What I Learned from Billy Mays
By Ron Komorowski
The late and legendary Billy Mays taught me some great lessons when I had the opportunity to be on his reality television show, PitchMen.
I am Ron Komorowski, the inventor of Handi-Straps, a harness that increases your lifting capacity while decreasing the threat of injury.
My introduction to Billy came indirectly by way of the Yankee Invention Expo. The editor of this magazine invited me to attend. I remember I had thought of canceling because I was not feeling well. Boy, what a mistake that would have been.
At Yankee, I was filmed by four different camera crews, including one from Everyday Edisons. Jay Leno’s crew was there, too. Much of this inventing business is about networking, and the grand meeting places for networking are inventors’ and trade shows.
A number of shots of me and my Handi-Straps from the Yankee event ended up on the Discovery Channel, as well as many quick shots of almost all the inventors who wished to have their pitches and inventions filmed.
Producers from Discovery scheduled another filming with me, this time with Billy Mays and PitchMen co-host Anthony Sullivan. Discovery producers told me that Billy and Anthony called the shots of who would be on the show.
Billy’s passion and drive was so strong being there live that you could almost feel vibrations through the air. There were some very special things about this man that I noticed in person, stuff that doesn’t come through on his infomercials.
Billy seemed to care about everyone around him – even one guy who played a joke on him. Discovery producers planted a man in the audience to disrupt Billy’s pitch. Billy wasn’t in on the gag. Yet he had such poise and patience with the man. I was standing next to the guy playing the trick. I would have knocked him out!
Billy taught me right then and there you need to have patience with the public when presenting a product.
When it was my turn to film, I got to hang out for an hour talking inventions and business with Billy and Anthony. They showed me such great respect, like regular guys trying to give me advice.
What touched me about Billy is he loudly (of course) and clearly told people the most important principles that guided my Handi-Straps invention: That I wanted to prevent injuries, that I wanted to help the handicapped and injured, and that I insisted Handi-Straps be made in the United States. We need manufacturing to help our economy and create jobs.
That meant so much to me that Billy and Anthony cared and respected me enough to say all that on camera.
What does this say about these guys and what do they teach us inventors? I think it says that success can come if you truly care about the public, even just “little guys” or strangers.
Billy also gave me a memory I will never forget. I am as thick-headed as a half-inch steel plate covering a NYC pothole. I gave Billy a lot of resistance on his advice about pricing and manufacturing, but it was edited out. Billy could have told me to take a walk, that I’m too difficult. Instead he stood up and hugged me and said, “I love your passion.” My regret is this special moment was not shown on air.
I was hanging around the guys and the film crew for a while, taking mental notes on these two wondrous pitchmen and up walks a dad with his kid of about 10 years old. The man said to Billy that his son idols him and can’t see enough of his infomercials, just loves ’em. The man asked for a picture. Billy gave him a glossy 8 x 10 he already had with him and signed it with enthusiasm.
The other thing I noticed about Billy is he sort of hid when he would put on his makeup. He saw I was standing next to him and he said to me, “They make me put it on.” I thought, what does he care what I think? But he did care. He cared about a lot of things. He cared about not being too harsh with that annoying man in the crowd. He cared enough to give the young fan his undivided attention. And he cared enough in me and put me on the show even though he knew from the beginning I was too difficult to work with and he would not make a dime off my invention.
Great legends offer us great lessons. Billy taught us to have never-ending drive. Billy’s career started decades ago pitching products on the Atlantic City boardwalk and he just never stopped, nor did his passion. Billy taught us to genuinely care about people and that success may come. Not many back up inventors with their new ideas, especially if they are not going to make money off you.
There were no lucky breaks for Billy. A pitchman coming up the ranks typically doesn’t get a break. He taught us to just keep going forward to your goals, little steps at a time. He told me he went back to those little steps and how he attended those same shows where he started as a pitchman and pitched to the crowds live and in person, never forgetting where he came from. He did that up until he passed away.
I cried when Billy died. Billy had heart and he was willing to help if he could, for free, as he helped me. This gave me tremendous comfort recently when I was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. Thanks, Billy and Anthony, for having me on the show. I’ll always remember the day you shared your spotlight with me.
Invent on. Never give up – just like Billy would do.
Billy Mays was born on July 20, 1958 in McKees Rocks, Penn.
He began his career as salesman, pitching cleaning and other products on the Atlantic City boardwalk.
His big break came when he was hired to sell OxiClean on the Home Shopping Network.
His iconic black beard, khaki pants, blue shirt and overtly loud pitches made him unforgettable.
His success as a TV pitchman led to the founding of Mays Promotions.
On April 15, 2009, the Discovery Channel began airing Pitchmen, featuring Mays and co-host Anthony Sullivan.
Billy died June 28, 2009.
Editor’s note: First Person is an occasional section written by inventors for inventors. This story appeared in the February 2010 print issue.