Wednesday, June 28, 2006

T-Shirt Sellers That Make Over 30 Million Dollars A Year

Jules Leaver & Tim Slade Story

Founded: 1988

Annual turnover: £25 million

At first glance they are not the most likely people to become successful entrepreneurs, but when two skiers decided to sell T-shirts at a ski resort to finance their lifestyle, they laid the foundations of a very successful clothing empire. That was in 1988. Today, Jules Leaver and Tim Slade have just opened their 50th Fat Face shop, selling outdoor clothes and leisurewear. The company is estimated to turnover in the region of £25 million this year and is recognised as one of the fastest growing companies in Britain in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100.

After completing a business degree at 21, Leaver decided to indulge his love of skiing by becoming a "self-confessed" ski bum in Meribel, France. But rising early to get the best skiing and working late in a bar to earn enough to live on was not a viable lifestyle for a long period of time. Together with fellow bar worker, former policeman and friend, Tim Slade, Leaver decided to exploit the gap in the market for 'been there done that' T-shirts to sell to holidaymakers.

The pair chose to manufacture their own T-shirts to enhance appeal, rather than buying them off the shelf, and found a company in Leicester that did short runs at a reasonable price. The T-shirts were then printed up with the 'Meribel 88' back prints at a company in East London. While Leaver stayed in Meribel to sell the merchandise behind the bar, Slade travelled back and forth transporting the goods.

"We began by getting small batches of 100 or 200 T-shirts printed, based on the minimal capital we had to invest," said Leaver. "They sold well because no-one else was doing anything similar, and we gradually increased the quantity to 400 then 800 and so on." Their bold approach paid off and when they left Meribel to travel the world they continued to sell T-shirts, and later fleeces, at different ports of call.

"It wasn't until we got back to the UK in 1993 that we realised what a good business idea it was," explained Leaver. "So I sold my VW Combi van and Tim cashed in some shares, and with £12k we opened our first shop in Fulham."

Leaver and Slade knew that by appealing predominantly to the skiing and snowboarding market they would only be in business for half of every year - not a viable option. So the pair built on the success of their T-shirts and fleeces by developing a range based on another interest of theirs - sailing and windsurfing. It proved to be a successful formula. "Having a mixture of High Street and activity-based portfolio has worked very well for us, yet it isn't something that would fit most brands," said Leaver.

The nature of its target audience also carried with it inherent benefits. "The average age is early 30's, with an even split between men and women. Because people at this sort of age are often into a profession, coupled with the fact that watersports and snowsports and generally enjoyed by people with more disposable income, it has kept us in good stead. We are reasonably recession-proof because of that. When the cards start to fall it takes a while to get to us."

But while Leaver makes it sound like a fairly seamless rags to riches transition, there have been problems along the way. "It's been a rollercoaster ride and the hardest part is probably the first few years when you don't have any track record. You have ultimate belief in both yourself and the business concept and you know you can make it. But you are the only person on the planet that does.

"Banks want guarantees on your house or your father's house, every supplier believes you won't pay them and every landlord tells you they also want a personal guarantee - there's no way round it. In fact, I still have one that is a hangover from those early days."

The gamble paid off for Leaver and Slade, but how have they managed to sustain the appeal of their brand to a relatively fashion-conscious audience over a decade of change? "By continuing to understand your customer," believes Leaver. "At the beginning you are very close to what you do, but as you grow it is easy to lose touch. We gather feedback from customers by email, panels, face-to-face or whatever and the info comes straight to the design team and myself. We discuss it as soon as it comes in - we don't believe in waiting for monthly meetings - and reflect it in our product. By being disciplined about this we have built up a reputation as an approachable company that listens. Tim and I still take direct calls too - it's amazing what you learn."

The Fashion Designer Survival Guide: An Insider's Look at Starting and Running Your Own Fashion Business

Friday, June 23, 2006

Veterinarian Makes $3 Million A Year With A Crazy Pet Fountain Idea

Mary Burns Story

Dr. Mary Burns, 49, is a former veterinarian and the founder of Veterinary Ventures Inc. based in Union, Kentucky.

The Drinkwell is a pet fountain with free-falling water, a one-gallon-plus water reservoir, a pump and a charcoal filter for removing bad tastes and odors. Burns initially got the idea because her cat, Buckwheat, would only drink running water from a faucet. Tired of getting up during the night to give Buckwheat a drink, Burns created the Drinkwell after observing a decorative desktop water fountain that seemed to offer a solution for faucet-drinking cats.

