10 Off-the-Wall Businesses

From Toilet-Training Cats to Whole-Body Donations

Canning the Kitty Litter
Entrepreneur: Rebecca Rescate, 26
Business: CitiKitty
Location: New York City
Date Founded: June 2005

The off-the-wall factor: Rescate sells toilet training kits for cats.

How Rescate got started: Rescate found her niche the way so many entrepreneurs do: She had a need and nobody was filling it. Rescate and her husband, Christian, had moved from Pennsylvania to New York City with their cat, Samantha, into a very small apartment. They really didn't have space for a cat litter box-or the odor it generated. Rescate had heard about the concept of training a cat to use a toilet, and there were two products on the market to help felines do just that, but they weren't what she wanted. So Rescate developed a gadget that actually teaches a cat to do his business on the toilet. After a few weeks, the gadget can be thrown away, and pet kitties can relieve themselves on the regular toilet.

What her family and friends thought of the idea: "I got a lot of people who rolled their eyes," Rescate admits. "They'd just look and me and say, 'Whatever you want to do.'" But once friends and family who had cats heard about it, they all wanted one. So Rescate launched her business part time and kept her day job--until Good Morning America featured her on the show and pet blogs began talking about her. "It was something that became an immediate success, so I handed in my resignation," says Rescate, who had been working at a tech company.

Hardest thing about her business: Educating the public. "Very few people know about this," says Rescate. "And the people who do know about it often think it's a joke, that nobody can really toilet train their cat. It's really hard to get people to understand that you can."

Not-so-off-the-wall revenue: Rescate's business generated sales of $150,000 in 2005; she's projecting her company will bring in $275,000 in 2006.

Managing the Garden of Eden
Entrepreneurs: Dave and Helen Landman, 54 and 53 respectively
Business: DeAnza Springs Resort
Location: Jacumba, California
Date Founded: 1997

The off-the-wall factor: It's the largest clothing-optional RV park in the United States, holding up to 700 people and boasting all of the amenities one would expect at a vacation destination resort.

How the Landmans got started: The Landmans were occasional nudists when they learned about an existing clothing-optional RV resort that was on the verge of bankruptcy. Dave had had a career in the mortgage banking business and, before that, in the clothing industry (ironically), but he'd always thought that when he went into semi-retirement, he might like to own his own business. So he and Helen bought DeAnza Springs Resort. They've also just opened a clothing-optional hotel in Tucson.

How strangers first react when they hear about the resort: "I think they're all surprised," says Dave Landman. "It takes them by shock at first, that there would even be a business that caters to 'skinny dippers.' But, you know, I don't think I've ever had a negative comment about what we do. Most people usually say, 'Wow, that's cool.'"

Off-the-wall information: The staff who work in the resort's front office are usually fully clothed. As Landman explains, "We have UPS drivers, beer delivery or whomever typically coming through the office. So we're generally clothed. But on a day like today--it's 102 degrees--I'd probably be on the phone in the nude." Away from the office, around the resort, Landman says resort visitors are asked to follow a few common sense rules, like having men and women cover up with a sarong or towel when they're sitting or lying on a lounge chair.

Not-so-off-the-wall revenue: They expect to hit $1 million in sales in 2006.

A Fowl Business
Entrepreneur: Bill Thomas, 53
Business: BioScientific Inc.
Location: Phoenix, Arizona
Date Founded: 1992

The off-the-wall factor: Thomas has built a mini business empire around selling fertilizer made of chicken poop that goes by the name Guano Plus (guano being the Spanish word for animal droppings). The company turns dry chicken manure that's shipped in from a handful of organic chicken farms and turns it into a liquid, adding 26 minerals and nutrients to produce a pesticide-free, completely natural fertilizer that plants apparently respond to well.

How Thomas got started: While working in the computer industry, Thomas decided he wanted to start his own company. Things just kind of fell his way when a retired scientist, Dr. Richard Gordon created and developed a formula to turn chicken poop into fertilizer and was looking to partner with someone. Thomas' brother, an investment banker who knew Gordon, put the two men in touch and that, they say, is history. The two joined forces in 1992 to produce and market the chicken poop fertilizer to commercial farmers. Sadly, Gordon passed away in July, but Thomas is still running the company and is in the midst of revamping the formula to create a new product, called Great Big Plants, to offer to the public.

Typical reaction from people who learn about the business for the first time: "The most common reaction," says Thomas, "is a look of absolute confusion, especially when we first started. People would say, 'You're in the chicken poop business? How could you possibly build a business on that?'"

