It's inevitable that when you meet someone new, the first question out of their mouth is, "So, what you do?" For those of us with normal jobs, the answer's pretty straightforward. But what if your livelihood revolves around doing something that most people have never heard of? And, once they do hear, are puzzled that someone can actually make money doing what you do? How easy would it be for you to describe your off-the-wall business?
It may not be easy, but having an off-the-wall business isn't such a bad thing if you can find a way to make a pretty penny from it. Which is exactly what the following businesses have found a way to do. Join us as we pay tribute to these 14 business owners who service a less-than-ordinary niche market and are becoming rich in the process.
Murder Scene Mop-Up
Entrepreneur: Jerry Turner, 38
Business: Advanced Bio-Treatment
Date Founded: 2003
The off-the-wall factor: The simple fact is, Turner's company is a cleaning company. The twist is what they clean up. Cleaning up after murders and suicides is one of their specialties, but they also handle meth labs and fecal matter and urine, something you might find in the house or apartment of a former tenant who had a few too many pets.
How Turner got started: As a serial entrepreneur--this is his eighth business--Turner's always on the lookout for a great opportunity. His first company, which he started when he was 18, was a landscaping firm. His last business before this was as an independent insurance agent. A few years ago, Turner read an article about crime scene cleanup and decided to start his own company because of "the money aspect, to be truthful," he says. "I don't like to work--or I don't want to work my whole life. I thought this was the kind of company that could be profitable and that I could build quickly, sell it someday and go play the rest of my life."
Typical reaction when people learn what Turner does: "They're surprised," he says. And fascinated: They immediately begin asking him questions about the gore and gruesome situations he's seen.
Off-the-wall insight: Turner never really knows how much an assignment will cost until he or his crew of 13 employees finishes a job. 'Let's say this guy's been killed in the kitchen," says Turner, very matter-of-factly. "There's blood on the baseboard--or has it actually seeped under the baseboard? And maybe it's gotten under the vinyl floor covering. And if it has, maybe the fluid has mitigated into the sub floor, and so let's say you cut that apart--maybe it's reached the second sub floor. It may have migrated to the ceiling below. It's impossible to know, until you know what you're dealing with."
Of all the cleanup tasks he's required to do--and he's been worked everywhere from nuclear power plants to construction sites--the most difficult is removing pungent odors, whether it's of death or fecal matter. But that's not the most challenging part of running the business: Spreading the word about what his company does is the difficult part. Turner recognizes that an ad in the newspaper might be deemed tasteless--few people will likely respond well to a caption saying, "Remember us if your uncle ever gets bludgeoned to death and blood splatters on your good rug."
Not-so-off-the-wall revenue: By next summer, Turner expects to be bringing in $1 million in sales a year, in part because he has four more offices that will be opening around the country by then.
Nature Calls--And They Clean It Up
Entrepreneurs: Jacob and Susan D'Aniello, 32 and 31 respectively
Location: Washington, DC
Date Founded: 2000
The off-the-wall factor: They run a pooper scooper business. Let's be real clear about this: Their company sends employees out into yards across communities to pick up dog poop.
How the D'Aniellos got started: They each had jobs and hefty college loans, and Jacob's thinking was that they could pay them off faster by starting a little side business cleaning up--you guessed it--dog poop. After finding people who were willing to pay them for the service, he and Susan would spend Saturdays (and then eventually much of the entire weekend) scooping in the morning and working on other business tasks--like advertising--in the afternoon.
What their families and friends thought of the idea: "When we first started, 'disbelief' would be the way to put it," says Jacob, "disbelief bordering on pity." When he told his employer he was quitting his job to run his pooper scooper business full time, she told him, "If you need to come back, just let me know." Susan's mother was at first in denial that her daughter was planning on marrying a man whose future lay in dog poop.
Off-the-wall franchise story: The D'Aniellos have been so successful, they now have seven employees and five franchises. Their franchise fee is $20,000, and in case you're wondering what you get for that, DoodyCalls provides computer software and call-center services as well as marketing and PR help, and everything else you'd expect to get with a franchise. Besides actually finding five people to sign on as franchisees, what's odder still is, they aren't alone. Poop scooping is a growing business trend, from Pet Butler and its 42 U.S. franchises to a teenager in the Seattle area who runs a part-time service called TurdsbytheYard.com.
Not-so-off-the-wall revenue: DoodyCalls and its franchisees will collectively bring in about $1 million this year.
This Business Owner's No Dummy
Entrepreneur: Judi Henderson-Townsend, 48
Business: Mannequin Madness
Location: San Francisco
Date Founded: 2001
The off-the-wall factor: Henderson-Townsend's company rents and sells mannequin body parts.
