How a robotic singing fish made $100m in one year

Note: This post is part of Niches Make Riches, a 4-part series in which we talk to people who earn a living in strange, unconventional ways. This week, we learned how Joe Pellettieri invented one of the most successful novelty gifts in history: Big Mouth Billy Bass. Subscribe to The Hustle to get next week’s straight to your inbox.

In the mid 2000s, Big Mouth Billy Bass was inescapable.

The animatronic latex fish could be found wriggling on the shelves of every major retailer and toy store. It graced the walls of George Bush’s oval office and Queen Elizabeth’s Balmoral castle — and even made a guest appearance on an episode of the Sopranos. And in the process, it sold hundreds of thousands of units.

In a world of few hits and constant misses, how did a singing robotic fish mounted on a plaque end up being one of the most iconic gag gifts in history?

It all started with a guy named Joe Pellettieri

Joe Pellettieri began his career as a self-professed “numbers guy.”

After receiving his MBA in finance from Indiana University, the Hoosier worked as a buyer for various department stores before landing at Omni Superstores, a chain of supermarkets in the Chicago area. But after nearly ten years of working in retail he felt it was time to move onto “the next big thing.”

Big Mouth Billy Bass creator, Joe Pellettieri

That “thing” turned out to be Gemmy Industries — a small novelty toy business in Coppell, Texas.

The gag gift business

The novelty toy industry is a world with many, many, many misses, and very few hits. It’s a line of work that involves brainstorming a silly-goof chest of half baked toy dream-em-ups every week — like a talking Christmas tree named “Douglas Fir,” or a hat you can drink beer out of.

When Pellettieri arrived at Gemmy in 1998, the company was in the midst of peddling a mechanical sunflower named Sunny that sang “You Are My Sunshine.”
At first, Pellettieri’s job was to put together programs for department stores, and serve as the liaison between Gemmy and the retail space. “I was just a guy trying to be a part of everything I could,” he says.

Sunny the Singing Sunflower only ended up being a “minor hit” — less than what Gemmy expected — and Joe decided to speak up. “I thought, why just one flower?” he recalls. “Why can’t we have a whole pot of flowers?”

Classic “try me” button.

Before he knew it, Gemmy was selling his idea of a pot of dancing flowers movin’ and groovin’ to Glenn Miller’s “In The Mood,” and the idea for Gemmy’s dancing and singing “Nature Series” was born.

It was Pellettieri’s first big hit, and shortly afterward, he was promoted to Gemmy’s VP of product development — a role in which he’d be responsible for pitching and building new products.

But in the novelty toy industry, the shelf life of a success is short-lived — and Pellettieri soon found himself fishing for another winner.

The birth of Big Mouth Billy

As a new transplant in the product development world, Pellettieri hadn’t quite figured out the best way to find inspiration. Then, towards the end of ‘98, he took a fateful road trip with his wife, Barbara.

During a quick stop at a Bass Pro Shop, Pellettieri’s wife turned to him with an unusual proposal. “She goes, ‘How about a singing fish on a plaque?’” he recalls.

Most people would laugh at such a thing and move on with their day. Not Pellettieri. “I always come from a place of ‘what makes me laugh?’” he says. “To me, the idea of a fish on a plaque singing Al Green was hilarious.”

The novelty toy industry seems to run on not knowing. No one can definitively predict that a Furby or a singing Christmas tree would be the hits they both became. According to Pellettieri, instinct is everything.

For the better part of the next year, Pellettieri hunkered down and worked the concept for what would later become Big Mouth Billy Bass.

From the beginning, Big Mouth Billy Bass was an uphill battle.

When Pellettieri first pitched it, the higher-ups at Gemmy didn’t feel it had the legs to make it. They hated the look, and since the idea of a fish on a plaque had been attempted before by another company, the execs weren’t exactly seeing dollar signs. But Pellettieri couldn’t shake it: he had that feeling — that uncompromising instinct that this thing would for sure work. So, he started refining the mock ups.

The breakthrough

“Most people come up with the character first [when thinking of ideas], but for me, the character is usually the last thing I think about,” Joe explained. “ I always start thinking of the concept, what song it’s going to sing, how it should move, then work backwards from there,” he explains.

But design after design, Pellettieri still wasn’t sure if this was one of those times he needed to walk away. “I would put my drawing of the fish up on the wall and stare at it constantly. It just wasn’t working,” he says.

That all changed with a not-so-simple question to Gemmy’s engineers in China: “Can you make the head turn?”

Big Mouth Billy pre-latex skin.

