The son of Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, raised in the small farming town of Oungre, Sasketchewan, Kives taught himself about sales by selling pots and pans door-to-door near Winnipeg, Manitoba, saying in a self-written blog post on the K-Tel website that he made $29,000 in 1959.
“This was like a million dollars to me, as only a few years earlier, I was barely making $1,000 a year on the farm.”
In 1961, he and his brother Ted began selling on the Boardwalk in Atlantic City, N.J. A year later, he returned to Winnipeg and realized that, “instead of demonstrating to a few people at one time, I could try television where I would demonstrate to masses of people all at once.”
He made a five-minute advertisement for a non-stick fry pan and sales took off, despite the fact that, as he noted, the science of Teflon coating for cookware was still new and often peeled off the pans. That would not exactly be the last time that his products would be identified as not being the highest quality.
He shortly connected with a suppler named Seymour Popeil — the father of Ronco's Ron Popeil — and soon K-tel was in business selling the Dial-o-matic, the Veg-o-matic and other gadgets.
In his blog, Kives claimed that Seymour Popiel stopped selling to him, claiming he had gotten too big. K-tel simply found new products for his informercial pipeline.
For an idea of how they came up with product ideas, a CBC documentary on Kives and K-tel, "As Seen On TV" quotes one former executive who picks his words carefully as he says they would "re-engineer" some products, and make sure they could be made cheaply as well as sold cheaply. (Check it out at about the 11-minute mark of this clip.)
K-tel sold 28 million Miracle Brush lint removers in the late 1960s, then moved into music by selling compilations of music from various artists.
His company is still in business, by the way, and still selling music. But just like the music industry in general, it has moved its collections into digital downloads. “Hooked On Classics” anyone?