John Osher: An Entrepreneur Story

Here is a story that warms the heart of businesspundits like myself. It is about a guy who has never applied for a real job – just invented things and sold off companies.

John Osher holds out his battery-powered toothbrush. It's encased in clear plastic as if it has just been pulled from the rack at a drug store. "See, you press it here, and it spins." He demonstrates, and inside the package, the round head whirs like a tiny buzz saw. "We did that so people could try it in the store. It had to have a Try Me feature." Osher and several partners developed the SpinBrush in 1999 and then, in 2001, sold it to Procter & Gamble for $475 million. It was the first low-cost, mass-marketed mechanical toothbrush.

Osher, 56, is a person to whom the overworked term "entrepreneur" actually applies. He has rarely worked for anyone else and never looked for a job. "I wouldn't know how," he says. "I don't even have a business card." Instead, he has made a career out of starting and selling companies—for increasingly large troves of cash. The SpinBrush is among the latest of his inexpensive but ingenious devices. As Osher likes to say, he specializes in devising products not for the rich but for people who shop at Wal-Mart "because there are a lot more of them." Last month, he spent two days at Wharton as an entrepreneur-in-residence, counseling students on how to pursue their dreams of self employment and, if they're lucky, riches.

Osher's own career path zigged and zagged. He jokes that it began, at age 5, in pornography. His parents — Dad was a surgeon; mom, a writer — took a painting course at the local art museum in his hometown of Cincinnati, and the curriculum including painting nudes. At the semester's end, they stashed their works in the attic. Osher charged his friends a nickel each to see them. Later, he sold defective squirt guns for a dime each.

Now he claims to be inventing something just as revolutionary as the SpinBrush (which I personally didn't like that much). The best thing about this story, in my opinion, is that it almost seems like Osher does this for fun instead of money. What a great life.

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