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This story appears in the May 2001 . Subscribe »

If you've been on the same airplane as Billy Darnell in the past two years, you'd know it. The founder of Zoobee Inc., a Boulder, Colorado, manufacturer of watches depicting nature scenes, uses his frequent flights to rack up customers as well as miles.

He got the idea in 1999. Then 25, Darnell was on his way to a gift show. Suspecting there might be potential customers on board, he asked the flight attendants if they would allow him to pitch his products to the passengers. Denied, Darnell penned a note to the pilot requesting the opportunity to run a quick contest. The pilot, amused, gave him the green light.

Darnell pulled out business cards, marking two with an "X." As the flight attendants distributed the cards to the passengers, Darnell introduced his company and gave a short pitch. The two passengers with the X-marked business cards won watches.

Since then, Darnell has pulled the same stunt more than a dozen times, usually on flights during trade show seasons. And he insists this unusual marketing strategy really works. "We've received so much business from it," Darnell says. "Our Web site has also helped, and many people call or e-mail saying they saw us [on a plane]."

Years ago, after watching an episode of Donahue that featured Dave Thomas of Wendy's and cookie mogul Debbi Fields, Darnell set out to find his niche in the watch industry. It seems he has: This year, his wildlife watches will hit shelves in Bloomingdale's and Toys "R" Us as well as more than 200 other retail locations across the United States.


Gwen Moran is president of Moran Marketing Associates, a public relations and marketing communications agency in Ocean, New Jersey. She is currently compiling a marketing workbook titled Promote Your Business. E-mail her at moranmarketing@erols.com.


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