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In the media

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August, 1999
BY Geoff Williams


John Wilkinson isn't in the Guiness Book of World Records, but he is a good salesman. He rents and sells sumo wrestling suits. If you weren't born in bulk, but you want to wrestle like you were, Wilkinson's company gives you the chance.

Laugh if you want, but the 42-year old's San Francisco Company, Total Rebound, made $3.5 million in 1998 and expects to make $4 million this year. Well, okay, to collect that cash, Total Rebound does more than the sumo wrestling thing. Wilkinson's company also rents and sells supplies for playing human shuffleboard, an inflatable mountain for people to climb and "Off With Their Heads," a game in which people get to behead each other and live to tell about it.

Not your average, everyday forms of entertainment. Making it a tougher sell, these games are prohibitively expensive for most people to purchase but not too expensive for a company to purchaser rent out for a day or a weekend for a company picnic, seminar or party. Suddenly Wilkinson's surreal ideas make sense. After all, in this computer age, says Wilkinson, "There's so much less social interaction. People crave it. And we're a solution to that. So it isn't that hard of a sell once you explain to them, 'Here's your problem,' and 'Here's how we can help.' "

But in 1992, when Total Rebound started renting out its wacky interactive games, human resources departments were confused. It wasn't yet a Dilbert world, the Internet didn't exist as far as the general public was concerned, and the idea that employees might need more stimulation than wieners and Kool-Aid at the company picnic was only beginning to be explored. But Wilkinson already knew that people loved the games because he had unwittingly done his own market research during Total Rebound's early days as a bungee jumping company, the first one in the country to receive approval from the OSHA.

You'd think bungee jumping would be a hard sell and that those customers could definitely be called suckers: Here, you take this rope and plunge from a great height and hurtle toward what will seem to be certain death. But Wilkinson reports there was always a steady stream of customers - so many, in fact, he began offering diversions, like sumo wrestling, for those waiting in line.

So during the fall and winter off season ("Somebody decided bungee jumping had a season," says a perplexed Wilkinson), he aimed for the corporate market. He teamed up with caterers and event planners, contacting them through their associations. Now Total Rebound's clients included Microsoft and Cisco Systems

But there is a downside to owning a business that features such zany games as human bowling (a person climbs into a life-size bowling ball, and, well, you get the idea): Because so few people know these games exist, Wilkinson has to do a lot of advertising- at least $100,000 worth each year. The upside of selling something so bizarre? Observes Wilkinson: "Truly, with what we do, we don't have much competition."


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