Alumni Interview: Joe Pedott

“I’ve never been shy about taking a risk,” says Joe Pedott, ’55 MEDIA, entrepreneur and owner of such consumer products as the Chia Pet and the Clapper. (Photo by Jay Watson)
The entrepreneur discusses how he turned the Chia Pet into a market success and earned it a spot in the Smithsonian Institute

I can’t say that when I started in business I intended to end up in the Smithsonian Institute, but that’s what happened.

My relationship with the first item that won me entry into the museum—that’s right, first—began in 1977. I owned a successful advertising agency in San Francisco—still do, in fact. I was thinking that the next move for me might involve actually owning a product and controlling the whole process from manufacturing to distribution to marketing. At a housewares convention, I ran into the head of sales of a drugstore chain. I asked him, “What’s your most popular product?” His answer: “the Chia Pet.”

Chia Pet? I had never heard of it, but you couldn’t argue with the sales. The first one I ever saw was very crude—it had scorch marks from the oven, and only three of its legs could touch the surface at once—but I liked it. I called the owner. “Oh, it’s popular,” he agreed, “but I’m losing a dollar on every sale.” Undaunted, I bought the rights and inventory for $25,000.

I discovered that the middleman was pocketing more than his share. Firing him solved the losses. But my big break came one night when I was out drinking with friends. One of them started saying “cha-cha-cha-chia,” like the popular dance. Right away I thought, “That’s the jingle!’’ Once we added that to the ad, they flew off the shelves.

As it happened, the bar we were in was near Michigan Avenue. The convention where I first heard about the Chia Pet also had taken place in Chicago. In fact, a lot of good things happened to me in Chicago. That’s where I started at the University of Illinois at Navy Pier in 1950. There, I partnered up with another fellow to produce a weekly kids’ radio show for the Board of Education called Camping with Nature. That worked so well, we started creating ads together, which we did even after I transferred to UI Champaign. I’d take classes Monday through Thursday, then get into my old Hudson convertible and drive to Chicago, so I could make ads all weekend.

I’ve never been shy about taking a risk.

I’ve never been shy about taking a risk. In one of my early advertising successes, I approached the owner of a supermarket chain who was also selling freezers. I told him that I could produce an ad that would triple his business in two days, and if it didn’t, I would pay for the ad. Well, the ad ran and sales skyrocketed. The trick? A combo deal—sell the freezers already stocked with meat!

One regret I have involves a risk I didn’t take. The original Chia Pets were the ram and the bull. Over the years, we added many more animals and cultural figures like Jerry Garcia and Homer Simpson. In 2008, we got the idea to produce a Chia Barack Obama. I was a big fan of the then-President-elect. The initial reaction was good, and we produced 500,000 of them. We were about to ship them when one vendor wondered if people would think we were mocking the President’s hair. Well, nobody thought so, but if only a few people believed that, it wouldn’t be worth the controversy. Still, somebody managed to get one into the President’s hands. When I met him later, he gave me a big smile and said, “It’s a good replica, but I have green hair!” It was one of the highlights of my life.

A few years ago, the Smithsonian decided to include the Chia Pet in its collection of iconic American products, along with another product I own, the Clapper. Its original name was The Great American Turn-On, but it had one problem—it kept blowing out television sets! I bought it anyway, and got the problem fixed. Then we got to work on a new name. Somebody suggested the Clapper. Some worried that consumers might connect that name with venereal disease. But once again, the jingle—“Clap On! Clap Off!”—settled the discussion.

I’m in the process of selling my companies. I’m going to give the proceeds to three foundations that work with young people. I hope they’ll also pass on some of the lessons I’ve learned after more than 60 years in business: Listen, learn, keep an open mind and don’t be afraid to try.