Nothing on But Infomercials? Don’t Change the Channel
With DingmanTV, Student Entrepreneurs Follow in the Steps of Billy Mays, Shamwow Guy
Cut off from customers, unable to access production facilities or seek out goods and materials for their budding businesses because of the pandemic lockdown, some Terp undergraduate entrepreneurs are turning to that ultimate time-killer: informercials.
No, not by binging on Billy Mays classics or putting a Ronco ad playlist on infinite repeat. They’re making their own would-be entries in the late-night canon as part of a new social media-based outreach project from the University of Maryland’s Dingman Center for Entrepreneurship.
DingmanTV is a socially distanced stand-in for the canceled Terp Marketplace, a student emporium that the center sponsors each semester. The spark was an infomercial assignment from Clinical Professor Oliver Schlake in his “New Venture Practicum” course, which guides students through development of an actual startup company. The results were so amusing that Dingman Center staff had an idea.
“Wouldn’t it be funny if the Dingman Center had a channel, but since we’re the Dingman Center and we love entrepreneurs, there was nothing but informercials, nonstop?” said Megan McPherson, events and marketing manager.
Visible on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, YouTube and elsewhere, DingmanTV is posting new infomercials weekly, beginning last week (so it will be awhile before there’s enough content for a “But wait, there’s more!” marathon).
In that first installment, a young man with an obscure allergy (butterscotch) finds a solution in ModBars, custom-produced protein bars for people with various dietary restrictions. Swim team buddies at Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda created the company several years ago, inspired by co-founder Jeff Su ’21’s tree nut allergy.
“Eighty percent of protein bars out there have tree nuts or were produced in a facility that processes tree nuts, so I could never go for those,” he said. “The other 20% just didn’t taste any good.”
He and another co-founder, Wyatt Talcott ’21, were making hundreds of bars a week in a commercial kitchen in Washington, D.C., and selling many to regulars customers developed using what they call their “Girl Scout strat”—going door to door in their student apartment complex. COVID-19 put a stop to that.
“Now it’s a little difficult to reach people,” Talcott said. “We’re spending this time trying to work on other stuff—improving our packaging for when we do come back, for instance.”
In the infomercial that debuted this week, Sustainable Socialite founder Sarah Lader ’20 addresses the pandemic’s “new normal” head-on. In the clip, she and several customers and friends (each shooting their own clips on smartphones) undergo transformations—from slouchy quarantine wear to decked out in the affordable, “curated, pre-loved fashion” Lader finds and sells.
Inspired by a six-month stint working at a vintage fashion store in Israel, as well as by her observation that in the United States, “vintage fashion is super expensive, and you can’t find quality secondhand stuff without sorting through rubble at a thrift store for eight hours,” Lader has been selling through Instagram and Poshmark and hopes to start her own website soon.
Coronavirus hasn’t entirely shuttered her business; she can still arrange masked, socially distanced sessions for clients with clothes that are quarantined for several days before and after customers try them on to avoid any possibility of virus transmission. And Lader is making the best of her more flexible online study schedule.
“It’s really hard being in school while starting a business on my own,” she said. “I’m using this time to try to rebrand, figure out this whole social media thing and just take a breath and decide where I need to go with my store.”
Entrepreneurship requires the ability to “pivot” when conditions change, said Lottie Byram, Dingman Center venture programs manager, who’s working with students in the ventures class. Finding a way to push through the coronavirus might be the ultimate pivot.
“I’m really proud of these students, because this is a scary and difficult experience,” she said. “College students are just starting to get out in the real world, so having the real world suddenly shut down by a pandemic is really odd—but they’re continuing to hustle and do what they can.”