What a thrill it is to have this website and the YouTube Channel, The Legend of The Sharper Image available to relive the nostalgia of my 18 years at The Sharper Image. Those years were the best years of my career. I can honestly say I am the luckiest person to have had such wonderful opportunities when I joined the company.
I have always felt the highest sense of pride when people ask me where I used to work. The responses from people are always phrases like, “I love The Sharper Image” or they launch into a store of their hands-on experience in one of the stores. This happened all the time during my tenure and it was so extraordinary to sense the customers’ relationship to this extraordinary brand.
My awe of Sharper Image goes back to 1988, a little over a year after the company had its Initial Public Offering listed on the NASDAQ to become a public company. I can still vividly remember my interview with the then CFO Bob Schultz for the position of Manager of SEC Financial Reporting.
With the memorable, confirming handshake, Bob became my mentor and taught me so much about the retail business. In return, I vouched to do a great job for him, for Richard, and for the company with the SEC Financial Reporting. Prior to joining Sharper Image, I worked in public accounting, became a CPA, and worked in the real estate investment syndication business.
The ensuing years were the most invigorating, fun and fulfilling working years of all my career. I’ll quickly recap the roles so I can get to the fun part of sharing my fondest, most impactful experiences working alongside Richard and my colleagues. And, Richard is always to us Richard or RT; not Rick, not Rich.
For ten years, beginning in 1988, I rose through the financial ranks, advancing from Manager of SEC Financial Reporting to Assistant Controller, Controller and then to the huge honor as Chief Financial Officer. In 1999 Richard tapped me to be the President and Chief Operating Officer, what a special role to take on! I felt nervous about the BIG JOB, yet I also felt confident that I had learned our business very well coming through the financial ranks while working with Richard and other senior executives of Sharper Image. Having worked with customer service, supply chain, eCommerce and the quantitative side of merchandising, marketing, creative and advertising. (Remember you can see a lot of special behind the scenes videos in the video section on this site and on YouTube. I loved those videos featuring Richard and Steve Jobs, they are so fun to watch!)
The most impactful skill that Richard has taught me – is the ability to ALWAYS act with the most current information, in both our professional and personal lives. He is masterful at this. Others may interpret Richard’s skill and approach as a person who is always changing his mind. And, of course, he will be changing his mind to stay on course. He would regularly receive new information which was vital for his presentiment, strategic decision-making and especially his artful navigation of choppy waters. Richard always has more current information than most because of who he is. He is always observing, learning, listening and asking questions. He is the most inquisitive person that I have known. I have the impression that his mind is never turned off, even when he’s sleeping.
Great Care with His Team & Family Values
Richard showed great sensitivity to each one of our management teams. He took the time to get to know us individually and put a lot of emphasis and energy into learning what we valued. Family has always been, and is important to Richard, as it is for me.
Richard knew that I didn’t care about golf, mountain biking or other hobbies. He knew my family is the most important thing to me so he always tried to shape my work life in harmony with my family life.
I observed he did this with everyone on our management team. Richard devoted some very valuable time by being an assistant coach on his daughter’s middle school softball team when she was the pitcher. He always managed to be there. His work/life balance always included his family.
Richard, Hard to Get Along with?
There were many times that I was asked, “How can you work with Richard for that long? Isn’t he a difficult boss?”
The answer is Richard was great to work with, and yes, he can be a difficult boss at times (I think that’s the case with most bosses, true for myself as well) if you are not measuring up to his expectations and working at the speed with which RT processes.
Our working relationship was invigorating and rewarding. Richard is meticulous with each decision, his attention to detail is unsurpassed, his ability to spot trends, and his creativity all worked together in his creation and expansion of the Great Americana Brand – The Sharper Image. I experienced over and over, the way Richard would develop his trust in his employees, and then the working relationship would blossom. But, the employee would have to earn his trust through their own diligent conduct and ability to produce results. This is one of the ways he was able to recruit and maintain his loyal and independent, intelligent employees.
Sharper Image Design – Invented Here!
