Monday, August 31, 2009

More Successful Entrepreneurs

Entrepreneurs can become fabulously wealthy if they create or improve a product or service that consumers eagerly buy to satisfy a need or want. In the August 31, 2009 article "Million-Dollar Businesses You've Never Heard Of," Miriam Marcus profiles several successful entrepreneurs you probably have not heard of before:
Seven-figure top lines abound -- if not in the most obvious places.

Best friends Adrian Salamunovic and Nazim Ahmed weren't looking for the next million-dollar idea. They were just two guys hanging out on a Friday night, enjoying a good bottle of wine, when the light bulb went on.

Ahmed worked for Bio-Rad, which markets DNA-imaging equipment. Salamunovic noticed Bio-Rad's brochure on the table and to his untrained eye, the images looked like art.

Turns out others saw it that way too. Smelling opportunity, in 2005 the twosome plunked down $2,000 in savings for initial prints and a Web site to feature their work; they outsourced DNA imaging to a DNA-extraction lab in Montreal. Working out of Ahmed's apartment, they sold a few prints to family and friends. As the work caught on, they were invited to showcase at an Absolut Vodka-sponsored party in Ottawa's SOHO neighborhood. The new company, called DNA 11, sold $40,000 worth of art in the first month. An 8"x10" mini-DNA portrait goes for $200, while a 36"x54" wall canvas garners $1,300. The Museum of Modern Art features DNA 11 art in its museum stores in New York and Tokyo. The company's revenue in 2008: $1.4 million.

Have a nutty idea for a business? It just might work. For inspiration (and even a few chuckles), we went looking for small companies that pull in at least $1 million in annual revenue in unexpected ways. Look hard enough and they are legion. So before you toss that nutty idea aside, check out some entrepreneurs who didn't. Here are a few highlights from our search.

1. Fairy Tales Hair Care
Passaic, N.J.
Entrepreneur: Risa Barash, 43
Product/Service: Head-lice prevention shampoos and conditioners
Start Date: 1999
Start-up Costs: $1,000
Revenue in 2008: $6 million

Business ideas come from anyone, anywhere, anytime. In 1999, Risa Barash, a 33-year-old stand-up comic, heard from her then-fiancé's cousin (got that?) about a rash of head lice cases at his Hewlett, N.Y.-based children's salon. After doing some research (including a lot of chatting with relatives in Israel, where head lice was a big problem), Barash hit upon an organic preventative shampoo, as opposed to chemical-based products applied only after the louse has taken up residence. Her big break came one morning while watching The Rosie O'Donnell Show -- Rosie was lamenting her own children's lice outbreak. Barash wrote a letter (in the voice of a fellow well-known comic), walked over to the NBC studio and told the security guard she was delivering some hair products for O'Donnell's kids. The next day, Fairy Tales Hair Care's Rosemary Repel Shampoo was the talk of the show.

2. The Fiero Store
Stafford Springs, Conn.
Entrepreneur: Matthew Hartzog, 32
Product/Service: Parts and accessories for the Pontiac Fiero
Start Date: 1991
Start-up Costs: $5,000
Revenue in 2008: $2.3 million

Matthew Hartzog, 32, spent his teenage summers and school breaks working for his stepfather selling parts and accessories for GM Opels. But the long-defunct, two-seat, mid-engine Fiero was where his heart lay. Approximately 370,000 Fieros rolled off the lines between 1984 and 1988 before Pontiac stopped producing the car; less than 75,000 are currently registered in the U.S. Keeping them purring proved a tidy little business. Fanatics make great customers.

3. Jimmy Beans Wool
Reno, Nev.
Entrepreneur: Laura Zander, 35
Product/Service: Knitting and crochet supplies
Start Date: 2002
Start-up Costs: $30,000
Revenue in 2008: $2.1 million

Laid off from her software engineering gig, Laura Zander decided to open a yarn store with her husband Doug in 2002. They plowed $30,000 into hanks of yarn, a Web site and a lease on a new store in Truckee, Calif. Good timing: The knitting market spiked in 2003 after a few celebrities, such as Julia Roberts and Vanna White, were seen knitting and crocheting. Zander found success with walk-in customers; she could teach them how to knit in less than five minutes, and many walked away with $100 worth of novelty yarns, enough to make five scarves, a fashion craze at the time. Zander, 35, now boasts an average of 20,000 customers per month, mostly through the Web site.

Austin, Texas
Entrepreneur: Kevin O'Brien, 34, and Angie O'Brien, 34
Product/Service: Pet travel
Start Date: 2004
Start-up Costs: $97,000
Revenue in 2008: $2.5 million

"Pets aren't just household goods -- they're beings, just like people are." Such is the mantra of Kevin and Angie O'Brien, the husband-and-wife team who sold a doggy day-care business to get into the pet-moving game. They invested $97,000 of the proceeds in a new van, Google ads, a Web site, a USDA-backed carriers and intermediate handlers license (allowing the couple to transport animals over state lines) and a $300 membership to IPATA, an international trade association of animal handlers. The couple says it can move any live animal, anywhere around in world -- say, a dog from Seattle to Shanghai, mole rats from South Africa to San Antonio and dart frogs from Switzerland to the U.S. It's a turn-key service, covering airline bookings, blood tests, vet check-ups, logistics, customs and quarantine. The company expects to pull in $3.5 million in revenue this year, has been debt free since day one and turned a profit in its second month.

5. DNA 11, Ottawa, Ontario

Entrepreneurs: Adrian Salamunovic, 33, and Nazim Ahmed, 33
Product/Service: DNA artwork
Start Date: 2005
Start-up Costs: $2,000
Revenue in 2008: $1.4 million

Best friends Salamunovic and Ahmed blend science and medicine with modern art--and make money doing it. With a simple cheek swab, they can collect enough organic matter to create an image of human DNA using specialized equipment, similar to the machines Ahmed used to sell for a Canadian biotech firm. Working out of Ahmed's apartment, the twosome sold a few prints to family and friends, and were invited to showcase their work at an Absolut Vodka-sponsored party in Ottawa's SOHO neighborhood. They sold $40,000 worth of art in the first month. An 8"x10" mini-DNA portrait goes for $200, while a 36"x54" wall canvas garners $1,300. The Museum of Modern Art features DNA 11 art in its museum stores in New York and Tokyo.

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