3rd Annual Million-Dollar Ideas

After September 11, you saw them everywhere: Flags on car antennae or attached to windows. Flags on lawns. Flags on shirts. Many were given away in exchange for charity donations. But many, many were sold at the local convenience store, the grocery store, the department store--hopefully with a chunk of change still going to charity.

While marketing patriotic products during a time of national turmoil can be a risky venture, it can also turn out to be a business opportunity that can nourish both your entrepreneurial spirit and your conscience--if you go about it in the right way. John Landrum and Bill Russell both work in the film industry, but just days after September 11, they were struck with a thought that changed both their lives: How can you show your patriotism while also supporting the peace movement? Hours later, Peaceflags.org was born.

But don't let the quick start fool you: The business partners struggled to find flag manufacturers that would take a chance on their small company and surprisingly controversial product: an American flag with stars in the shape of a peace sign. In fact, CNN pulled a segment on Peaceflags as a result of advertiser pressure. "It's controversial in that the peace movement is marginalized right now," says Landrum, who worked with Russell to keep the flags completely U.S.-produced. "Because we're providing the symbol of that [movement], we definitely became the chew toy of that battle."


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They also struggled to find a way to get the word out about their product. They first focused on nonprofit organizations like National Public Radio, but were shut out because Peaceflags.org isn't nonprofit. (They explored the option, but Landrum says it was a "bureaucratic nightmare.") With a scarce advertising budget, they lucked out: Both Mother Jones and The Nation offered online ad space for next to nothing, and their ad got the highest click-through rate--4 percent--in history on both sites. They've since received 3,000 orders and donated one-third of proceeds to charity, and they plan to keep the business alive in hopes of finding a nonprofit purchaser for Peaceflags.org.

The moral of this story is, while the nation's attitude is ripe for new patriotic products, it's not necessarily an easy sell. Like any "hot" trend, getting started quick is crucial--and getting started quick requires long, long hours. But is it worth it when the trend will peter out? The current 50 million flag market (according to the National Flag Foundation) will undoubtedly diminish over time, but 20 million flags are still sold every year. So regardless where current events are headed, customers will still be looking for flags come Flag Day and Fourth of July.

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This article was originally published in the January 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: 3rd Annual Million-Dollar Ideas.

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