HISTORY

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america's gadget guy

Much of the success of Richard Thalheimer and The Sharper Image – the $750M, 200 store retail giant he founded in 1977 and led as CEO until 2006 – can be traced to Richard’s preternatural ability to decide what people wanted often before they knew it themselves. This intuitive knack to drive market trends combined an ability to spot products that could produce millions, combined with his lawyer’s precision, a healthy dose of entrepreneurial drive and an eternally playful outlook, converged to give Richard Thalheimer the well deserved title, “America’s Gadget Guy.”

A $69 watch for joggers kick-started it all. Richard bought up the exclusive US distribution rights and convinced legendary ultra-marathoner Walter Stack to appear wearing the watch in a Runner’s World ad. The copy crowed, “The only chronograph that keeps up with the amazing Walt Stack.”

As the orders poured in, Richard was already one step ahead, sourcing similarly unique and useful products for his first mail-order catalog. He described his mission in life as “Picking out these fun toys for grown ups”. The “toys” included the first telephone answering machine and the first hand-held micro-computer. Others, like the Ionic Breeze and Razor scooter (the most popular gift of 2000) anticipated emerging consumer trends. In 1991 the company set up Sharper Image Design to develop and patent its own products.

Throughout, Richard was the face of The Sharper Image appearing in infomercials and on every well-known talk show from Good Morning America to David Letterman. After twenty nine years, Richard Thalheimer left The Sharper Image in 2007. The company continues only online as Sharper Image under new ownership. Today, Richard connects with the inner child in all of us through his online business RichardSolo. He flies his beloved Cessna aircraft and spends precious time with his family. His legacy is substantial and pervasive. Under Richard’s leadership, The Sharper Image revolutionized the way we create, think, live and play and brought new excitement, quality and innovation to the consumer experience. As his former CSO describes it, “He touched everyone in the country.”

70

Richard graduates from Yale in
Psychology and Sociology

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74

Richard passes the California Bar after attending
University of California, Hastings College of the Law

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77

The Birth of The Sharper Image

How did a young attorney from Little Rock, Arkansas turn $500 into an unforgettable retail empire? By selling what he would want to buy, that didn’t yet exist. “America’s Gadget Guy” Richard Thalheimer didn’t just ride market trends, he created them.
History 77 Image

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79

First Sharper Image Catalog Printed,
Featuring New Cordless Phone

History 79 image
The first catalog contained 25 items, including the very first cordless phone, answering machine, and car radar detector. In the first year, sales exceeded half a million dollars, in the second they grew to over $3M. By 1980 the company was a $12M a year well-oiled operation, pushing the boundaries of what was possible in retail. Soon, each issue of the catalog was being mailed to three million people, at a cost of $1.4M per mailing. At that time, roughly 20% of Americans had a credit card and consumers were using a “1-800” number to place orders over the phone.

The catalog itself became a cultural icon and a darling of Hollywood’s A-listers, many of whom were featured in the catalog before they were known. Raving movie fans have spotted The Sharper Image Catalog in The Firm featuring Tom Cruise, When Harry Met Sally with Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan, Snow Dogs with Cuba Gooding Jr. and Sex In the City. Many consumers remember The Sharper Image card used in A View to Kill with James Bond.

81

First Sharper Image Store Opened

In the 1980s stock boom, flashy gadgets and conspicuous consumption were in. “Having the most toys” was the mantra of the new decade. Richard found a way into the hearts of consumers who wanted something new.
The first Sharper Image store, opened at Jackson and Battery Streets in San Francisco in 1981, ushered in a new era of experiential retail. The stores had a distinctive aspirational modern decor and had been devised so that shoppers could, as Richard put it, “touch, feel and play” with the merchandise. Any visit to a Sharper Image store was a uniquely immersive and entertaining experience. It also meant the stores became a destination within the mall that was (unusually) as popular and successful with men as it was with women.

84

US Distribution of Monthly Catalog Begins

Mailing the first Sharper Image catalog in 1979, Richard tapped into a market of newly professional baby boomers who were ready for more. In less than ten years, circulation of the catalog hit 42 million catalogs in 1984, with sales reaching $87 million.
At the time, competitive catalog Hammacher-Schlemmer existed, however it didn’t have the excitement of The Sharper Image. Brookstone was an actual garden and tool catalog that would later copy the “look and feel” of The Sharper Image. Some people say that the “yuppie guys of the 80’s didn’t have their own catalog until Richard gave them one.”

