Home computers and infomercials were always meant to go together.
Here were these devices, arguably the most complex products ever to enter homes in Middle America, and they needed a lot of explaining at first. (Not complicated explanations, mind you. Simple ones.)
Enter Video Professor. For more than two decades, John Scherer made millions by selling educational products to the public, mostly through late-night infomercials and on home-shopping networks like QVC.
During its peak years, this company made $100 million in revenue per year, according to a Denver Post profile of the company. But these days, you're more likely to get a DNS error from VideoProfessor.com than a lesson. The company is defunct.
So how'd it become so big, and why did it fade from view? I asked the Video Professor himself, John Scherer.
The story of how Video Professor became such a big deal
"I used to tell everyone if I just had a room full of people to show how the product works everybody would buy it. The problem was I could never figure out where that room full of people was located."
John Scherer didn't see himself becoming a television icon. TV was simply the most effective way to sell his product—and it turned out, the giant room full of people interested in Video Professor's lessons was actually millions of smaller rooms, each with a television set or computer sitting nearby.
The concept was born from Scherer's first business, a Colorado PC clone-maker called Data Link Research Services. The company was successful, but it had some sluggish periods. Amidst an effort to sell machines to an investment firm, he had the idea of giving the firm video instruction kits to explain how to use the computers as well as the investment software installed on the machines. In the process, he discovered something surprising.
"I told an employee to go to a library or store and get a video on how to use the computer so we could include that as well and we discovered that there was nothing like that available," he said. "The rest, as they say, is history."
In a 1987 interview with InfoWorld, Scherer noted one of the advantages of the Video Professor tapes was the ability for users to study at their own pace. Targeted at novices, the company's products were intended as an alternative to complicated manuals or large, classroom-style training sessions.
The Colorado-based firm, launched in 1987, struggled at first, with Scherer admitting to the Post that he struggled to cover the bills for the first few years of its existence. Things changed in 1990, when he started doing infomercials—something that quickly drove the company's success.
While the products were started with the business market in mind—during a period when computer knowledge didn't come naturally to users—it proved just as useful for home users.
Infomercials helped to drive the product to a larger user base, and at the same time, they made Scherer—who, as Jimmy Kimmel once hilariously pointed out, looks like John McCain with a mustache—a recognizable figure to millions of people.
"It didn't matter if I was in New York City or California—people would stop me when I was out for dinner or just walking down the street, and when Jay Leno talked about me on his show, I knew I was becoming well known," he said.
That came with its benefits—it boosted the company's sales, and before an interview, Fox and Friends introduced him as one of the most recognizable people in the country—but it also put extra scrutiny on the firm.
It cut both ways.
Five interesting facts about video professor's lessons
- Initially, the firm sold VHS tapes, but moved to CD-ROMs as that format became more mainstream. "When we changed from videos to CDs our revenue shot sky high," Scherer said. The internet also juiced sales, but complicated the business model, as the firm sold different products online than it did on television.
- The lessons for different Video Professor courses were put together by actual professors from universities, who wrote the scripts used in the videos. "We knew if we could understand it, then we knew the consumer could," he noted. The videos were then split up into three different levels.
- The company never really aimed for the bleeding edge, and the content production model proved it. Generally, Video Professor titles came out within six months of the release of a given app. Just once did the company make an exception to this rule, upon the release of a version of Windows, at the behest of QVC. (That didn't work so well, Scherer says.)
- The company made most of its money off of just a few of the courses in its library—with many of its most popular lessons being for Microsoft programs—though it had a much larger library that included apps like Photoshop and Quicken.
- The most popular Video Professor lesson of all time was, surprisingly, for eBay. The success was such that the company made six-level courses for that particular video. Not that Scherer initially believed in the product. "Very honestly, I was against making the eBay lesson at first," he said, "so against it that when I was shooting the commercial, I broke the disc that I was holding up because I was angry we were doing something like this. I guess that shows, what did I know?"
Not everyone was a fan of Video Professor's business model
Video Professor and its many ads made Scherer well-known, but it also drew attention to the company's business practices—and consumer advocates didn't like what they saw.