Off-the-wall story: At one time or another, Thomas and each of his seven employees have been responsible for pouring the liquefied chicken poop into a tank with a hose--and all have managed to get fully doused by the Guano Plus. "Baptism by Guano Plus," says Thomas. "It's practically an initiation."

Not-so-off-the-wall revenue: Thomas says that the company is private and doesn't disclose revenue, but when pressed and asked if the business at least makes a million dollars annually, he says it's well over that. Well over, indeed. Thomas told a Phoenix business paper earlier this year that in the almost 15 years they've been in business, more than a billion plants have been fed by their chicken poop fertilizer.

Welcome to TV Land
Entrepreneur: Georgette Blau, 31
Business: On Location Tours Inc.
Location: New York City
Date Founded: 2000

The off-the-wall factor: Running a tour business doesn't sound odd, but the premise, especially when Blau first started her business, sounded a bit strange. The drivers for On Location Tours drive people around, showing them landmarks from their favorite TV shows. In the beginning, they'd take passengers past the actual building where George and Louise Jefferson were supposed to have lived. Now they're taking them past more recent landmarks from favorite shows--like the Bada Bing strip club from The Sopranos and the apartment where Carrie hung her hat in Sex & the City.

How Blau got started: It helps that Blau is a TV junkie. Two years after graduating from college and moving to New York City, she happened to notice that the apartment building next to hers was the one used in The Jeffersons. "I thought, 'George and Louise live right in my neighborhood'--I couldn't believe it," says Blau, who soon after was inspired to find out if any of New York's existing tour companies specialized in visiting "fictional" places from TV shows. Once she discovered that nobody else had capitalized on the idea, she started working on getting a tour license.

What her family thought of her idea: "My Hungarian mother is very much of the mindset that people should go get a job working for somebody else," says Blau, who was working in publishing at the time and dreaming of writing for television. "She was very nervous and didn't believe in the business--until she saw the buses. My father was supportive, but at first, he thought it was just a cute little side thing I was doing."

Off-the-wall coincidence: One day, while one of Blau's buses was on tour, it pulled up to the bakery often seen in Sex and the City, and cast member, Kyle MacLachlan, who played Trey MacDougal on the show, actually happened to be there, buying some baked goods. "Fifty-two women ran out of the bus after him, while the two miserable guys on the bus stayed put," says Blau, who happened to be on the bus that day. But the female fans of the show weren't fans of MacLachlan's. "Most of them were yelling at him for how he'd treated Charlotte on the show," Blau says.

Not-so-off-the-wall revenue: Blau estimates this year's sales will hit $1.5 million.

From the Slab to the Lab
Entrepreneur: Jim Rogers, 38
Business: Science Care
Location: Phoenix
Date Founded: 2000

The off-the-wall factor: This is the country's first and apparently only accredited whole-body donation company--as in this is where you could go if you want to give your body to science. As Rogers told The Boston Globe earlier this year before talking to us about it, "People accept blood donations--they understand that it saves lives. But when people hear about the business of organ or whole-body donation, they picture some guy with a meat cleaver and a cooler."

How Rogers got started: Before going into the business of death, he sold life insurance. He helped people pre-arrange their funeral plans and started noticing just how few people knew anything about donating their body to science.

Typical reaction when people learn what Rogers does: As you can imagine, they don't take Rogers' news well--and if they do, it's usually by dispensing dark humor. "Some of it's the maturity level," says Rogers. "Many people discuss death with humor, and it's so easy to make off-color and inappropriate jokes--it's a defense mechanism. But once people get past that and learn what we do and why we do it, they get that this is important and needed."

An insider's look at the company: Educating the public is a vital part of the business. He shudders when people joke about his business being akin to grave robbing or when the media sensationalizes what he does, since he feels that only serves to keep more people from donating their bodies to science. And what Science Cares does is help to save lives--every time medical students practice techniques on the tissue samples they've sent over, and every time an established veteran doctor practices on a limb or spine the company has delivered to them. Even the most practiced doctors would prefer to try a new surgical technique on a corpse before doing it for the first time on a living human being.

Not-so-off-the-wall revenue: Rogers stresses that his company is a privately owned business and that they don't disclose revenue. That said, Science Care doesn't buy the bodies--they're all donated--and they don't sell them either. Rogers stresses that they're a "fee-based service." In other words, university medical centers and the like are paying for the services of Science Care's pathologists and the cost of storing and shipping body parts. The actual body parts themselves are free. And Science Care is doing all right for themselves: They have 38 employees, two offices (one in Phoenix and the other in Denver), including a 16,000-square foot medical training facility, and last year, they had 1,130 body donations. It's a fair bet the company brings in at least a few million in revenue each year.

Geoff Williams is a freelance writer in Loveland, Ohio.

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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.

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