85

Instantly Famous — America’s Gadget Guy Hits Primetime

US distribution of the first Sharper Image monthly catalog began in 1979. Richard tapped into a market of newly professional baby boomers who were ready for more. In less than ten years, circulation of the catalog hit 42 million catalogs in 1984, with sales reaching $87 million.

At the time, competitive catalog Hammacher-Schlemmer existed, however it didn’t have the excitement of The Sharper Image. Brookstone was an actual garden and tool catalog that would later copy the “look and feel” of The Sharper Image. Some people say that the “yuppie guys of the 80’s didn’t have their own catalog until Richard gave them one.”

Hottest Retail Success Story of the 80’s

People loved looking at, touching, feeling and buying unusual gadgets in stores. So much that The Sharper Image became one of the hottest retail success stories of the 1980’s.

By 1985, The Sharper Image was grossing $100M in sales — completely self-funded, with no outside capital or debt. The New Yorker described Richard as the “very model of a major entrepreneur:” Tanned and muscular, deliberate and tenacious, and infallibly gifted at curating ridiculously niche gadgets, like a mini electric fan on a neck chain.

Richard was instantly famous and appeared as a special guest on prime time talk shows, and was regularly seen on evening news broadcasts. So influential is his legacy you can still see parts of his story in media outlets such as Oprah, The Today Show, Good Morning America, ABC’s 20/20, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, Late Night with David Letterman, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Fox News, The Hustle, San Francisco Weekly, Forbes and the Wall Street Journal. For a trip down memory lane, you can see clips on YouTube @thelegendofsharperimage.

Richard pushed the company through a very risky expansion by opening nine stores in 1985 that cost about $5M. The company’s net worth was $2M at the time. If the expansion failed, he knew The Sharper Image would be out of business. But he struck gold again, eventually opening 200 retail locations by 2005. Richard attributes the store’s success to having special products, extraordinary customer service, and special presentation. He focused on hiring and retaining great people. He has always been known for his ability to let his employees bring their talents and creativity to the forefront of the company. He even participated in conference calls with his lead staff every single Monday to listen to their ideas on how to improve the customer experience and increase profits. He was a very active CEO.

87

NASDAQ listing as SHRP

On February 2, 1987, The Sharper Image Corporation became a publicly listed company on the NASDAQ Stock Exchange. (NASDAQ) 

Years later, on April 22, 2002, Richard and several members of his executive team were invited to the New York Stock Exchange to ring the opening bell. 

RT Tracy JF NYC Stock Exchange_2
NASDAQ Opening

91

A Secret Lab? — Sharper Image Design Brand Launches

In its quest for every more unique and innovative products, the company set up a top secret Sharper Image Design Lab in Novato, California. Chuck Taylor, one of the lab’s inventors described it as the place “where the inner child could come out in every man, with gizmos blinking and whirling. The only thing missing were white coats and propeller hats.”

Launched in Novato, California in 1991, this highly successful and secretive product design lab, later dubbed a “Xerox Park for Gadgetry” was an incubator for “Sharper Image Design” labeled products.

The lab started with just a few engineers and designers, but by the mid-nineties there were two dozen employees responsible for 300 plus patents and 100 new products…all the way from the useful to the exotic. Products included the famous fogless shower mirror, the “Sound Soother” white noise machine, and the battery-powered nostril hair trimmer.. The crown jewel of the operation was a noiseless air purifier called the Ionic Breeze. The Sharper Image put all of its resources behind the machine, taking out millions of dollars worth of magazine, newspaper and TV ads. Even with its $229 price tag, it became a smash hit. By the turn of the millenium, the Ionic Breeze was so popular that it made up 45% of sales.

With Richard at the helm each year; an initial entrepreneurial launch with $500 worth of copy paper and a $69 watch, dramatically grew into a company with more than $760M in sales by 2003.

