You've heard the stories of software and technology companies starting out in garages--only to grow into multimillion-dollar companies within a span of a few years. But this phenomenon isn't limited to the tech world. For many entrepreneurs, working out of a garage allows them to save money as they follow their dreams. For Melissa Gitelman, creator of The Girls, and founder of The T Company, starting, running and staying in her garage has allowed her to earn projected sales of $2 million this year in licensing alone, as well as $300,000 in sales of her novelty T-shirts. Her merchandise--including handbags, scarves and bath and body items--is sold at Nordstrom and more than 800 fashion boutiques and specialty stores.
Gitelman, who'd previously worked as a manager of product development for Talbots, started her company in October 1998, mainly because she wanted to spend more time with her growing family. She began working out of her garage, designing T-shirts that featured stylized female characters, including CafÃ© Girl, Glamour Girl and Ski Girl. The line debuted at a New York apparel show in January 1999, and now features 30 characters.
Self-funded, Gitelman hired artists to put onto paper the designs she created in her head, giving them detailed instructions on how each "Girl" should look. She outsourced production and warehousing, and continues to be the company's sole employee.
After the T-shirts were featured on the first page of In Style magazine's December gift guide in 1999, sales for The Girls skyrocketed. Gitelman decided to start licensing The Girls property in June 2001, adding to her breadth of products, which now range from cosmetic bags to baseball caps. "Basically, I run two companies," says Gitelman. "I run the licensing [business], which doesn't require anything but a file cabinet and a phone, because it's all about generating ideas for my licensees to use. And I run the T-shirt company." Gitelman remains homebased, occasionally shipping last-minute orders from her garage, and working from a converted den.
Like Gitelman, Rodger Owens had a specific reason for leaving the packaging company he'd worked at most of his life to start a snack foods company from his family's garage at age 40. "I was bored, frankly," says Rodger Owens. "And I thought, 'If I'm going to work this hard for someone else, I might as well do it for myself.' "
Yet while Gitelman decided to continue operations from her garage, Owens didn't stay in his garage for long. He roasted nuts there for a year before moving into a 600-square-foot converted carriage house in Yardley, Pennsylvania. The 1700s carriage house was modified slightly to meet health-department codes as well as store the assorted nuts, popcorn and cheese spreads Owens manufactured, packaged and sold to local delis. Noticing he had some extra space available, he decided to buy whole coffee beans, along with a couple of grinders. The coffee business soared, and he decided to change the focus of the company, figuring it might be easier for his customers to consume a pound of coffee every week than a pound of nuts.
It was a fateful move. From its humble beginnings in 1982, Bucks County Coffee Co. has grown to 42 retail stores/coffee shops, more than 400 employees and a 40,000-square-foot building headquarters. He expects sales for 2002 to exceed $15 million. The company continues to be wholly owned by Owens, and he's never had to bring in outside money to grow. "It's still a small business, but I'm delighted with being my own boss," says Owens, who plans to continue expanding throughout the East Coast.