I will always remember the first time I joined our Sharper Image Design team at the remote offices in Marin County, California – the “secret skunkworks” location where the Sharper Image Design team got their creative juices flowing during dynamic sessions with Richard. Burritos were served on paper plates for lunch.
The Sharper Image Design team would spitball ideas for the next generation of our Sharper Image Design proprietary products. Some of these products included the Turbo Groomer, the famous nose hair trimmer; the Sound Soother with an astonishing 30 sounds (the most sounds was 12 before this) and the Ionic Hair Wand (an ionic hairbrush that brings out the shine in your hair). The design team also created the Shower Companion CD Player, a water-resistant CD player that you could hang in your shower! This was revolutionary back in the day, there was nothing else like it. Nothing was too crazy to brainstorm. Richard knew that anything could be made. But, the conversation always came back to reality – what would be the retail price? Can we get 75 points of margin at that retail?
Richard assembled the best group of talents for Sharper Image Design. The team was headed by Chuck Taylor, who is literally a Rocket Scientist from Honeywell, second in command was Andrew Parker, a Stanford educated engineer. We had our own manufacturing experts led by Tom Krysiak, industrial designers, electrical and mechanical engineers, and graphic designers.
We coined the slogan, “Invented Here” for Sharper Image Design products because they were truly invented in Marin County, California, just a quick trip across the Golden Gate Bridge from the corporate office. How cool is that?
Product details such as the color of the LED on the product (blue, or white, or green), the color of the finishing, what type of battery the unit would run on were all important elements for great product design. These key details were all hashed out over burritos by Richard and the team.
Sharper Image Design proprietary products gave us the competitive advantage of exclusive products, reinforce our brand as the leader in cool products, and provided us with the financial benefit of bigger margins.
Bold & Bright Creative for Memorable Product Packaging
Bold, bright, attractive creative was quintessential and synonymous with the Sharper Image products, catalogs, and website. Richard loved this part of the business and pretty much retained all creative control while leveraging on a very talented team of creative directors, photographers, graphic artists, copy-writers and production talents. This creative process also provided for gorgeous product packaging for our Sharper Image Design products, which made for great displays in our stores.
Thrive in the Face of Adversity
Like many retail businesses, there were ups and downs in our business. I recall when it was early in my tenure at Sharper Image, we had a very tough year during one of the recession years. Our first nine months of operations that year had larger losses than we had expected. We needed to come up with a plan to regain sales and profits.
Richard went to trade shows as often as he saw the need to. He would find unusual products and always bring back good stories. One story, he waited to tell us until AFTER the results came. Well, during this down-turned year, Richard went to a tradeshow, doing what he favors to do at trade shows – he made a straight-line dash to the hall where the smaller display booths are. These are not well-known product companies, and they pay less to be in the smaller booths in the less-trafficked halls of the trade show.
Richard could always see the potential of the products from some of these lesser-known companies and he proved it over and over again. (The original Razor Scooter, sold exclusively by Sharper Image in the beginning, was one of them!)
At this trade show, he met a small manufacturer that made his product in his own small factory in Pittsburg, PA. This manufacturer had a Gel In-Sole product that provided cushioning inside shoes. Richard asked the owner about the product specs and the cost per pair if Richard were to order some large quantities.
Shortly after, in a company presentation to all of us, and earlier to our Board of Directors, Richard said persuasively, “It’s 4th quarter, and we have to score!” He pulled the Gel In-Sole out of his jacket pocket and let us know this was the answer. There was a moment of silence.
Then, Richard looked around at the team – he knew we didn’t understand, and we probably looked a little skeptical. Richard said, “This Gel In-Sole will be a great seller. It’s made right here in the USA. We can get adequate stock quickly. It’s at the right retail price and a great margin. Only $19.95 with a 75% margin!
He and Craig, our President at that time, had done a casual survey with visitors in the Sharper Image stores to gauge the interest, at the $19.95 price point. The Gel In-Sole was popular in the casual survey. Well, it turned out, Richard was and is a Marketing prodigy – he was right!
