Poonam in business, and last year, she financed against her husband's advice, a Bollywood production dubbed the "Rocky" of India. Making a movie is easy, he says, making money off it is not. "An enormous amount of luck is not something I want to invest in."

He and his wife also support the Dwight-Englewood School, where two daughters, 15 and 19, have gone and where his 12-year-old son now attends. The arts center there bears his family's name, and he also gives in quieter ways: After 9/11, he sent a security expert to the school and paid all of the expenses, says Gail Tumulty, secretary to the board of trustrees. "He has a quiet way about him," she says, "almost a shyness about him. He doesn't advertise the things that he does."

Additional insight:
Early mail-order purchases: The Bullworker, a chest-building exerciser, a Ron Popeil Pocket Fisherman ("a good product") and X-ray glasses ("really disappointing").
Education: He has a degree in business administration from Montclair State University, with a concentr


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