Video professor learns marketing lessons well

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John W. Scherer began his career by selling computer clones to mom-and-pop computer dealers in the late 1980s. When no one understood how to use them, he created a $100 million empire as the video professor.
Mr. Scherer began making and selling software tutorials for computers. He celebrates his 20th anniversary this year. The professor has produced 40 titles of computer lessons, including for Microsoft Excel, Word and PowerPoint.
"In 1990 we started selling our product to retailers," he said. "But due to poor shelf placement, we weren't going anywhere and [were] slowly getting broke, so if it wasn't for the TV infomercial, we would have gone out of business."
Mr. Scherer produced his first video infomercial in 1991 with Jeff Conway, star of the movie "Grease" and the television show "Taxi." The professor taught Mr. Conway how to operate a computer within 30 minutes.
"The price of TV time had skyrocketed at that time though, so we had to slow up on that for a few years," he said. "We then advertised direct response within every newspaper in the country, and you know what happened to that ... ."
The professor settled on a marketing strategy of one- to two-minute commercials of Mr. Scherer sitting in front of the camera and giving a lesson. He has never used a teleprompter.
"I truly believe that our success today is from me being sincere," he said. "I am just sitting there and talking from my heart."
Mr. Scherer also began offering and advertising an 800 number where customers could order a free trial product.
"It is a whole one-hour lesson," he said. "Customers just have to pay a shipping fee, and when they call, our operators ask them if they would like to purchase anything additional."
Thus far, the video professor has sold 7 million instructional videos on VHS and CD-ROM with no retail distribution. Recent additions include software titles for online travel and digital photography.
"Our customers were at first people who didn't know anything or very little about computers," he said. "But now, we get people who think they know everything, but quickly realize they don't about things such as Excel."
The video professor shared his success in recent years by becoming involved in charitable causes. He established a $500,000 scholarship fund for the Naperville (IL) Education Foundation in his hometown, which set up an annual athletic scholarship and educational scholarship for students at Naperville Central High School. The award is in honor of his parents, William and Jane Scherer.
Mr. Scherer has donated computers and learning software to organizations such as the Chickasaw Nation Computer Literacy Project, the Salvation Army Giving Tree and the U.S. Peace Corps as well.
His company developed "The Seasons Club," which works with Denver-area charities and also involves projects aimed at America's military. It gave $60,000 to "Alive at 25" to help encourage safe driving, too.
In 2007 the video professor will make new infomercials and a tutorial on online investing.
"We are looking at new things every day to help the consumer," Mr. Scherer said. "We have to get there the quickest, and we have to teach it the best."

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