95

No One Will Ever Spend Money on the Internet

When the internet was in its infancy, Richard saw its potential to shorten both purchase time for consumers and costs for retailers. He was quoted in early industry trades as envisioning a linking of phones and websites which he termed “electronic stores.” Yet again, Richard’s prescient ability proved to be true.

When Richard ventured early into the brave new world of e-commerce, dinner table conversations at executive functions and lively strategic planning sessions were filled with debates about selling on the web.

He first pitched the idea of an e-commerce platform to his board of directors in 1995. He was rebuffed and told by one of the Directors, “No one will ever spend money on the internet.”

In 1996, the online division brought in 10 times the amount of sales, compared to just one year earlier. Then, within a 60-day window in late 2006, the volume in dollars doubled; eventually online sales became 30% of the company’s revenues.

One of the exciting moments of the Sharper Image history, was its intersection with Steve Jobs, and his company Next Software. The two companies worked together to develop state of the art digital display options and algorithms for the Sharper Image website.

Online Sales Soar on Sharperimage.com —
Celebrated by Industry

Sharper Image sales were $241M in 1998, with $79M from catalogs and $5M from the web. Within an eight month time frame in 1999, sharperimage.com online sales grew from $7-$31M with Meredith Medland Sasseen as Director of Global Internet Division. That same year, The Sharper Image was named by Catalog Age magazine as one of the “10 Best Catalog Concepts Ever” right alongside big catalog companies like Banana Republic. Richard cultivated loyal employees and friends; in fact, it would be just about 20 years later that Meredith would return to Richard to capture the legacy of Richard and The Sharper Image in a new book and website launched in 2020, as well as a robust YouTube channel (@thelegendofsharperimage) featuring over 300 videos.

99

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse vel ornare diam. Mauris consectetur ut tortor quis rutrum. Pellentesque aliquam, est nec tincidunt pretium, lacus sapien lobortis odio, id hendrerit augue ante a magna. Pellentesque vulputate lacus sit amet dui semper, vel egestas ex eleifend. Proin eu commodo tortor. Vestibulum consectetur sapien sed eros accumsan, quis tincidunt risus vulputate. Sed sapien ipsum, malesuada quis aliquet sit amet, luctus ut mauris. Praesent auctor sed dui vitae tempor. Donec tristique maximus nisi. Praesent vitae pulvinar turpis, non consectetur lacus.

2000

Richard Discovers Razor Scooter and Brings to US

On an outing searching for new products, Richard spotted the Razor scooter at a Chinese toy fair in Hong Kong and brought it to the United States. He negotiated an exclusive 24-month deal and sold a million of them in the first year. It was later heralded as the biggest gift of the year.

Bolstered by the rise of the internet and online sales, the Razor led The Sharper Image to the best performance in its 23-year history. It was no longer just a place for “tech-loving snobs” to buy elitist gadgets. People all over the world were familiar with the brand.

03

$760M Retailer with 200 stores and 4,000 employees

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse vel ornare diam. Mauris consectetur ut tortor quis rutrum. Pellentesque aliquam, est nec tincidunt pretium, lacus sapien lobortis odio, id hendrerit augue ante a magna. Pellentesque vulputate lacus sit amet dui semper, vel egestas ex eleifend. Proin eu commodo tortor. Vestibulum consectetur sapien sed eros accumsan, quis tincidunt risus vulputate. Sed sapien ipsum, malesuada quis aliquet sit amet, luctus ut mauris. Praesent auctor sed dui vitae tempor. Donec tristique maximus nisi. Praesent vitae pulvinar turpis, non consectetur lacus.

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Suspendisse vel ornare diam. Mauris consectetur ut tortor quis rutrum. Pellentesque aliquam, est nec tincidunt pretium, lacus sapien lobortis odio, id hendrerit augue ante a magna. Pellentesque vulputate lacus sit amet dui semper, vel egestas ex eleifend. Proin eu commodo tortor. Vestibulum consectetur sapien sed eros accumsan, quis tincidunt risus vulputate. Sed sapien ipsum, malesuada quis aliquet sit amet, luctus ut mauris. Praesent auctor sed dui vitae tempor. Donec tristique maximus nisi. Praesent vitae pulvinar turpis, non consectetur lacus.