The initial investment was less than $3,000 for a vacuum-formed mold, some initial inventory and an ad in Cat Fancy magazine

The sales really took off, with just over $3 million a year. Most sales are made through pet superstores such as Petco and Petsmart, and through independent pet stores, as well as specialty and pet catalogs nationwide

Pets can be an important part of people's lives, so it's not surprising that every year, individual inventors come up with dozens of new pet inventions. But the days of the independent pet store are over--and nearly all small shops have been replaced by category-dominating stores like Petco and Petsmart. Inventors can enjoy big-time success once they learn how to penetrate the big pet-store chains.

"I knew the key feature on the Drinkwell was the free-flowing water," says Burns. "I started by reading the book Patent It Yourself by David Pressman. I wrote up much of the patent description myself, but I had an attorney write up the actual claim to be sure I had strong protection." Burns' protection paid off--she sold the product without competition from 1995 to 2001 and, even after a competing fountain was introduced by a major pet-products company, the Drinkwell held its sales level because she had the market's only free-flowing water fountain.

Burns explains her sales success: "I started out in December 1995, selling directly to consumers through small ads in Cat Fancy, Cats and I Love Cats magazines. Then, in 1996, Hammacher Schlemmer called and wanted to carry the product, and Alsto's Handy Helper catalog picked the product up at the end of 1997. In 2000, I started to promote the product in trade magazines like Pet Age and started to pick up independent pet stores." Burns didn't just have some initial success; she had $2.2 million in 2002 sales, which also included Petco sales of her product.

Burns started with a functional product that was not stylish. "My initial vacuum-formed tool was very cheap (less than $1,500), but the product didn't have aesthetic appeal," she says. "In 1999, before approaching pet retailers, I decided to convert to an injection-molded product, which had a six-figure tooling cost, but which also provided a professional-looking product. That look was essential to Petco and Petsmart."

Burns' growing business was starting to overwhelm her in 2000. "My investment counselor suggested I contact Howard Consulting [a business management consulting firm in Reno, Nevada, now called Meridian Business Advisers], who initially provided help with my financial books," she says. "But they came to my rescue when dealing with Petco and Petsmart. I didn't know how to fill out vendor qualification forms, deal with allowances and discounts, or negotiate final agreements."

Howard Consulting helped Burns get the initial orders, and Burns went one step further in 2002. "I ended up selling the company to [Meridian's parent company] for an upfront fee and ongoing royalties. I felt that I was out of my league negotiating with the big retailers, and was also overwhelmed by the concepts of producing the product overseas and dealing with a major pet-company competitor," Burns says. "I felt turning the company over to experienced businesspeople was my best choice."

Big retailers will want at least a 50 percent discount from the suggested retail price, and they will also want allowances, which are a percentage of their purchases--typically 2 to 6 percent--to cover the costs of damaged products and advertising. You won't make any money if your manufacturing costs are greater than 30 percent of the suggested retail price.

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Friday, June 16, 2006

Santa Pretender Makes $1 Million A Year

Tickle Me Elmo TMX 10th Anniversary
Elmo live, play free Elmo game
Elmo Shoes
Hokey Pokey Elmo
Elmo chair

Byron Reese Story

Byron Reese Started his company,, which sells fully personalized letters from Santa Claus all across North America (they're even postmarked from North Pole, Alaska, to give them an authentic feeling). Reese sold 10,000 letters in 2001, his first year in business. Though holiday sales have increased every subsequent year, he still looked for ways to expand his offering. Now, parents can order birthday cards for their children from Santa as well. The strategy pushed 2005 sales to $1 million.

Still, the key to Reese's success is organization. After realizing he and his staff didn't want to pull the marathon 36-hour shifts they did the first year, he looked to outside vendors to help with the yearly rush. He also deals with any problems as soon as the rush is over, and then starts planning for the next year. By February, he's up and running. "The temptation is to not start working until you get close to that season, and we've made that mistake in the past," says Reese, 37. "Things always take a lot longer than you think they're going to take. We find it much better to work steadily."

"When I was a child, my parents would give us letters from Santa. My mom died three and a half years ago, and I wanted to do this to honor her," says Byron. "I entered it with low expectations, but we sold 10,000 the first year." The magic of Christmas is a serious trust to Byron, so he implemented a rigorous quality-control program that has multiple people (his elves) checking each letter, ensuring complete accuracy on each one, as well as on a birthday card from Santa and the post-Christmas 'Greetings from Hawaii' postcard from a tanned, beach-bound Santa.

Byron's childhood Christmas memories include installing 200 strings of Christmas lights and decorating dozens of Christmas cookies each year. He loves the look on the postman's face when he goes to buy 40,000 Santa stamps at the post office each Christmas. What's next on this Christmas devotee's agenda?

"Someday I hope to deliver coolers of snow to people in hot climates."

