Smart Ideas 03/04

Cookie-party store, job listings for ex-military personnel and more
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the March 2004 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

How Sweet It Is

What: A store where customers throw parties to bake and decorate cookies
Who: Caryn Truitt and Betsey Toombs of Cookies
Where: Seattle
When: Started in 2002

It's a kid's dream come true to walk into Cookies. With a wall of sprinkles on one side of the store and a wall of cookie cutters on the other, "they walk in wide-eyed at all the sprinkles," says Caryn Truitt, 38. "There are cow sprinkles and dog bone sprinkles-almost anything you can imagine."

Truitt met Betsey Toombs, the owner of a dessert company, when Toombs worked with Truitt's sister, who ran a restaurant. After getting to know each other, the future partners began to toss around ideas and landed on the Cookies concept. At first, they faced skepticism when they decided to open a cookie-party store; doubters didn't think there was a market for people who liked to bake-or do it socially, for that matter. But Truitt knew there would be a customer base: "People come in and remember their moms baking cookies, and [they want] to continue [that] tradition."

When they found a space they liked on Seattle's famous Market Street, they opened their doors to an array of clientele. Now kids, bridal parties and even corporate groups schedule baking parties in their store. "It's hard not to be happy here," says Truitt.

Toombs, 49, a baker by trade, notes their popularity is growing by word-of-mouth: "We keep getting more people discovering us." Today, they offer a "cookie cutter of the month" club, a gingerbread house-decorating festival for the holidays, cookies with logos for corporate clientele, and cookie-decorating classes-with about $100,000 in sales for their first year in business. With plans to expand into franchising someday, it looks like there will be a lot more sweet cookie partying in the future.

At Their Service

What: A Web site providing civilian job listings for ex- personnel
Who: Karin Markley of Military Exits
Where: Chatsworth, California
When: Started in 2002

Finding a job is one of the biggest challenges for people coming out of the military. Karin Markley, founder of Military Exits, knows this well-she has 15 years of experience working in a civilian agency. She knows companies value employees with military backgrounds, and she wanted to provide a one-stop link between the two.

Setting up out of her home, Markley, 40, contacted the Department of Defense for permission to use its seal on her . It took months to get it, but is now linked to all the military bases. It costs nothing for servicemen and women to post their resumes and search for jobs; employers pay for the listings, which reach service personnel in the United States and overseas. The site also includes information on relocation and education, as well as military support chat groups.

Markley, who projects sales of $600,000 for 2004, points to her biggest reward: "Helping the military. Getting the letters and phone calls from these people thanking me so much for what I'm doing for them."

Picture Perfect

What: A stock photography agency that provides images of minorities for advertisers and graphic design professionals
Who: Troy A. Jones and T. Lynn Ford of Ethno Images Inc.
Where: Dallas
When: Started in 2000

Former executives and colleagues Troy Jones and T. Lynn Ford knew the advertising industry well-and they knew when they searched for stock photos of minorities to use in ad campaigns, they would come up empty-handed. "Working with various art directors, there was always a need for an African-American image here or a Hispanic image there. But there was never a resource for it," says Jones.

Jones, 34, and Ford, 28, spotted a niche-and saw that the growing minority population would correspond with a growing need for minority-targeted advertising. They were also tired of the ups and downs of working at ad agencies.

But starting a one-stop shop for minority stock images presented its own challenges-such as locating enough talented photographers who shared their vision and had those kinds of photos in their collections. Says Jones, "We did direct mail, searched the , [did] guerrilla-type marketing, went to exhibits [and] shoots-word-of-mouth was a key factor."

In the end, the creation of Ethno Images turns out to be a winning situation for all involved: Ad agencies get the photos they need, photographers get to sell their photographs, and Ethno Images secures a commission for linking the two. And their annual $700,000 in sales is only the beginning, according to Jones. He sees Ethno Images eventually becoming part of a larger Ethno brand that will encompass a greeting card company, a recording label and an entertainment company.

On a shoestring

What: An online store for specialty auto parts
Who: Michael Lewis and Brian Marks of (
Where: Sammamish, Washington
When: Started in 1998
Start-Up Cost: $583

After eight years of working for others-after he'd owned his own business-Michael Lewis got the inspiration to start The car enthusiast had been chatting on a Pontiac Grand Prix community Web site when he met Brian Marks, 28, and the two commiserated about the difficulty of finding specialty car parts. Both had jobs in the tech industry at the time, yet they wanted to launch a Web site to meet car hobbyists' needs. Says Lewis, 42, "We had this idea we could do this with little risk because we could use the Internet as our catalog."

The partners started part time out of their homes-with Lewis in Sammamish, Washington, and Marks in Raleigh, North Carolina. "We didn't even meet until we'd been working together for three months," says Lewis. Their earliest expenses were $55 per month for Web hosting and application fees for the Internet transactions and merchant bank account. To save money, they didn't stock at first, but relied on drop-shipping from vendors instead.

In 1999, Lewis quit his job to devote himself full time to the growing venture; Marks quit his job in 2000 and still resides in North Carolina. Lewis credits outsourcing with keeping overhead low-even today, with sales in the millions, they outsource warehousing, distribution and shipping. "As much as you want to start with $2 million in capital, keep the day job, and get your toes wet," says Lewis. "Learn when the consequences aren't so high."


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