Having worn down her mother with requests for a second ice cream cone, Emily had to be satisfied with some change for the gumball machine which advertised, “A prize every time!”
“The prizes aren’t worth the money,” her mother lamented, hoping, but not achieving, a teachable moment about costs and benefits. Emily, focused on the illustration on the side of the machine, was hoping for a gold ring. What she got was a tooth.
“What is this?” the child said holding up the small gray object.
Her mother grabbed it, rolled it on her palm and studied it. It was a similar thing for which, a week earlier, she (a.k.a. the tooth fairy), had forked over a dollar. “It’s a tooth,” the woman gasped, holding it at arm’s length.
“A shark’s tooth,” her daughter had chirped.
“No, a human tooth.”
They both studied the object, referring again to the list of prizes—of which a tooth was not one. Finally her mother dug into her purse, hauled out paper and pen, and wrote down the offending company’s website. On reaching home, the angry woman e-mailed a complaint to the company and tweeted her dismay to friends. Within 24 hours, folks hoping to win an unusual prize had emptied every gumball machine in the country.
As the renter of six machines, Charlie O’Leary was elated to suddenly find his machines empty. When he had joined the Smackers Gumball franchise, Charlie had been disappointed at the small profit he had made at what a silver-tongued salesman had assured him would be a winning investment. The disillusioned entrepreneur had wasted hours of his life filling the machines with the prizes and the gumballs the company provided, and pocketing the meager coins when the machine finally emptied.
Now, with the complaint about the tooth, gumball machines were the rage. But, as Charlie knew, that interest would dwindle if no one won another tooth. So he considered how he could build on this unexpected success?
The machines were located within walking distances of schools and community centers and two were in a mall surrounded by office buildings. (For some reason, according to feedback, young professionals found the idea of winning a tooth a come-on.)
Charlie decided that if he popped in a tooth or two along with the gumballs, and someone got one in his machine, he’d have it made. The initial tweeter hadn’t said where the offending/lucky machine was but he would put a note on the side to ask people to share his location on line if they got something interesting in his machine. And with that it would be “anchors away.”
Always keen to do his research, Charlie decided to check to see what “anchors away” meant when he got time. He would have been better off if he’d researched what happens when an inspector—in this case a woman whom he summed up at a “mealy mouthed smartass” from the local health unit—gets after you.
But he was on a roll and didn’t concern himself with the reactions of petty bureaucrats. This was his moment to seize.
Charlie relished reading about entrepreneurs who started small and ended up millionaires or the head of an international company. One guy even became president. Gumball machines were a small start but the franchise would make a good story when he wrote his autobiography or was interviewed by the press.
“Actually,” he would say with a shy grin when asked how he had made his first million, “I started off with a few gumball machines.”
“But you were the tooth man,” she’d say, knowing his story.
“I was,” he’d reply, glancing to the right to show he was a modest billionaire. “It just takes an idea and off you go.” Then he’d quote someone famous so they would see he was well read.
But, Charlie quickly realized, that to put his idea into fruition, he’d need teeth. Not confidant that he could convince any “tooth fairies” to hand over their children’s teeth, he headed to a local dentist and asked him if he had any teeth to spare.
“Mostly people don’t have their teeth pulled these days,” Dr. Doodle had said. “What do you want them for anyhow? They don’t have gold in them.”
Gold? He hadn’t thought of that angle. But fortunately he had considered what to say if the dentist asked why he wanted teeth.
“It’s for the school,” he said. “We’re teaching a class on teeth.”
“So, you’re a teacher?” the dentist asked.
“No, no,” he admitted with a chuckle, “I’m a volunteer but keen on dentistry. I thought this would make a good presentation, most kids are losing teeth at this age.”
The dentist sent his assistant to the cupboard to find if there were any teeth people hadn’t taken home. She came back with a dusty box containing 17 teeth.
That night, Charlie slipped one tooth into each of his machines. With them and the word of tweet, business exploded. He was already planning how to spend his first million when another goody two-shoes mother reported him to the public health department.
A very nasty discussion took place in which Charlie promised the health inspector that he had just done it as a joke and he would never again put a tooth in as a prize. (In any event, by this time, he had used all 17.) But even though his tooth idea was crushed, the dream did not die. His machines had been cleaned out in days and he was determined to keep the momentum up. Maybe rent six more machines.
So, accepting that teeth were out, Charlie considered what other prize would get a similar bang. What about other body parts? Wouldn’t someone get a chuckle if they got a human liver, for example? The challenge was how to shrink livers to a size he could stuff in his machines and, of course, where to get human livers.