04

Book

Richard Writes His First Book

Creating Your Own Sharper Image

Richard generously shared his business insights in the 2004 business book, “Creating Your Own Sharper Image.” The audio version features Richard’s voice. It is an inspirational and educational read or listen for aspiring entrepreneurs

At the end of 2004, the Sharper Image team was positioned for an encouraging year of rebuilding in 2005. The business was picking up, comparative store sales were improving, and the energy and enthusiasm as a large company, with more than 4,000 employees continued to rise.

05

Surprise! 12% of Company Purchased

In April of 2005 an outside equity fund from New York City, Knightspoint Partners, announced they had bought 12% of the company’s public stock in open market purchases. They preferred representation on the Board of Directors as opposed to engaging in a time consuming proxy fight. If they were not given Board representation in recognition of being the second largest shareholder after Richard, who still owned 21% at that time, they would initiate a proxy contest to win the seats.

They seemed to genuinely want to help The Sharper Image with ideas on how to improve profitability and stock price. Richard felt positive about their influence, and thought that their experience could be of benefit to the board and the company.

Richard didn’t feel that his position was threatened since he was the major shareholder of the company, CEO, Chairman of the Board and handpicked the majority of the Board. Since everyone wanted the stock price to go up, it appeared this could only be a win-win situation.

In June 2005 Richard asked three of the directors to retire from the board, and gave those seats to the new second largest shareholder. All seemed well, and an expensive and distractive proxy fight was avoided.

06

Resign or Be Fired — New Board of Directors

Frictions were developing. Executives did not mesh well with the new Directors, and the new Directors were being too pushy. The new arrangement was not working out. In June of 2006, the board came together to appoint the third board seat to Jerry Levin, who had quite a reputation as CEO at Sunbeam Corporation and Revlon. Later on, it became clear he had ambitions to take control and push Richard out so he could become CEO at Sharper Image. Richard was unaware at the time, but it was clear later on that he and the other new Board members were actively plotting to oust Richard and remodel the company in their own image.

Sharper Image 2

The story goes that Jerry went behind the scenes, solicited Board votes behind Richard’s back, and eventually persuaded a majority of the Board to push him to resign. It was a dramatic and unexpected coup d’état.

On September 12 of 2006, Richard received a formal letter stating, “If you don’t resign immediately, the board will fire you.” His reply was immediate – “Fire me.” He was clear he was not resigning from the company he founded.

Richard’s contract included a firing clause with significant compensation – a $6 million dollar “golden parachute” payment. Jerry Levin was anxious to become CEO, and he persuaded the Board that it was worth paying Richard to leave, in order to clear the path for him to become CEO. Richard was fired a week later.

When Richard came into work the next day to gather his belongings, he found the door to his office locked. His desk, still covered with the emblems of his career, was already occupied by now interim CEO, Jerry Levin.

He was denied access to everything, even access to his collection of Star Wars figures, featuring a full size stormtrooper and C3PO as well as a lifesize Superman. They asked him to show a receipt if he was going to take anything out of the building.

Richard still owned substantial Sharper Image stock which gave him a stake in wanting to see the company succeed. However, he didn’t have great confidence that with Levin’s leadership the company would survive and prosper.

Coincidentally, the very next day, Richard took a trip, flying solo in his Cessna airplane, to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. When asked about that day he said, “I remember flying that day and feeling so free. Imagine; in just one day, I had been relieved of all my commitments, and given all my free time back.”

Being fired was unexpected, but not without its upsides for Richard. At that time, he had recently celebrated the birth of another child and was happy to have his time back. Of course, it was a bittersweet experience. He was losing the business he founded, as well as his work family; but on the other hand, he was getting his free time back, and being given plenty of money to exit gracefully, conveniently and cleanly. He was still on the company’s Board of Directors, and the largest shareholder.

07

The $27 Million Dollar Deal

After Richard was removed as CEO, he attended two more board meetings, and witnessed a lack of understanding of the profit margins made by the Sharper Image Design team.

As the new guard embarked on their misguided strategy, he could only watch in disbelief. Though he was still officially a member of the Board of Directors, it was evident that he had little power to effect change.

