Dozens of wanna-be inventors may wait their turn to pitch product ideas in hopes of getting a mogul to invest — but this is no “Shark Tank.”
The deep pockets in question are in the overalls of a oddball entrepreneur named Jonah White, who has made millions marketing schlocky novelty items to the masses. The man behind Billy-Bob Corporation lives on a 1,000-acre ranch with his wife, four kids, and critters domestic and exotic (the latter including camels and a bear), and he invites the public to pitch him their inventions. This quirky family business is the subject of a Discovery Channel special, “Billy Bob’s Gags to Riches,” premiering on Jan. 28, and — move over, “Duck Dynasty” — it just might turn White into the newest backwoods TV star.
“I grew up a very quiet and reclusive person, even living in a cave for a year. But as we know, everything comes full circle and now I don't mind the world seeing my bathroom. Maybe I'm going into a reverse midlife crisis, caveman style,” says White, who, incidentally, doesn’t watch much TV and has never seen “Shark Tank.”
He doesn’t advertise to solicit inventors as “many of them had lots of money stolen from them invention companies that do advertise,” but people manage to find him regardless, traveling to Hardin, Ill., from as far away as Germany, Switzerland and Australia. Not surprisingly, he’s been pitched some pretty bizarre products. “One of the most interesting items was an artificial heart that was anatomically different in shape to a human heart so it could be located in a different region of the body. One lady wanted the Billy Bob Corporation to license out a brand of yogurt that has the consistency of mucus. My wife eats yogurt, and I could not get her to try it,” says White. “Is anything too gross? For me, no, but to be a financially viable product, yes.”
White admits to making his share of mistakes, such as the time 10 years ago when a friend’s brother asked him to invest in an invention, a woman’s high heel shoe with a strut shock absorber in the heel. ”The invention was brilliant. However if you build a house on a rotten foundation, it will fall. In the end this fella stole shamelessly from me and the company, and I lost about $1 million. Lesson learned. I never invest in companies other than my own!”
Reflecting on the popularity of the hillbilly TV genre, White opines, “Television has been dominated by highly professional boring city people — with good agents — for so long. It is refreshing for people to see regular common people who eke out a living and face everyday struggles. I think backwoods country people display this aspect more than almost anyone.”
As for the future of his company, “I don’t want to expand my distribution much more. I already sell to thousands of retail outlets all over the world. However, I love helping people and business development. If you love what you do then you can be content with life,” says White, who expects his offspring to join the company when they’re older. “They are too young to attend trade shows presently, but they are our Billy Bob models on all the packaging that showcase children, especially my Billy Bob pacifiers,” he points out.
Quoting a bit of philosophy from his book, “The Billy Bob Secret to Life," White shares the values he hopes viewers take away from “Gags to Riches”: “Don't sell out what you are to be popular, or anything that isn’t you. I have enough money that I could live anywhere in the world with my family. Instead, I'm raising my kids in the same woods that I walked in barefoot as a boy, in a log cabin that I built with my own two hands. I may have struck it rich like Jed Clampett, but I’ll never move to Beverly Hills! ”
Below, watch a video of White talking about one of his signtuare (and most lucrative inventions) — fake buck teeth.
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