Time Capsule: Celebrating 30 Years of TV Shopping

Posted by | November 24, 2016

In the 1980s, before mobile commerce and e-commerce existed, the most innovative and convenient way to reach consumers was by leveraging the most important medium at that time—television. In addition to providing a convenient, educational and entertaining shopping mode for consumers, cable marketing provided a cost effective way for small and large suppliers to quickly gain visibility and market test new products.

This week we open Safeguard’s time capsule to reflect upon one of our storied successes, QVC, which thirty years ago today aired its first television broadcast selling the Windsor Shower Companion, a waterproof AM/FM radio.

The brainchild of Philadelphia native and serial entrepreneur, Joseph Segel, QVC set out to deliver Quality, Value and Convenience more effectively and efficiently into living rooms across the country. What began as a modest program on only 58 cable systems in 20 states for four hours a night[1] has evolved into a multi-billion dollar global brand beaming into households 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Akin to Uber and Airbnb today, QVC was founded to improve upon an already existing business model—in this case the Home Shopping Network, which was established several years earlier. QVC focused on flare and finding presenters who would “sell” with charisma (i.e., Joy Mangano, the driving force behind the “Miracle Mop”, and inspiration for the eponymous 2015 film, JOY).

But, in order for his idea to become a reality and scale, Segel needed someone to believe in him. Safeguard Scientifics and its founder and then Chairman, Pete Musser, rose to the occasion and funded the company with $13 million, which was used for working capital and the completion of its new operations center in West Chester, Pa.

Segel’s unique vision for QVC was just one of the many attributes that won him the necessary growth capital. Just months after its debut, QVC filed for an initial public offering. The network exploded into more than 11 million homes, correlating with the boom of the cable home shopping industry, which became a $450 million market in less than two years. During this early-stage growth period, a product marketing partnership with Sears Roebuck, the nation’s largest retailer at the time, lent instant credibility to QVC and served as validation for future funding by Safeguard. By 1989, QVC had reached more than 35 million homes and had a customer base of more than 4 million active shoppers.

Today, the television empire spans the globe, totaling 350 million households in seven countries. QVC is directly responsible for launching dozens of entrepreneurs’ careers and continues to feed America’s appetite for personalized, convenient consumer goods.

Although television’s influence has given way to the power of the Internet, not much has changed as it relates to Safeguard’s core beliefs since 1986. Safeguard remains focused on partnering with talented entrepreneurs who have the motivation and inspiration to change the status quo, or to improve upon existing technologies. “Progressive businesses in high-growth markets” — language from a bygone era — still fits squarely into our thesis.

Fast forward to today… Clutch Holdings and WebLinc are tapping into the demand for accelerating e-commerce, as they currently use funds from Safeguard to scale. Their success will undoubtedly inspire the next wave of innovation, which is something we’re watching closely. In addition, our recently announced partner company, Brickwork, is “Powering Retail Sales with Omnichannel Software”, leading the industry’s digital revolution and bridging the gap between online and brick-and-mortar sales—not too dissimilar from what QVC did in its own right thirty years ago.

QVC, like many “graduating” partner companies, underwent a transformation post-capital deployment. This is because “partner” reflects the attitude we bring to the relationship. Getting companies to reach their potential — and then some — is how we measure success. Through periods of boom and stagnation, Safeguard’s underlying mission to support entrepreneurs and foster innovation stands the test of time.

Wishing you and yours a very Happy Thanksgiving!

[1] Sharon Hernes Silverman, Brandywine Valley: The Informed Traveler’s Guide (Stackpole Books, 2004), 85.

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