From the January 2000 issue of Startups

Sick of sending the traditional bouquet of flowers, Jeff Conti was desperate to find a unique birthday gift that would actually surprise his girlfriend while she was on a trip to California back in 1992. So he mailed her a special box of candy that was supposed to play a personal message when she opened it. Instead, she received a box of chocolates with an audiocassette abruptly thrown in. Can you say "rip-off"?

Inspired by the lame gift, Conti went on to develop a much more novel token of love--an entire surprise party in a box. To clarify, absorb Conti's vision: The Happy Birthday PartyBook, a book that, when opened, surprises the recipient with an inflating Mylar balloon, a special greeting card that plays "Happy Birthday" and an assortment of gifts and party favors.

Working days at a mobile truck maintenance firm he and his father had co-founded, Conti started searching for inflation devices to make the balloon concept work. After visiting the patent library in Chicago to ensure there was nothing like his idea already on the market, he began calling technological production companies and potential investors.

"I knew that to get equity financing, I would have to give away a substantial portion of my business, which I was unwilling to do," says Conti, now 33. Given this fact--and his untested, unique product--Conti's search proved difficult. But through a local mentoring program, Conti found a small investor. A meeting with a local engineer led to a second investor who could also manufacture the product. Finally, $385,000 in start-up capital later, the first Happy Birthday PartyBook rolled out on January 1, 1999.

With a limited budget, Conti has relied on grass-roots marketing to stoke orders via his toll-free phone number and Web site. His company, PartyBook Gift Products Inc., now manufactures a whole line of themed PartyBooks, catering to everyone from golf lovers to coffee fanatics. With the addition of its millennium-oriented books, produced for upper-echelon hotels and casinos, and promotional products for corporations, Conti's concept has turned into projected 1999 sales of $1.2 million.