On April 9, 2007, while Richard was still on the board, Steven Lightman, who is now the President of Harry & David, became the President and CEO. Things were continuing to get more challenging and decisions were moving further and further away from the cornerstones that The Sharper Image was built upon.That’s when it became clear that there was a movement to get rid of Richard as a Director on the Board. This marked the beginning of a six month long negotiation, over what price they would pay for his remaining shares.

Donald Trump on the Cover of June 2007 Catalog

2007 Trump

                                             

In 2007, NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice was a household name and Donald Trump was becoming a household name across the country.

At the same time, The Sharper Image’s “new image” (six months after Richard left) was ready to launch, with a new merchandising strategy, and a new Father’s Day catalog cover. Jerry Levin and his team chose to work with Donald Trump and promote “Trump Steaks” on the cover of the June 2007 Fathers Day catalog. This was the first catalog cover created by the new Jerry Levin team. 


In Richard’s opinion, it was a poor marketing campaign to use the catalog to promote a package of steaks for $1,000 (too high a price point for Father’s Day), and even worse, the product was not even available in the stores (the catalog is the prime driver of store traffic at Father’s Day, and the cover should promote a popular Father’s Day gift choice).


This unique marketing effort fizzled out after only two months. This was the beginning of the end. Richard was relieved he had just sold his remaining shares in Sharper Image.


The Levin team continued implementing their ill-conceived strategy. They expected that by December of 2007, their new approach would produce positive results, and the all important fourth quarter would see a robust sales and earnings result. Levin bragged he expected the stock price to double by Christmas. Instead, the opposite happened. The holiday sales season was a big disappointment, and as a result, the stock price dropped to just 29 cents a share. It had been $13 just six months before.

07

Donald Trump on the Cover of June 2007 Catalog

In 2007, NBC’s Celebrity Apprentice was a household name and Donald Trump was becoming a household name across the country.

At the same time, The Sharper Image’s “new image” (after Richard left) was ready to launch with a new catalog cover. Jerry Levin and his team chose to work with Donald Trump and promote “Trump Steaks” on the cover of the June 2007 Fathers Day catalog. This was the first catalog cover that the new team was responsible for, and in Richard’s opinion, it was an incredibly poor marketing campaign.

The offer was for a $1,000 steak package for Fathers Day, the biggest retail holiday of the year for Sharper Image outside of Christmas. This was such an unusually high price point for the catalog. More importantly and even more perplexing to Richard, the steaks were not available online or in catalog for purchase, yet the catalog was mailed all over the country to places that did not have Sharper Image stores within a reasonable driving distance.

The unique partnership did not sizzle by any measure, and it actually fizzled out after only two months. This was the moment Richard remembers knowing it was the beginning of the end. And, at that time, he knew he had made a good choice to leave, and he could feel happy about selling his stock.

The Levin team continued implementing their ill-conceived strategy. They expected that by December of 2007, their new approach would produce positive results, and the all important fourth quarter would see a robust sales and earnings result. Levin bragged he expected the stock would double by Christmas. Instead, the opposite happened. The holiday sales season was a big disappointment, and as a result, the stock price dropped to a then-record low of 29 cents a share.

08

Stock Goes to Zero — Bankruptcy Auction for Assets

As a result of this strategic failure, the company was running out of money, and by February 2008, The Sharper Image stock went to zero, and the company declared bankruptcy. In the bankruptcy process, which lasted over six months, they closed 184 stores, and 4,000 people lost their jobs.

Richard vividly remembers the date The Sharper Image filed for protection with the U.S. bankruptcy court in Wilmington, Delaware: February 19, 2008. This was unbelievable, and deeply saddening to hear Richard’s namesake was declaring bankruptcy; on the other hand, it was final confirmation that Levin and company did not know what they were doing.

On February 25, The Sharper Image announced it had received notification that it would be delisted from the NASDAQ exchange.

The investors that bought into Sharper Image did not understand merchandising well enough to come up with innovative, creative ideas. Richard didn’t think the bankruptcy was driven by the economy, he thinks it was driven by the lack of product innovation. Private equity people have often thought that retailing is an easy way to make money, and that smart private equity folks can do it better than anyone. Retailing is a complicated business, and takes experience.

