Smart Ideas 05/04
A Fitting Memorial
and manufacturer of decorative urn covers
Who: Mary Hickey and Bob Wheeler of the Renaissance Urn Co.
Where: San Francisco
When: Started in 2002
It's not easy for most people to talk about death or anything associated with it. But for Mary Hickey and Bob Wheeler, co-founders of the Renaissance Urn Co., it's all in a day's work. These tech-industry veterans design and manufacture unique and modern urns and urn covers-aiming to personalize them and to offer new options to grieving families and friends.
It was, in fact, when Wheeler's mother passed away that he had a difficult time finding a suitable urn for her remains. "I did not like any of the urns that I saw [at the mortuary]," he says. "I didn't think they were beautiful, and they were very uninspired. I'm a potter by hobby, and I ended up making my mother's urn."
He took the idea of creating unique urns to his good friend Hickey and expanded it to include fabric urn covers. Since many families do not buy urns because of the expense or because the urns are unattractive, some people are forced to leave their loved one's remains in impersonal plastic boxes. So Hickey and Wheeler created urn covers as a low-cost alternative to traditional urns. Hickey, 41, and Wheeler, 45, wanted to create urn covers that are decorative while being respectful.
The biggest challenge, according to the pair, was learning about the funeral industry. In the early stages, they learned everything they could from independent funeral directors. "They really took us under their wing," says Hickey.
Primarily selling wholesale to funeral directors, Renaissance Urn Co. saw around $100,000 in sales for 2003.
Banking On It
Developer and marketer of prepaid debit cards for people who
don't use traditional banks
Who: Roy and Bertrand Sosa of NetSpend Corp.
Where: Austin, Texas
When: Started in 1999
Without a credit card, it's nearly impossible to buy merchandise online or even open a video-rental account. Brothers Roy and Bertrand Sosa of NetSpend Corp. set out to change that by developing a prepaid debit card for people who don't have bank or credit card accounts.
Originally intended to enable teenagers with no credit to buy online, Roy, 33, and Bertrand, 29, modified their plan to target the Hispanic community-especially recent immigrants. "Part of the reason we found this target [market] is convenience," says Bertrand. "[Members of the Hispanic community are] looking for ways to enhance their financial literacy."
A key in NetSpend's development was becoming a direct processor and service provider of MasterCard to produce the prepaid debit cards. MasterCard, looking for a way to reach out to the Hispanic market, agreed to join forces with NetSpend, following Roy and Bertrand's initial presentation. Now the cards are offered at check-cashing facilities and grocery stores in ethnic communities, and yearly sales are in the tens of millions.
All That Glitters
diamond jewelry company
Who: Ruta Fox of Divine Diamonds Inc., maker of The Ah Ring
Where: New York City
When: Started in 2001
Women who are available (a) and happy (h) are flocking to buy The Ah Ring, a trademarked diamond pinky ring by Divine Diamonds Inc. Conceived by Ruta Fox, a former freelance writer, this 11-diamond pinky ring with a white-gold band is the diamond ring a woman buys for herself.
A longtime jewelry aficionado, Fox purchased a stylish diamond ring to wear on her pinky. Her friends noticed-and asked her to get rings for them. "I thought I'd take out some savings, get some inventory, and try to sell just to some friends," she says. When her initial inventory of 20 rings went fast, she knew she was onto something.
Because of her media background, Fox, 44, knew promotion was key to getting her company off the ground. She took a promotional kit describing her product to the offices of Oprah Winfrey's magazine, O, hoping to sell a few rings to the staff. Instead, The Ah Ring garnered so much excitement that Winfrey herself decided to include it in "The O List." "It was wild," says Fox. "I had six weeks to go from being a freelance writer to having a product ready to be launched by Oprah."
