10 Off-the-Wall Businesses
These businesses prove that no idea is too odd to find success.
It's inevitable that when you meet someone new, the first question out of their mouth is, "So, what you do?" For those of us with normal jobs, the answer's pretty straightforward. But what if your livelihood revolves around doing something that most people have never heard of? And, once they do hear, are puzzled that someone can actually make money doing what you do? How easy would it be for you to describe your off-the-wall business?
It may not be easy, but having an off-the-wall business isn't such a bad thing if you can find a way to make a pretty penny from it. Which is exactly what the following businesses have found a way to do. Join us as we pay tribute to these 14 business owners who service a less-than-ordinary niche market and are becoming rich in the process.
Murder Scene Mop-Up
Entrepreneur: Jerry Turner, 38
Business: Advanced Bio-Treatment
Date Founded: 2003
The off-the-wall factor: The simple fact is, Turner's company is a cleaning company. The twist is what they clean up. Cleaning up after murders and suicides is one of their specialties, but they also handle meth labs and fecal matter and urine, something you might find in the house or apartment of a former tenant who had a few too many pets.
How Turner got started: As a serial entrepreneur--this is his eighth business--Turner's always on the lookout for a great opportunity. His first company, which he started when he was 18, was a landscaping firm. His last business before this was as an independent insurance agent. A few years ago, Turner read an article about crime scene cleanup and decided to start his own company because of "the money aspect, to be truthful," he says. "I don't like to work--or I don't want to work my whole life. I thought this was the kind of company that could be profitable and that I could build quickly, sell it someday and go play the rest of my life."
Typical reaction when people learn what Turner does: "They're surprised," he says. And fascinated: They immediately begin asking him questions about the gore and gruesome situations he's seen.
Off-the-wall insight: Turner never really knows how much an assignment will cost until he or his crew of 13 employees finishes a job. 'Let's say this guy's been killed in the kitchen," says Turner, very matter-of-factly. "There's blood on the baseboard--or has it actually seeped under the baseboard? And maybe it's gotten under the vinyl floor covering. And if it has, maybe the fluid has mitigated into the sub floor, and so let's say you cut that apart--maybe it's reached the second sub floor. It may have migrated to the ceiling below. It's impossible to know, until you know what you're dealing with."
Of all the cleanup tasks he's required to do--and he's been worked everywhere from nuclear power plants to construction sites--the most difficult is removing pungent odors, whether it's of death or fecal matter. But that's not the most challenging part of running the business: Spreading the word about what his company does is the difficult part. Turner recognizes that an ad in the newspaper might be deemed tasteless--few people will likely respond well to a caption saying, "Remember us if your uncle ever gets bludgeoned to death and blood splatters on your good rug."
Not-so-off-the-wall revenue: By next summer, Turner expects to be bringing in $1 million in sales a year, in part because he has four more offices that will be opening around the country by then.
Nature Calls--And They Clean It Up
Entrepreneurs: Jacob and Susan D'Aniello, 32 and 31 respectively
Location: Washington, DC
Date Founded: 2000
The off-the-wall factor: They run a pooper scooper business. Let's be real clear about this: Their company sends employees out into yards across communities to pick up dog poop.
How the D'Aniellos got started: They each had jobs and hefty college loans, and Jacob's thinking was that they could pay them off faster by starting a little side business cleaning up--you guessed it--dog poop. After finding people who were willing to pay them for the service, he and Susan would spend Saturdays (and then eventually much of the entire weekend) scooping in the morning and working on other business tasks--like advertising--in the afternoon.
What their families and friends thought of the idea: "When we first started, 'disbelief' would be the way to put it," says Jacob, "disbelief bordering on pity." When he told his employer he was quitting his job to run his pooper scooper business full time, she told him, "If you need to come back, just let me know." Susan's mother was at first in denial that her daughter was planning on marrying a man whose future lay in dog poop.
Off-the-wall franchise story: The D'Aniellos have been so successful, they now have seven employees and five franchises. Their franchise fee is $20,000, and in case you're wondering what you get for that, DoodyCalls provides computer software and call-center services as well as marketing and PR help, and everything else you'd expect to get with a franchise. Besides actually finding five people to sign on as franchisees, what's odder still is, they aren't alone. Poop scooping is a growing business trend, from Pet Butler and its 42 U.S. franchises to a teenager in the Seattle area who runs a part-time service called TurdsbytheYard.com.
Not-so-off-the-wall revenue: DoodyCalls and its franchisees will collectively bring in about $1 million this year.
This Business Owner's No Dummy
Entrepreneur: Judi Henderson-Townsend, 48
Business: Mannequin Madness
Location: San Francisco
Date Founded: 2001
The off-the-wall factor: Henderson-Townsend's company rents and sells mannequin body parts.