On May 29, 2008, a joint venture led by units of private investment firms Hilco Consumer Capital, Infinity Lifestyle Brands, Gordon Brothers Group and BlueStar Alliance won and acquired the assets of The Sharper Image, paying $49 million plus some contingent recovery for the company’s assets.

To Richard’s credit, when they filed bankruptcy, the bank creditors said the biggest asset was the brand name. The most money was received for the name The Sharper Image, during the bankruptcy auction.

2010-19

Multiple Changes in Ownership

In 2009, Camelot Venture Group secured the rights to operate a new Sharper Image catalog and website, sharperimage.com. In 2011, Iconix Brand Group bought the Sharper Image brand and control of all licensing agreements, while Camelot Venture Group continued to operate the catalog and website.

In 2014, Camelot Venture Group acquired the rights to the consumer-facing division of the brand (catalog and e-commerce) from Iconix Brand Group.

In 2016, ThreeSixty Group, purchased The Sharper Image brand licensing rights from Iconix Brand Group, for $100 million. They continue to grow The Sharper Image brand through the website, increased catalog circulation, and heightened social media presence.

The Sharper Image name is now licensed and used to sell products through third-party retailers, including Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, Office Max, Big 5 Sporting Goods or through the branded website. New products have been created through partnerships with other businesses.

Unfortunately, many consumers have noticed a big difference in quality as well. The Sharper Image name is now licensed and used to sell products through third-party retailers, including Best Buy, Bed Bath & Beyond, Office Max, Big 5 Sporting Goods or through the branded website. New products have been created through partnerships with other businesses.

Richard’s whole experience is still bittersweet. If the new owners had made the stock go to $100, he might have felt they were so much smarter than he was. On the other hand, to see the company go through bankruptcy was very disheartening as the creator and founder. Of course, I was also a friend to many employees whom I had hired over two decades. It was difficult to know they had lost their jobs and their connection to The Sharper Image brand. Mostly, I was hoping my children would grow up and walk past the store and say, “Hey, my dad created that.”

2020

Richard Still Predicting Trends & Active in Business

Richard’s whole experience is still bittersweet. If the new owners had made the stock go to $100, he might have felt they were so much smarter than he was. On the other hand, one can imagine how disheartening it must have been to see the company go through bankruptcy as the creator and founder. Of course, Richard was also a friend to many employees whom he had hired over two decades. When Richard was asked about it he said, “ It was difficult to know so many had lost their jobs and their connection to The Sharper Image brand. And, I was even hoping my children would grow up and walk past the store and say, ‘Hey, my dad created that.”

Today, Richard regularly flies his Cessna 182 airplane, rides his Harley-Davidson Tri Glide, sits on the Board of Trustees for the San Francisco Ballet and engages in family time with his wife, daughters and two dogs.

As it turned out, Richard has had one of the best periods of his life in the 13 years since the firing and leaving The Sharper Image. He has been fortunate to pursue his hobbies, and has really taken to one activity that he’s always enjoyed: investing in the stock market. All of his years in retailing, and evaluating concepts and products, have given him a keen insight into what will succeed and grow, and what will not. As a result, he’s able to “see” what companies will go up in their stock price, and which ones will not. This insight gives him an edge in investing, and that has translated into superior portfolio performance.

He also continues to connect with the inner child in all of us through his lovingly curated online business RichardSolo. He regularly flies his beloved Cessna aircraft, serves on the board of the San Francisco Ballet and engages in lots of family time with his wife, daughters and two dogs.

His legacy to business, retail and humanity is substantial and pervasive. In many ways he revolutionized the way we create, think, live and play and brought new excitement, quality and innovation to the consumer experience. He single-handedly created the upscale gadget market sector.

As his long time Chief Security Officer, Joe Williams describes it, “Virtually everyone on the face of the earth that’s older than thirty knows who he is and knows what his company was. He touched everyone in the country.”

Richard Today

To the Reader from Richard:

Thank you for your connection to The Sharper Image brand, whether it was an experiential moment in one of our stores, fond memories from the catalog, or the pleasure of giving and/or receiving one of our amazing products.

Interview Richard

coming soon!

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