When Your Life Hits Rock Bottom, Dream Up a 'Pet Rock'

As we wind down the year, let's look back (and take inspiration) from 'the greatest entrepreneur of all time.' Plus, 7 other thing worth a click.

Amazon says the hottest selling present is currently a hardcover picture book that came out in 2015. A few months ago, I heard it was going to be gift cards.

It wasn’t always like this, for better or worse. There was a time when a single product could achieve popularity that seemed both cult-like and widespread at the same time.

You know the things I’m talking about: Cabbage Patch Kids, and the original Star Wars toys, and of course … the Pet Rock.

Bibulous inspiration

The year was... well, we are informed only that it was sometime in the "mid-'70s."

A man named Gary Dahl was hanging out in a Northern California bar. The drinkers' talk turned to pets, and Dahl shared that he had the easiest, best pet of all time: a rock.

With such a feat of "bibulous inspiration," as the New York Times described it, Dahl came up with what would become an icon of the decade: the Pet Rock (price: $3.95, which would be about $19.12 today.

The genius was in the packaging. Each Pet Rock came in a cardboard carrying case, complete with air holes, tenderly nestled on a bed of excelsior. …

"If, when you remove the rock from its box it appears to be excited, place it on some old newspapers," the [accompanying] manual read. "The rock will know what the paper is for and will require no further instruction. It will remain on the paper until you remove it."

Pet Rocks hit the marketplace in time for Christmas 1975. … In a matter of months, some 1.5 million rocks were sold.

‘Freelance copywriter’

Dahl became a millionaire almost overnight. For a while, he was held up in America as the greatest entrepreneur of all time.

Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were tinkering in a garage, Bill Gates was setting up shop in New Mexico. Dahl was the one being featured on The Tonight Show and in Time magazine.

It was a real rags to riches thing, too. This was a guy who said his normal occupation (“freelance copywriter”), was just a euphemism for being unemployed.

How unemployed was he?

Fun fact: I’ve written about about Dahl a few times before at Inc.com, but it was only today that I zoomed in on his 1970s packaging and realized he’d named his company “Rock Bottom Productions.”

A mineral that went viral

By the end of the Christmas shopping season in 1975, it was all over. Dahl tried a few other similar products, but he never saw this kind of success again. As the Times summarized:

Though the rock made him wealthy, it also made him wary, for he was besieged ever after by hordes of would-be inventors, seeking his advice on the next big thing.

"There's a bizarre lunatic fringe who feel I owe them a living," Mr. Dahl told The Associated Press in 1988. "Sometimes I look back and wonder if my life wouldn't have been simpler if I hadn't done it."

Still, find me another product that achieves nearly a 1 percent market penetration of the entire United States in just five months. It was like a mineral that went viral, long before social media.

And if you’re looking for a last-minute gift in 2019, hey: why not go a little retro and try a Pet Rock? It comes complete with a fun manual, and a heck of a story.

7 other things worth a click

  1. The guy who designed the original Amazon website says Amazon should be broken up. His reasoning is very interesting. (Vox)

  2. California’s population growth rate is the lowest since the year 1900. (Los Angeles Times)

  3. How car dealers convince people making $660 a month to take on an $809 car payment—and get the loan approved. (The Wall Street Journal)

  4. A secret team at Apple is working on a way to beam the Internet directly to mobile phones (skipping over wireless networks and Internet service providers). (Me, on Inc.)

  5. French executives were convicted after they created a workplace culture so toxic that 35 of their workers committed suicide. (The Washington Post)

  6. A new poll says U.S. employees are the happiest employees in the world. (Statista)

  7. A stolen lobster truck crashed into another stolen lobster truck. Can you guess which city this happened in? (Boing Boing)


Welcome to the hundreds of new subscribers who signed up for Understandably over the weekend. We’re glad to have you! Just a reminder that I’m on a casual schedule until after New Year’s Day. I’ll write when I can, but the holidays are crazy sometimes.

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