He created the tagline, “Let Your Feet Take a Vacation” and put three inexpensive chairs in each store so customers could sit down and sample the gel sole in their shoes. Then he compensated our salespeople with a spiff for each pair they sold and, voila – we SOLD hundreds of thousands of pairs and made significant margin dollars to shore up the next year. Whew. That was a close one.
What Sells A Product: Sales Headlines and Story Telling!
Richard taught me to appreciate the art and skill of storytelling and sales headlines. To entice a consumer, Richard always uses the approach of emphasizing the benefits and features.
Copy included the answers to questions such as: What does the product offer? How does that matter to the customer? The skills of sales headlines, written product copy, and immersive storytelling were a big part of Richard’s consumer product marketing.
I recall one of our Sharper Image Design/Invented Here products, the Power Tower. The sales headlines were so vivid in describing what the product did, and why the customer would want it.
The product copy featured Richard saying, “How many CDs do you have that are scattered on your bookshelf that you wish were well organized? Here is the Power Tower – you easily put your CDs into each slot of the rotary tower, and with a press of a button, the CDs are brought up to your view, without you having to get down on your hands and knees to retrieve the CDs on the bottom of the rotary.”
Now, that’s a good copy. There are hundreds of cool, powerful sales headlines and copy for our products that were presented in the catalog, online, and in our stores. And, that was just one of our reasons for success.
Need for Speed
So – it’s true, Richard loves airplanes (yes he’s a pilot), motorcycles and various fast cars. Yet, there’s the safety-first side of Richard at the same time. Richard loved his Toyota Siena minivan too.
MENSA – One Last Personal Revelation
When I was a young Controller, I was invited to most of the senior management team meetings and board meetings. I always prided myself on having a good memory and being meticulous with the financial operations.
One time at a meeting with Richard and the then CFO, Richard pointed to a figure and said that it didn’t look quite right. I stared at it for a quick moment and said that I was pretty sure that it was correct. Richard smiled and just said quietly to me to double-check that later and let him know. Of course, right after the meeting I immediately went back to my office and checked on the figure. Sure enough, I was wrong, Richard was right.
He is so sharp with figures and his financial acumen is extraordinary. Of course, Richard could easily run the finances of the Company, but that would not be putting his talents to best use. As I reflect on my working relationship with Richard, I believe the Yin and Yang that made it work so well for 18 years was that Richard enjoyed and excel at the creative process and unrelentless belief in his vision, while I enjoyed and excelled in the execution and quantitative aspects of our business, while believing in his unrelentless vision. It’s a pleasure to work alongside such greatness.
Staying Connected, Years Later
I look forward to the quarterly dinners I still have with Richard and our former CFO Jeff Forgan, who is known for being quite funny. The three of us shared a lot of times together, both good and equally as tough, in the decade that we operated the company.
Richard has maintained the connection with us and continues to participate in these dinners, even a decade after we have moved on. It’s always a good time to be with him– we put up our favorite stock picks, gossip about the celebrities, speculate on real estate, update on our children, and grimace about the political landscape and we drink good wines that Richard brings. Then we Uber home. I hope this goes on and on and on.
I founded and operate the TYW CONSULTANTS LLC, a boutique advisory and consulting firm. We provide executive and board strategic advisory services, as well as consulting services for operations, financial, and full business spectrum that makes a business thrive.
Clients range from public and private-equity-backed companies, family-owned businesses, technology start-ups, and non-profit organizations. Our services to our client companies have been incredibly gratifying. I attribute a huge part of the success of my current professional life to the years of experience I accumulated from being on The Sharper Image executive team.
I appreciate all of the referrals that have come from my colleagues at The Sharper Image. I still live in the San Francisco Bay area with my husband of many years [LoL], while my daughter decided to stay in NYC after she graduated from NYU-Tisch.
(And to those that shared the 10-Year Reunion at Richard’s house, it was fabulous to see all of you – WE are still a great looking group! Looking forward to the next one for our 20-Year Reunion. In the meantime, drop me a line at my email-always a joy to hear from all of you.) firstname.lastname@example.org