Carlson School of Management News

A True Snake Oil Salesman

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Quick, how would you sell an ear pen to a teacher? How about a broom cannon to a pirate?

What is a broom cannon anyway? And why are pirates your target demographic? The answers to these questions are up to you as you play Snake Oil, a new party card game created by Full-Time MBA student Jeff Ochs.

In Snake Oil, players draw from a deck of 285 noun cards and combine two of them from their hand to form a crazy new product. The potential purchaser is one of 72 wacky customer cards, which range from a clown to a rock star. The player wins if the customer buys the product.

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The original idea for the game came while Ochs and some colleagues were traveling to a national conference in the fall of 2008. They were on an airplane and flipping through a sales catalog to pass the time. "After joking about some of the products, I noticed a pattern developing. A lot of products were combinations of two random nouns, like camera goggles and pet stairs," Ochs says. "My friend and I started playing with random noun combinations to create new products, and we entertained ourselves for the rest of the flight."

After playing with the basic concept on the plane, Ochs friends and family thought there was some potential to the game, but he didn't commit to commercializing it right away. "However, I liked the idea enough to keep playing with it and took it one step at a time," he says.

The game ended up on the back burner as Ochs went to China in 2009 with his wife and began teaching English. "In the fall of 2010, after teaching English for a year, I felt I needed a new challenge to keep me fresh," he says. "So I decided I would actually try and manufacturer the game while I was there." Ochs found a factory in Beijing that would make the game at an affordable price and let him watch each step of production. "It was a fantastic learning experience in doing international business and sourcing," he says.

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Back in the States with 1,000 games created and now stored in his garage, Ochs set about taking care of other administrative tasks, including applying for a trademark, registering his company, launching a website, and figuring out how to ship the games around the country. "Since then, it has been a whirlwind of selling Snake Oil.

In November, I attended a game conference in Chicago and Games By James started to carry our product," he says. "By the end of December, we sold over 300 in Games By James and another 150 or so to friends and family. Sales were much faster than I anticipated they would be, and we are nearing a decision point about re-ordering."

Despite the early successes, Ochs considers Snake Oil a side project. He is pursuing a master's degree in public policy from the Humphrey School along with his MBA and his career goals lie in entrepreneurship and social finance.

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"I am an experiential learner and I wanted to have something to which I could apply the theories I was learning in class. This turned out to be a great option," he says. "I do have an idea for using the creative concepts in Snake Oil as the basis for a non-profit program that would engage students in actual new product development and marketing."

Ochs says he loves the irony that he is selling an actual product called Snake Oil, which in turn involves selling other crazy product ideas. "It is a great moment when someone points this out to me," he says. "Given that I traveled to Chicago this fall and plan to travel to other conventions this summer, I am now officially a traveling snake oil salesman."

Snake Oil recently won the "Major Fun Award" and was also accepted into Books-A-Million, which is putting the game on the shelves of some of its book stores around the country.

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