Smart Ideas 04/04

Multicultural wallpaper, post-prom events and more
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

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

Beyond Borders

What: A manufacturer of multicultural wallpaper and borders
Who: John and Cynthia Ham and Steven V. Jones of Cultural Hangups Inc.
Where: Huntersville, North Carolina
When: Started in 1999

When John and Cynthia Ham were expecting their first child in 1997, they knew they wanted to decorate the baby's room but couldn't find exactly what they were looking for. But when Cynthia saw celebrity mom Holly Robinson Peete in a TV interview talking about the multicultural mural she commissioned for her children's room, inspiration struck. Cynthia also wanted a border on her child's walls that would reflect their African-American heritage.

The Hams hired an artist to make that vision a reality, and when friends and relatives saw the beautiful multicultural border, they all wanted it for their own children. It was then, says Cynthia, that they knew they had a business idea. Cynthia researched the market and found that the leading wall-covering companies weren't interested in the concept. "They said it wouldn't work," she recalls. "And [I thought] 'How do you know?'"

Armed with passion for their idea, Cynthia, 35, and John, 38, enlisted the help of their friend Steven V. Jones, 36, to get the unique product off the ground. Their first offering was an alphabet border featuring different African-American characters for each letter. was the next order of business-so they took the product to their college sororities and fraternities and began to spread the word through that network of alumni. They also attended the national Black Expo, a trade show for African-American products and services held by the National Minority Supplier Development Council, to drum up business.

Today, Cultural Hangups, which now includes multicultural wallpaper borders for kids of African-American, Hispanic and Asian descents, can be found on Wal-Mart store shelves in North Carolina and Georgia. Year-end sales are expected to hit $1 million, thanks to a new décor line for teens and the addition of bedding and accessories.

A Sporting Chance

What: A company that attaches packets to seats at sports and entertainment events
Who: James Allegro Jr., Frank Allegro and Kevin Lilly of NuBoard Media
Where: Atlanta
When: Started in 2000

A bright idea hit James Allegro Jr. at a Florida Marlins game. After noticing all the huge sponsors and advertisements in the outfield, he considered the empty seat back in front of him-and then the sea of empty seat backs throughout the stadium-and realized it was prime advertising space.

So James, 39, his brother Frank, 36, and his friend Kevin Lilly, 36, came up with the idea for a bag that would stick to the seat backs. There, advertisers could not only display their logos and messages but also include free product samples, coupons and giveaways-stuff those huge billboards couldn't provide.

It took more than a year and a half of doing small events for free to convince clients of the value of this type of advertising. It worked, though, and today, the trio has clients like Argent Mortgage Co., BellSouth, Chick-fil-A and Nokia clamoring to use their bags to advertise in Major League Baseball parks, college bowl games and now with a small but growing presence in the NFL and NASCAR. With 2004 projected sales in the $650,000 range, NuBoard Media is poised to hit sales out of the park.

Where's the Party?

What: A Web site that provides post-prom entertainment for high school students
Who: Yoel Silber of Promtix Inc.
Where: New York City
When: Started in 1998

Ah, remember the prom-the limos, the dresses, the late nights spent wandering around town looking for after-prom fun? Well, Yoel Silber, 27, has found a way to cash in on that market with Promtix (, his one-stop shop for after-prom adventures. He sells tickets to cruises, comedy and dance clubs, and the like-and has made many a prom-goer happy with set plans for after prom. Says Silber, "In New York [City], especially, kids went to Manhattan for their after-prom [partying], but they couldn't get into the nightclubs because they didn't have ID."

Silber combats this common problem by booking clubs and cruises specifically for the underage high school crowd. "Now they have a place [to party], and the parents know where they're going," Silber explains. Parents can sleep even better knowing that all Promtix events are nonalcoholic.

With a background in party promotion, Silber knew there was an underserved market of high school students who spend big bucks on prom night. He markets his events via fliers at local malls-where he's likely to find lots of prom-goers-but he's also found that word-of-mouth really helped to grow sales to $1 million for 2003.

He notes that teenagers were fast to buy into the Promtix concept-and luckily, Silber's received nothing but positive responses from club owners. He's currently in and Philadelphia, and would like to make Promtix a presence in 10 major U.S. markets, including Atlanta, Boston and Los Angeles.

On a shoestring

What: A wellness spa that provides therapy, facials, manicures and pedicures
Who: Stephanie Lakhani of Breathe Wellness Spa
Where: Boise, Idaho
When: Started in 2001
How Much: $4,500

Stephanie Lakhani wanted to get out on her own. Sure, this massage therapist had a passel of clients in the facility where she worked, but she wanted to be able to cater to her customers' needs on a more personal level.

She set out to find space and says she lucked out by taking over someone else's lease. "The opportunity fell into my lap," Lakhani recalls. Because she didn't have to outlay cash for a down payment or buy equipment the spa already had, she was able to allot most of her startup budget to outfitting her Breathe Wellness Spa.

Lakhani wanted to provide a very relaxing atmosphere but couldn't afford to buy expensive rugs and décor. Instead, this confirmed bargain shopper went hunting for deals-instead of a formal desk, she bought a fancy dining room table and six chairs at a local furniture-store clearance. The table became her reception desk, and the chairs added class to the waiting area.

Lakhani didn't spend much on advertising, either-she created brochures on her home PC. Her biggest coup, though, was giving coupons for free massages, manicures, pedicures and facials to local radio stations to give away as prizes. The company was mentioned numerous times, and it only cost her the freebies.

In the end, notes Lakhani, 33, the small personal touches helped her grow her business to sales of $350,000 to $500,000 in 2003. "I try to put myself in their shoes," says Lakhani, who sends personal coupons and notes to clients around Mother's Day, and Christmas to boost her clientele and help with word-of-mouth recommendations. "That's something that doesn't cost anything."


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