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Toll Freedom

Making toll transponders more attractive.

What: Toll pass covers and automotive affinity marketing
Who: Owen Burns of Highway Image
Where: Red Bank, New Jersey
When: Started in 2004
Startup costs: $50,000

Owen Burns was fed up with unsightly spots. They were everywhere he looked: inside his minivan, on other people's minivans, in traffic, in parking lots. He even saw them on vacation. But he wasn't ready to stand by and let Americans' windshields become overrun with white spots created by ugly toll road transponders. He was going to give people the freedom to make generic transponders personal.

So in 2004, he launched Highway Image, a company that manufactures custom stickers to hide the windshield eyesores created by common toll road transponders. As part of Highway Image's service, drivers can choose from 200 available transponder covers, ranging from unicorns to major sports team logos. They can even send in their own images to have custom covers made.

But Highway Image isn't just about making windshields attractive. Over the past two years, Burns, 40, has taken the business far from its original purpose as a provider of transponder covers and turned it into a niche for an entirely new brand of automotive affinity marketing. Now the product is also recognized as a cheap and useful way for groups like universities and major organizations to market their products or services.

"We've partnered with large groups like Autism Speaks, which is a national, very powerful, influential organization," says Burns. "They market the product through their website and newsletters." Burns' company contributes up to 50 percent of the profits from these sales back to the organization. "People love it. If you're into the group and you're connected emotionally to it, it's exciting."

In 2006, Highway Image doubled its sales for the second year in a row and sold more than 10,000 covers, which start at $19.99. And though Highway Image isn't exactly the Pimp My Ride of automotive detailing, the covers are still a "look-good, feel-good product," says Burns, making them appealing to everyone from soccer moms to Porsche enthusiasts.

"When you start a business, you never know what's going to happen next, and you really have to go for it," he says. "But when you do that, hopefully you'll realize that that silly little idea means a lot to a lot of people."

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This article was originally published in the April 2007 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Toll Freedom.

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