Tired of stereotypical film roles that portrayed black men as sidekicks, ex-convicts, athletes or monsters, Alonzo Washington set out to give children more positive role models. The 31-year-old community outreach worker-turned-entrepreneur from Kansas City, Kansas, created Omega Man, a black action figure he likens to Superman or Batman.
Omega Man and Omega Man Deluxe, which come in light- and dark-skinned versions, are manufactured in Hong Kong and sold by major retailers such as Wal-Mart and Toys "R" Us. And--zowee!--those venues sent the 1998 sales of Washington's homebased company, Omega 7 Inc., soaring to $600,000.
It's all a bit of a surprise to Washington. In 1992, with just $5,000 in savings, he wrote and published a comic book called Original Man, which featured positive black role models. Before it was published, Washington presold orders through local churches, bookstores and community organizations, a move that brought him profits of $12,000. At a comic book signing he organized, 2,000 people showed up--including a correspondent from Newsweek, who wrote an article about him.
National media exposure proved there was a market for his work. "I always wondered how I could do what I wanted to do with my life and still get my message across," Washington says. Suddenly, he had his answer.
Demand for Washington's work eventually led to 50 more comic books dealing with issues such as racism and gang violence, as well as spin-off products including T-shirts, watches, baseball caps and posters. Branching out into Omega Man action figures in 1994 was a natural next step.
Washington presold orders of Omega Man to a Toys "R" Us in Kansas City. When the doll sold out in two hours, the toy company increased its orders nationally. Omega Man is also sold at Omega 7's Web site (http://www.omega7.com), specialty shops and comic book stores, and Washington makes personal appearances at community organizations to promote sales.
Up next: the big screen. Washington hopes to create a film based on Omega Man. A Canadian film company wants to partner with him on the project; they hope to attract the involvement of well-known black actors. How does he know the venture will be successful? Says Washington, "Because my characters break the mold."
It's A Stretch
For those who find stretch limos a tad ho-hum when making jaunts to posh parties, awards programs and movie premieres, 30-year-old Los Angeles entrepreneur Jon Kabbash has just the thing to break them out of their rut. It's a head-turning $100,000 stretch SUV, custom-built with gray leather interior, two TVs, a VCR and a 12-disc CD changer. Three wet bars come stocked with a half-gallon of vodka, a half-gallon of bourbon, two bottles of champagne and 25 crystal glasses to help passengers chase away traffic-jam blues.
"People in Los Angeles see a thousand stretch limos a day, but they're just cars," says Kabbash, whose one-man, one-vehicle company is called SUV Limousine. "A stretch SUV is taller and bigger and wider--it stands alone."
A ride in the SUV costs between $110 and $125 an hour, compared to $75 an hour for a regular stretch limo. But, Kabbash says, his vehicle seats 14 passengers comfortably, while 10 people are "squished" in a limo. Plus, the SUV makes a heck of an impression.
A former limo driver in Atlanta, where there's already a healthy stretch SUV market, Kabbash plunked down $45,000 of his own money for the down-payment on a white Navigator and started his business last December. Los Angeles, a city loaded with film studios and music companies, seemed a perfect market for his upscale wheels.
His best marketing strategy? Just tooling around. Kabbash was featured in the Los Angeles Times after a reporter got his number from a bumper sticker on the back of the SUV. "People stop traffic just to get my business cards," says Kabbash. It shouldn't be long before his sales become as outsized as his SUV.
SUV Limousine, (310) 782-2886, http://www.suvlimo.com