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Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Being Organized Can Make You $100000 Richer

Lisa Zaslow Story

It was both an interest in and a knack for organizing that inspired Lisa Zaslow to forgo the daily grind of an office job to start her professional organizing business. Officially founding Gotham Organizers in 2000, this New York City dweller had a background in HR and consulting. While on vacation at a friend's home in 1999, she went looking for a napkin in one of the cabinets. "It was just a mess, with candles, Christmas ornaments, Easter things, soup tureens . . . and I rooted around and finally found a napkin. I looked around and said, I have to organize this," recalls Zaslow, 40. "As I was [organizing a cabinet] on this beautiful, sunny day, a hundred yards from the beach, I realized maybe this was the work that I was meant to do."

The more Zaslow learned about organizing, the more she liked it. She got in touch with her local NAPO chapter to learn more about the business side of it and started organizing for friends and family free of charge just to grow her skills. "I knew I liked organizing when it was my agenda, but I really wasn't sure if I would like it when it was [for] somebody else," she notes.

This is an important distinction to make in the startup phase of any organization business. According to Izsak, "There's a big difference between organizing for yourself and your family, and organizing for everyone else. Many people are not [conscious of that]." Because professional organizing is such a customized business, it's important for entrepreneurs to really find that right solution for each customer. Though Izsak notes that the proliferation of home makeover shows has certainly raised the profile of professional organizers, "They [also] perpetuate the notion that organizers come in, clean up, and [that] everything is OK." On the contrary, he says, professional organizers must work closely with clients to help them achieve their own ways of organizing.

Though it's not as personal as a therapy session, Izsak has observed the sentimentality that people often have about their things. "We're dealing with hoarders," he says. "They have psychological issues that are impairing their ability to make a decision." That explains all the boxes in the corner--people hang onto things because they can't decide what to keep and what to let go of. A professional organizer needs a keen eye for detail and a good ear for listening to his or her client's specific needs.

Zaslow's HR skills certainly helped her tune into her clients' needs. "There's often a lot of shame [about being disorganized]," she says. "But once they let you into their home, they're really grateful to talk about it to someone who's not judgmental." A unique challenge of this business is getting people who are perpetually disorganized to keep appointments with her, so Zaslow confirms and reconfirms with clients before each meeting.
She was doing HR consulting and organizing on the side until 2002, when she decided to go full time with the organizing. Her profile grew rapidly after an appearance on HGTV's Mission: Organization. After hearing in her local NAPO meeting that producers were looking for organizers, she submitted a few proposals. She was chosen, and the half-hour show profiled how she organized the home of one of her clients--a young, single guy in the city. After that, Zaslow positioned herself as the go-to organization expert for local media and has gained massive exposure that way.

Zaslow, like many professional organizers, charges by the hour-- although the amount varies per job. Izsak agrees that fees vary widely, depending on an organizer's level of experience as well as the nature of the job, although he points out that many charge between $50 and $200 per hour.

Even with her company growing and sales projected to hit $100,000, Zaslow still finds time to teach professional organizing to other aspiring entrepreneurs at an adult-education organization, The Learning Annex, in her area. It's her passion, after all. "[There's] an immediate sense of results," she says. "It's a dramatic change both visually and in your life."

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Millionaires Who Started Out With Nothing, Part III

Joe Bushey Story

Company name: POS World Inc.
Location: Atlanta
Estimated annual sales volume: $10.8 million
Description: Point-of-sale online retailer

This IT manager for a concessions management company loved working in the POS field, but was so burnt out by the intense work hours that his doctor recommended a career change. One day, while reading a catalog with reseller pricing for receipt printers, cash drawers, bar-code scanners and other POS items, Bushey realized that not only was the markup outrageous, but also that there was nowhere to purchase POS hardware online. His vision: to create an online marketplace offering fair pricing on these items to the end user. "I wanted to be the Dell of POS," says Bushey.

"I didn't have a dime to spare," says Bushey, who continued at his full-time job while starting POS World in 1999 in his off time at home. "It was a virtually no-cost startup." Early on, he focused on establishing vendor relationships and developing a website. His brother Jim moved into his apartment to handle website maintenance.

One investment--a high-end Nortel phone system with voice mail--presented a professional image to callers, even though Bushey was handling calls for every department. It seemed to work--in 2001, when the Los Alamos National Laboratory's hard drives containing sensitive material went missing, they contacted POS World for recommendations on item-tracking technology. "I realized then we really had a presence," says Bushey, who moved to an office and hired his first nonfamily employees in 2000.

Most customers do business through, but they can also visit the office or call in. Customers include many Fortune 100 companies, the Federal Reserve Board, Lockheed Martin and the U.S. court system. POS World is expanding into auto ID, warehouse operations and the biomedical field, and will partner with Microsoft to sell retail-management software in combination with the company's hardware.

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