Prof Positive

"I didn't start out to do what I'm doing," says John Scherer, CEO and founder of Video Professor Inc., one of Colorado's most incongruous success stories. He insists that he wound up starring in the commercials and infomercials that have made him a familiar figure among the nation's insomniacs "because I was there, and I knew the product better than anyone. I didn't do it to be recognized."

Not that Scherer, who's in his late fifties, shuns the spotlight. Video Professor creates a wide range of mail-order and online computer tutorials and markets them via omnipresent print and TV ads (often of the wee-hours variety) that are distinguished by free trial offers and the reassuring presence of Scherer, whose tagline, "Try my product," is undeniably bland, but so effective that he trademarked it. These aggressive media buys ensure that strangers from every walk of life come up to him whenever he's out in public -- even the famous kind. Scherer attended this year's Sundance Film Festival, and he says that during the hours he spent at a Video Professor display, he was thrilled by how many attendees treated him like the celebrity. Actor Joe Pantoliano, who's perhaps best known for having been beheaded in a memorable episode of The Sopranos, "was the most vocal about us," Scherer reports. "He came up and said, 'That's the guy I've been seeing on TV for years!' We sent him a whole library. And there was also Chazz Palminteri, Marlee Matlin and the guy who played Elvis in Walk the Line [Tyler Hilton]." They got their pick of Video Professor booty as well.

At the same time, Scherer makes it plain that he doesn't discriminate against the little-known and the obscure. On one occasion, he was dining at a New York City restaurant with Brian Olson, Video Professor's director of marketing communications, when their waiter and the maître d' recognized his bald dome and brush mustache -- so he had Olson take down their contact information and ship them whatever programs they wanted. "I wouldn't like all the attention if I wasn't hearing the good stuff," Scherer admits. "But I always hear the good stuff."

That's a bit of an exaggeration. Folks who've learned to navigate the Internet with or without his help don't have to look too hard to discover consumer sites filled with objections to Video Professor's sales techniques, which utilize the telephone tactic known as "upselling" and pivot on a subscription plan that his enemies see as unacceptably sneaky. Scherer says these complaints are entirely unjustified and are sometimes trumped up by shady entrepreneurs who want to profit from his popularity. Indeed, his firm is suing two outfits that his attorneys feel belong in this last category -- yet they're powerless to squelch his most nettlesome opponent, California's Ben E. Brady, who put up a sprawling website titled "Video Professor Scam." At the mention of Brady, Scherer's telegenic smile slides from his face.

It's impossible to know for sure if cyber-negativity is having any impact on Video Professor's bottom line, since the enterprise is privately held, and Scherer declines to reveal financial particulars. But the numbers he's willing to share certainly seem healthy. In 2004, the company paid $1.875 million for a 24,000-plus-square-foot building in Lakewood that fits his old-school personality perfectly. Scherer's spacious office is just off the lobby, steps from a display case filled with vintage instructional videotapes (precursors to today's CD-ROMs) and ancient print ads, including a sketch of a guy with the word "ERROR" on his computer screen that could have been drawn by a ham-fisted middle-schooler. In addition, Video Professor is leasing two floors of an adjacent structure to house its customer-service management team and sales and marketing staff, and occupies a nearby warehouse from which it ships an estimated 250,000 orders every month. (Olson says the single-day record is around 60,000.) At this rate, it won't be long before Video Professor, which has been a going concern for eighteen years, racks up its seven-millionth customer -- and there are approximately 300 VP employees to serve them, not counting contract workers who toil at call centers in Nebraska and Pennsylvania. (Scherer refuses to outsource beyond U.S. borders.)

Another sign that business is good: Scherer is spending freely to earn even more publicity. Video Professor made news across the country after ponying up $15,000 for Tillie, a dummy used by Broomfield's Greg Pringle when he wanted to drive in high-occupancy-vehicle lanes; the money was donated to Alive at 25, a Colorado project intended to teach safe-driving skills to motorists between 15 and 24. And Video Professor recently became a sponsor of Danica Patrick, the 24-year-old who's become the hottest attraction in the Indy Racing League despite not having taken a checkered flag to date. The investment, which Scherer made after consulting with Patrick's husband, Paul Hospenthal, who just happens to be his personal trainer, paid dividends during the broadcast of April 2's Honda Grand Prix in St. Petersburg, Florida. Because Patrick did so well in the race, finishing a career-best sixth, an in-the-cockpit camera that was focused on the Video Professor logo affixed to her helmet held the screen for more than four minutes.