Since age 16, Eric Bennett has had a penchant for penguins. In 1985, the then-recent college grad was working at a collection agency, where, he jokes, "I sent myself threatening letters." He wanted to start his own business and, in pursuit of tuxedoed bird memorabilia, had run across many like-minded penguin lovers. But was there a market for an all-penguin specialty store?
There was just one way to find out. That same year, Bennett opened Next Stop . . . South Pole, a pushcart in New York's South Street Seaport. His $4,000 of start-up capital covered the cart, displays, two weeks' rent, and two weeks' inventory. The business was so successful that the following year, Bennett launched a mail order catalog, and within three years, he had opened retail stores in New York City and Baltimore. Though Bennett no longer has pushcarts, his retail stores, catalog and Web site help him move $350,000 in web-footed merchandise every year.
Bennett, now 39, credits his success to four factors. First, he chose a location in a tourist area with plenty of foot traffic and a steady influx of customers. He's also been careful to expand cautiously: In 13 years, he's never taken out a loan. Third, he avoids jumping on big trends, such as Beanie Babies or Hello Kitty, where competition from major chains "can crush you," he explains. Finally, Bennett hasn't diversified his stock with other marine animals, as that would eliminate what makes his store special and alienate his core bird-loving market.
For more smart ideas, see "Tale Of A Tub."