Monkey Business

Think art and entrepreneurship don't mix? The secrets of one designer's success.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the February 1999 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

I first met Paul Frank a few years ago in Huntington Beach, California. Introduced as the newsstand guy who hand-stitched wallets for local kids, he seemed the shy, observant type. Though I didn't know why at the time, his name (and nature) stuck. I didn't forget either.

Two years and one telephone interview later, I find myself in Costa Mesa, California, at the headquarters of Paul Frank Industries Inc. Although Frank, 31, doesn't remember me, you'd never know it by the way he whisks me around the room like a long-lost friend, showing off everything from vinyl fabric samples to sock monkey dolls, even his first sewing machine. Still seemingly shy when it comes to success, it isn't Frank but president Ryan Heuser, 26, and CEO John Oswald, 31, who fill me in on the company's international status--Paul Frank products are sold not only in the United States but throughout Canada, China, Germany, Japan and the United Kingdom--and its 1998 sales figures, which were just under $5 million.

While the company has clearly come a long way from the pier-side newsstand and 1995 founding in Heuser's garage, it would have been easy to leave it a permanent part-time fixture. Luckily, informal meetings with then acquaintance Oswald shelved that notion--it was he, in fact, who first convinced Frank and Heuser to either move ahead or get left behind.

Today, Paul Frank Industries is on the cusp of achieving mainstream celebrity. "It's not about being safe," explains Heuser, a former PR rep for Mossimo. "Consumers look to us for the fashion forward."

Fashion forward is right. Imaginary owls and elementary-like elephants show up throughout the products constructed from such materials as canvas, unwashed denim and high-grade vinyl. As designer, Frank's quest to avoid the copy-cat inbreeding of other fashion houses includes traveling to warehouses to find rare and often retired fabrics. "There are nice colors out there," says Frank. "Basically, the colors of the rainbow."

The universal appeal of primary colors juxtaposed with playful designs illustrates the pairing of Frank's creative impulses with the carefully calculated business decisions of his partners. Teaming art with business is never easy--unless, of course, you pick the right players. "I don't have a fashion background," explains three-time business owner Oswald of the company's checks and balances. "But I looked at [the opportunity] as the perfect mix, and I believed in Paul and Ryan's ability enough to invest."

On the back of every Paul Frank T-shirt tag is the catch phrase, "Paul Frank is your friend." When pressed about its origin, Frank laughs. "I wanted a slogan," he says. "Kind of like what a politician or used-car dealer might say. You're not sure how sincere it is." Politician or not, Frank is no used-car salesman. Unique by virtue of Frank's personal attention and involvement in each production phase, the company's designs are reminiscent of the age before generic mass production when brand identity meant something. Granted, Paul Frank promotes its products, but it does so in style.

So now that he's my friend, I ask the artist/business owner, who went from magazine seller to subject, for his advice to all those would-be entrepreneurs sitting on a pier dreaming up ideas for their own businesses. "Stay up late at night, pay attention to everything around you. Notice details," Frank says. "That's all."

Safety Net

Advice for avoiding potential pitfalls.

When Harold Ford opened his Meridian, Idaho, Postal Copy Center in 1996, nobody told the entrepreneur that thick red-and-yellow signage was the most legible for passing drivers. In fact, no one told Ford anything, which is why, when he mistakenly hung an illegal banner outside his store, the most significant response came not from potential customers but city officials who slapped the business owner with a $350 fine. Today, Ford urges start-ups to investigate city sign ordinances before opening shop.

Like many entrepreneurs, Ford learned quickly that start-ups don't come with a set of directions. Had Ford the wisdom of a personal coach, he might not have stumbled during his early entrepreneurial days.

In What No One Ever Tells You About Starting Your Own Business (Upstart Publishing, $17.95), author Jan Norman addresses small businesses' common and uncommon miscues using advice from entrepreneurs like Ford--entrepreneurs who have made mistakes but survived. Divided into sections that include "Look Before You Leap" and "Helping Hands," Norman's book guides you through every stage of starting a business while pointing out potential roadblocks and pitfalls.

With eye-opening lessons from well-known entrepreneurs like Dave Thomas of Wendy's International fast-food fame to the understated advice of chocolate-lover-turned-candy-manufacturer Patricia Green, owner of The Chocolate Tree, What No One Ever Tells You About Starting Your Own Business exposes small-business hazards that owners need to know long before making their first sale.

Winter Blues

How to stay up during the down season.

Eager to get your business going, but feeling grounded? 'Tis the season for heavy clothes, heavy skies and the occasional heavy heart. Granted, you've survived the holiday hustle and bustle, but perhaps it's left you a little under the weather. No need to fret: According to Beverly Potter, a Berkeley, California, seminar leader and author of Overcoming Job Burnout (Ronin), even the most dedicated of start-ups occasionally come down with a case of the winter blues.

What if the next big storm blows in cabin fever? Here are Potter's strategies for beating mid-season burnout:

  • Pinpoint the storm's eye: If you're down, it's natural to want an explanation. While sourcing your gloom, however, don't misdirect your disenchantment and mistakenly apply it to your workplace. An occasional bout with the blues is normal. Accept it, and prepare for the next phase: building yourself up.
  • Don't hibernate: Just because Yogi does it doesn't mean you should, too. Avoid heavy foods, and stick with light, spicy meals. Move around your office. Light exercise will help eliminate winter fatigue.
  • Lighten up: Colors affect our minds and moods; yellow, red and orange decor will warm up any room. Forget the chill factor; fill your office with upbeat photographs of nature--a guaranteed attitude-booster.
  • Throw a party: Coming off the holiday hype can be a downer, especially when facing the long haul to Memorial Day. Instead of waiting for the next national celebration, create your own work-related holiday. This gives you something to look forward to and provides an opportunity to showcase your accomplishments and gear up for projects and deadlines.

Let's face it--the short, cold days of winter can be physically and emotionally draining. But look at the bright side: Without the distraction of summer ball games and barbecues, the season can be a great time for getting down to business.

Contact Sources

Paul Frank Industries Inc., 711 W. 17th St., #J-1, Costa Mesa, CA 92627, (949) 515-7950

Beverly A. Potter, Ph.D.,


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