The product, an affordable luxury retailing at $295, immediately resonated with women of all ages and socioeconomic backgrounds, says Fox. With the ring available solely from her toll-free hotline (800-310-9694), Fox's biggest problem was filling orders fast enough. Today, she also takes orders on her Web site, and she's added The Tranquility Cross (representing calm) and The Snowflake Necklace (representing individuality) to her Divine Diamonds brand.
With 2004 sales expected to approach $2 million, Fox knows she has struck a chord with women. "I get letters from women saying 'This is the first piece of really nice jewelry I've bought myself,'" she says. "I really believe that I'm changing the head space about [women saying] 'Oh, I would never buy myself a diamond ring.'"
online service that connects families to their children at
Who: Ari Ackerman of Bunk1.com
When: Started in 1999
Happy memories from his childhood days at summer camp inspired Ari Ackerman to come up with the idea for Bunk1.com. He originally wrote the business plan for the company for his MBA training, but it seemed like too good an idea to pass up.
His initial concept was to provide a Web service that parents could use to watch their children's camp activities online, with camp administrators posting photos for the parents to peruse. Ackerman then added an e-mail service (called BunkNotes) and an online newsletter service, as well as a search engine to help parents find a camp for their kids.
At first, says Ackerman, 33, the camp directors were difficult to persuade. "To sell them on this concept wasn't easy," he says. But with his camp background, he knew the market well. He knew parents would be willing to pay for this convenient connection to their kids-and he was right. The first camps he sold his service to got good response from parents immediately-and the number of concerned phone calls from parents (the "What's my child doing?" sort) to the camps decreased, as moms and dads had tangible evidence that their babies were alive and well.
Word-of-mouth started to build demand for the concept, and, to date, the Bunk1.com service is offered to close to 2,000 camps nationwide. Camp directors either purchase the service and include it in the price of the camp or simply offer parents the option to purchase Ackerman's Bunk1.com service a la carte.
Revenues are projected to reach more than $3 million for 2004, and Ackerman has already expanded into two other Web services-CampAlumni.com (a service to reconnect old summer camp friends), which is already online, and EmailGrandparents.com (a service that prints out and delivers e-mails from anyone to people in assisted-living facilities), which is expected to be up and running by June. For Ackerman, it's all about staying connected.
On a Shoestring
provider of software and services to help people recover lost media
files on digital devices
Who: Korey Bachelder of MediaRecover LLC
Where: Decorah, Iowa
When: Started in 2001
Startup Cost: $2,000
Korey Bachelder knows what it's like to lose a once-in-a-lifetime family memory. He was on a family vacation, snapping away with his digital camera, when he accidentally erased all the files. At the time, he was a 21-year-old college student with a background in computers, so he knew there were programs out there to recover data in general. "I looked around and ended up finding some software that recovered images," says Bachelder, now 23. "I saw that no one was really marketing it for digital cameras."
Struck by how necessary this service would be to consumers-especially with the growing popularity of digital cameras-Bachelder set up a service to recover people's lost digital images. Says Bachelder, "I get to save people's images-whether it's wedding photos or family reunion [photos]." He used most of his $2,000 in startup capital to purchase a computer and software. With his college apartment as company headquarters, Bachelder used all the resources available to him as a business management major at the University of Northern Iowa. He ran ideas by professors and consulted many resources in the university library. "Especially with a small budget, you can't risk it on a lot of things," he says. "Bounce ideas off of people in different fields and different jobs."
Bachelder saved money by doing most of the work himself-from marketing and PR to Web site development and ad design. Though he initially sold software developed elsewhere, he soon created his own program in-house.
Even today, he keeps overhead low by working out of his home office and networking with independent contractors in a virtual environment. His image-recovery software can be found on the shelves of big-name retailers like Best Buy, CompUSA, Fry's Electronics, Office Depot and OfficeMax; and his service is available via the MediaRecover Web site. With 2004 sales projected to reach $450,000, Bachelder reflects on his growth plan. "I grew organically," he says. "I just used all the money from sales and put it back into the business."