How Henderson-Townsend got started: Needing a mannequin for an art project, Henderson-Townsend happened to see a mention on Craigslist of a San Francisco-based mannequin rental company. When she contacted the business, the owner happened to mention that now that he was leaving the state, California wouldn't have any mannequin rental companies. Henderson-Townsend intuitively felt that she had a business opportunity in front of her, so she bought the man's inventory of 50 mannequins.
What friends and family thought of the idea: Nothing at all, because when she first started, Henderson-Townsend mostly kept her company a secret. "I didn't tell my parents at first because I knew they wouldn't get it," she says. She even named her business Mannequin Madness because she knew she was "either mad for doing this--or I'd found a really crazy niche in a unique market." Now that she's been in business awhile, she says, "People look at you differently. Before, it was 'What are you doing?' Now they look at you like, 'Wow, why didn't I think of that?' "
Off-the-wall clients: Henderson-Townsend's clients run the gamut, from lawyers who buy mannequins from her so they can demonstrate to juries how a victim was shot or stabbed to movie companies and museums that need them for display purposes. One customer won an Elton John jacket at an auction and wanted the upper torso of a mannequin so he could display the jacket in his dining room. She's also sold them to clothing entrepreneurs who sell their products on eBay and want to display the clothes for photographs.
Not-so-off-the-wall revenue: $175,000 for 2006, Henderson-Townsend predicts.
A Leg Up on the Competition
Entrepreneur: Brian Jones, 30
Business: Red Rider Leg Lamps
Location: San Diego
Date Founded: 2003
The off-the-wall factor: The business sells lamps with a base that's the shape of a woman's stocking-clad leg--modeled to look just like the lamp that Ralphie's father receives in the 1983 Christmas classic, A Christmas Story.
How Jones got started: Ever since Jones was a little boy, he'd wanted to be a Navy jet pilot. But in flight school, he discovered his vision wasn't good enough for it. Trying to cheer him up, his parents gave him a leg lamp for Christmas. His mother also made the off-hand comment that some people had made a business out of selling these leg lamps and that maybe he could, too. Six years later, when Jones got out of the Navy and started looking for a job, he recalled his mother's words. He half-seriously talked about his business plan to a buddy of his, who knew something about putting up websites, and soon after, Jones had a business.
What his parents thought of the idea: "My mom thought it was a decent idea," says Jones. "My dad didn't think I'd sell 50. But he didn't try to talk me out of it--he's still supportive."
Off-the-wall side note: Jones used a portion of his sales revenue to buy a house in Cleveland--the very house where A Christmas Story was filmed. He and his single hired employee are currently turning it into A Christmas Story museum that will have its grand opening this year on November 25. At the museum's gift shop, you can expect to find not only Red Rider Leg Lamps but other familiar items from the movie--like A Christmas Story action figures and night lights.
Not-so-off-the-wall revenue: Since it launched back in 2003, Jones' company has generated sales of close to $700,000.
From Ashes to Fishes
Entrepreneurs: George Frankel and Don Brawley, 56 and 42 respectively
Business: Eternal Reefs
Location: Decatur, Georgia
Date Founded: 1998
The off-the-wall factor: Eternal Reefs is the only company in the world that mixes the ashes of cremated people into cement to form "reef balls," which they then lower into the ocean to help create habitats for marine life. While it certainly sounds strange, it helps if you think of it as a way of creating something that does something good for the environment--offering marine life a home that replaces the dying coral reefs.
How Eternal Reefs got started: Long-time good friends Frankel and Bawley often went diving together in the Florida Keys. They quickly noticed how the area's reefs were deteriorating and began organizing volunteers to create reef balls--structures made of natural resources that provide homes for coral and microorganisms. Then, in 1998, Brawley's father-in-law got sick. "He knew his time was limited," says Frankel, "and he really wanted his cremated remains to be in a reef." After a funeral director gave Brawley the ashes, he remembered his father-in-law's request, and from his death, a new company was born.
What people think when they hear what Frankel, Brawley and Kizina do: "We definitely get one of two responses," reports Frankel. "Either their eyes light up and they get it right away. Or they don't think we're serious." Generally, Frankel says, if somebody isn't excited about the idea, they often say, "That's not really for me, but I know someone it would be perfect for."
What isn't so off-the-wall: The reaction from the families who commit their loves one's remains to the sea. Frankel says it's tough on him and his employees when a child's remains are sent into the reef, especially the younger ones who didn't die of natural causes.
Not-so-off-the-wall revenue: Sales for 2006 are projected to be more than $500,000.
Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.