The model, similar to the Columbia House payment structure with the additional wrinkle of automatic credit card payments, drew a number of complaints from consumers, in part because of the large amounts of money it charged for courses in its installment plan. Unlike an unwanted Columbia House CD, a single Video Professor tape or CD could cost hundreds of dollars.
In the last few years of the company's life, for example, it became a frequent target of discussion at Consumer Affairs, which tested the company's model after receiving consumer complaints. (The publication's Joseph Enoch dealt with a bit of a rigmarole during the ordering process according to a 2007 feature, but found that the return process ultimately worked as advertised.)
Sometimes, the approach meant that the firm would find itself in battles with some of the biggest names in tech media. In a 2009 TechCrunch post, site founder Michael Arrington raised a number of concerns with the company's business model, and drew attention to the fact that the firm had tried to push The Washington Post to modify another post that mentioned the company. (The Post declined.)
"Video Professor is unlike mobile scams which look to get a relatively small $10–$20/month subscription on your mobile bill and hope you never notice," Arrington wrote. "They go for the big kill: $190-$290 charged to your credit card on time."
Scherer was quick to defend the company's practices, stating that the firm had an internal refund policy in which it agreed to refund a user's money no matter what.
"Having that type of policy and then having people write a criticism that we would not refund them would upset me greatly as I knew they were being dishonest," he explained to me. "Not only because Video Professor was my company but also because I was the face of Video Professor, so when Video Professor was attacked by critics it was an attack on me personally."
Those attacks at times led the firm to sue some of its critics, most notably in 2007 when the firm filed lawsuits against 100 anonymous commenters who wrote negative reviews of the company. The issue drew the attention of Public Citizen, which defended some of some of the critics and the sites that hosted their complaints. Eventually, Video Professor backed down, though Scherer—who claims that less than one-half of one percent of customers ever complained—argues that some of the actual targets of the company's legal strategy were competitors acting in bad faith.
"We had a system in place that proved they were telling untruths and often the criticism was coming from competitors bashing us for their own gain. We found some of those competitors, filed suit and won," he said.
Scherer blamed the negative press during this era on the firm's large size and public profile.
"I also learned that the bigger you get in business the bigger target you become," he said.
"We tried changing the business model from $179, or whatever the price was at that time, to an online model that was $9.95 per month, and it didn't work."
— Scherer, discussing one of the contributing factors to the decline of Video Professor as a company and its eventual demise. "In switching over we had to kill the CD sales or it would be too confusing for people," he added. "When we did that, we killed ourselves, since it was a very complicated switch that didn't catch on with most people." (The switch, it should be noted, came at a time when the company was already struggling.) The firm, he noted, also struggled with a significant amount of affiliate link fraud, which helped to dampen the firm's success.
These days, the Video Professor has found a new calling, one with fewer pitfalls in its business model than his previous one.
In 2012, Scherer started selling a replacement for compressed air, a product he characterizes as dangerous and unsafe to use. The product, as MarketWatch notes, was brought to him by an inventor as a potential product he could pitch, but he chose to buy the company instead.
"The fact that there had been no real alternative to dangerous canned air so that piqued my interest," he said. "So many people die or are killed as a result of misusing canned air that being able to offer such a great alternative to canned air was very pleasing to me."
His new company, Canless Air, sells motorized devices that blow air that isn't compressed, but comes out really fast—in the case of its highest-end product, as fast as 260 miles per hour. Compressed air is commonly associated with cleaning computer equipment, but Scherer insists (as the above clip shows), that the product has a wide variety of other uses.
Scherer doesn't show up on TV nearly as often these days, as Canless Air is often targeted at corporate users, but his recognizable face has remained a hugely successful marketing tool.
He has also at times played pitchman, running a website in which he offers up his services. But he says that he doesn't see himself becoming the next Billy Mays—for one thing, he knew the late Oxy-Clean pitchman, and Billy was one of a kind. Scherer, with his slower drawl, says he never got thought he'd become a pitchman for hire.
"The only reason I ever started pitching my product was because I was free and I knew my product better than anyone and I was free," he said.
If he could do it again, he says he would have done it about the same way—though have sold Video Professor at the height of its success. That's despite the huge amount of work that went into the company over the years.
"You've got to eat, sleep, drink, live, and breathe your work all day long, even on the weekends, and realize that you're not going to be spending any time at the beach until you're successful."