It may seem elementary now, but in the late 90’s there was really no toy on the market that had actual mobility in its movements. Making a fluid movement up and down or side to side was one thing, but creating a motorized mechanism that allowed Big Mouth Billy’s head to turn out from the plaque? It had never been done. The idea was revolutionary.

“Once the head turned, it became an item,” Pellettieri recalls. “The movement is what hooked people, and we were off to the races.”

But Joe knew that if this Cinderella story was actually going to find its glass slipper, he had to make sure the look was on par with the technology.

“The movement is what hooked people, and we were off to the races.”

“I’ve never really been thought of as someone who creates a great looking product. It’s usually funny and makes people laugh, which is why my items sell,” he says. “But this one had to have the look, that’s when I got the rest of the team involved.”

With very little knowledge in the world of fish and game, Joe hired a taxidermist to help bring the bass to life. And while this phenom couldn’t have been possible without the man behind the concept, he made it abundantly clear that he was only the seed.

“If anyone in the product development world stands up and says, ‘hey, look what I did’ they’re full of shit,” he admits. “There were so many people involved. There were artists, engineers, salespeople, US staffs, Hong Kong staffs… it was a team effort.”

A star is born

Dubbed the “Big Mouth Billy Bass,” Pellettieri’s product came to life in the summer of 1999 — and retailers who saw the prototype loved it. By early 2000, Billy had swam into a slew of speciality stores.

Places like Bass Pro Shop, Spencer Gifts, and any other store that would charge their premium price of $29.95 were BIlly’s first landing zones. In such a fickle industry, and with no advertising (Gemmy only runs on word of mouth), it’s important for companies like Gemmy to boost profits with limited amounts of product in the beginning.

Word of mouth helped Gemmy feel confident moving Billy into mass market stores like Wal-Mart, Kmart, and Target — and by Christmas time, they had a full blown monster, viral hit on their hands.

Big Mouth Billy Bass shot to colossal fame, forcing the company to rapidly scale up production. With the design of Billy’s insides needing two weeks notice, as well as the intricate electrical wiring needing 45 to 50 days of lead time, the company was forced to predict this singing bass celebrity’s worth two months down the line — a move that almost always serves as a losing bet in the toy biz, and runs the high risk of leaving warehouse stock rooms full of tired toy barrels years later.

In the Summer of 2000, the toy shot to global stardom, making it’s way to Al Gore as a gift (courtesy of President Clinton). It hung on the wall of Balmoral Castle, where Queen Elizabeth would reportedly sing along to Big Mouth Billy’s sweet tunes. It even landed a featured role on an episode of The Sopranos.

The Queen with “Don’t Worry Be Happy” definitely stuck in her head.

At the toy’s peak, it was flying off shelves so fast that it was going for as much as $90 a pop — 3x its list price — on eBay and other secondary marketplaces. That’s an astonishing figure, considering that each Billy only cost an estimated $4.50 to produce.

“I had my fifteen minutes of fame. I took it with a grain of salt…”

The Big Mouth Billy Bass was no exception to the novelty world’s live fast, die faster reality. As the leaves changed in the Fall of 2000, so did people’s demand for a musically gifted robotic bass that lacked the ability to pick up on social cues.

In short time, the toy’s $29.95 price tag slowly decreased — and by the following Christmas, BIlly was selling for $5. The flame had gone out.

All the while, the toy’s lead creator had already moved on. “I had my fifteen minutes of fame, I took it with a grain of salt. It was time to get moving to the next thing,” Pellettieri cedes.

All good things must end.

The success of Big Mouth Billy was so huge that Pellettieri admits to being let off the leash during his remaining years at Gemmy. “For a while there I had some clout [due to Big Mouth Billy], and I had some great success there for a lot of years.”

Post-bass

Today, Pellettieri and Gemmy maintain a CIA-like secrecy when it comes to divulging the financial success of Billy. But it has been rumored that the toy made the company over $100m in revenue, and sold more units than Tickle Me Elmo, during its 9-month success run.

In the post-Billy era, Gemmy has had many plaqued-animal spin offs, including a short-lived Christmas-themed Billy. Pellettieri continued to innovate: one of his proudest creations — the ever-popular Kung Fu Hamsters that sang Carl Douglas’s “Kung Fu Fightin’” — came in his latter years at Gemmy.

Pellettieri left Gemmy in 2010, and now works at a new Texas-based seasonal toy company, Occasions Limited, where he has been granted even more creative freedom. But he’s still the same guy, looking to make people smile with his products, and always hunting for the next big hit.

Looking back, it’s hard not to consider Pellettieri a true artist: with Big Mouth Billy Bass, he created not just a novelty toy, but a viral sensation that tapped into some deep abyss of the human psyche and answered a call we never knew we had — even if it did want to make us destroy it with a sledge hammer.