How Henderson-Townsend got started: Needing a mannequin for an art project, Henderson-Townsend happened to see a mention on Craigslist of a San Francisco-based mannequin rental company. When she contacted the business, the owner happened to mention that now that he was leaving the state, California wouldn't have any mannequin rental companies. Henderson-Townsend intuitively felt that she had a business opportunity in front of her, so she bought the man's inventory of 50 mannequins.
What friends and family thought of the idea: Nothing at all, because when she first started, Henderson-Townsend mostly kept her company a secret. "I didn't tell my parents at first because I knew they wouldn't get it," she says. She even named her business Mannequin Madness because she knew she was "either mad for doing this--or I'd found a really crazy niche in a unique market." Now that she's been in business awhile, she says, "People look at you differently. Before, it was 'What are you doing?' Now they look at you like, 'Wow, why didn't I think of that?' "
Off-the-wall clients: Henderson-Townsend's clients run the gamut, from lawyers who buy mannequins from her so they can demonstrate to juries how a victim was shot or stabbed to movie companies and museums that need them for display purposes. One customer won an Elton John jacket at an auction and wanted the upper torso of a mannequin so he could display the jacket in his dining room. She's also sold them to clothing entrepreneurs who sell their products on eBay and want to display the clothes for photographs.
Not-so-off-the-wall revenue: $175,000 for 2006, Henderson-Townsend predicts.
A Leg Up on the Competition
Entrepreneur: Brian Jones, 30
Business: Red Rider Leg Lamps
Location: San Diego
Date Founded: 2003
The off-the-wall factor: The business sells lamps with a base that's the shape of a woman's stocking-clad leg--modeled to look just like the lamp that Ralphie's father receives in the 1983 Christmas classic, A Christmas Story.
How Jones got started: Ever since Jones was a little boy, he'd wanted to be a Navy jet pilot. But in flight school, he discovered his vision wasn't good enough for it. Trying to cheer him up, his parents gave him a leg lamp for Christmas. His mother also made the off-hand comment that some people had made a business out of selling these leg lamps and that maybe he could, too. Six years later, when Jones got out of the Navy and started looking for a job, he recalled his mother's words. He half-seriously talked about his business plan to a buddy of his, who knew something about putting up websites, and soon after, Jones had a business.
What his parents thought of the idea: "My mom thought it was a decent idea," says Jones. "My dad didn't think I'd sell 50. But he didn't try to talk me out of it--he's still supportive."
Off-the-wall side note: Jones used a portion of his sales revenue to buy a house in Cleveland--the very house where A Christmas Story was filmed. He and his single hired employee are currently turning it into A Christmas Story museum that will have its grand opening this year on November 25. At the museum's gift shop, you can expect to find not only Red Rider Leg Lamps but other familiar items from the movie--like A Christmas Story action figures and night lights.
Not-so-off-the-wall revenue: Since it launched back in 2003, Jones' company has generated sales of close to $700,000.
From Ashes to Fishes
Entrepreneurs: George Frankel and Don Brawley, 56 and 42 respectively
Business: Eternal Reefs
Location: Decatur, Georgia
Date Founded: 1998
The off-the-wall factor: Eternal Reefs is the only company in the world that mixes the ashes of cremated people into cement to form "reef balls," which they then lower into the ocean to help create habitats for marine life. While it certainly sounds strange, it helps if you think of it as a way of creating something that does something good for the environment--offering marine life a home that replaces the dying coral reefs.
How Eternal Reefs got started: Long-time good friends Frankel and Bawley often went diving together in the Florida Keys. They quickly noticed how the area's reefs were deteriorating and began organizing volunteers to create reef balls--structures made of natural resources that provide homes for coral and microorganisms. Then, in 1998, Brawley's father-in-law got sick. "He knew his time was limited," says Frankel, "and he really wanted his cremated remains to be in a reef." After a funeral director gave Brawley the ashes, he remembered his father-in-law's request, and from his death, a new company was born.
What people think when they hear what Frankel, Brawley and Kizina do: "We definitely get one of two responses," reports Frankel. "Either their eyes light up and they get it right away. Or they don't think we're serious." Generally, Frankel says, if somebody isn't excited about the idea, they often say, "That's not really for me, but I know someone it would be perfect for."
What isn't so off-the-wall: The reaction from the families who commit their loves one's remains to the sea. Frankel says it's tough on him and his employees when a child's remains are sent into the reef, especially the younger ones who didn't die of natural causes.
Not-so-off-the-wall revenue: Sales for 2006 are projected to be more than $500,000.
From Toilet-Training Cats to Whole-Body Donations
Canning the Kitty Litter
Entrepreneur: Rebecca Rescate, 26
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
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.
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.