Smart Ideas 09/05
What: Customized dollhouses kids can assemble and design themselves
Who: Curtis Jacobson of Storyboard Toys
Where: Longmont, Colorado
When: Started in 2002
A former engineer for Volvo, Curtis Jacobson, 38, made toys as a hobby in his spare time--frequently using his eight nieces and nephews to test-market his innovations. But he knew he was onto something when he got the idea for ArtHouses. "You could have the kids designing their own wallpaper or siding, and that got me to the idea of building a dollhouse with walls that display 8.5-by-11-[inch] paper artwork," says Jacobson, who launched the business with personal savings. Made of furniture-grade plywood and plastic, the dollhouses are collapsible and can be assembled by a child in just two minutes.
Though Jacobson originally believed toy stores and museum gift shops would be the top markets for his product, he's seen the most interest from elementary school teachers, who use ArtHouses as creative teaching tools. Conducive to group projects and the imagination, ArtHouses have been used to teach poetry, explain color theory and more. Currently, primary schools in Brevard County, Florida, have incorporated ArtHouses into after-school programs and the summer school curriculum.
The product is also sold on Jacobson's website and in some independent toy stores nationwide. In 2004, the company grossed five figures, but Jacobson expects to earn six figures this year, since the education community keeps asking for more. Says Jacobson, "It's all about what kids do with it. It's a very creativity-inspiring device." -Lori Kozlowski
Back to the Root
What: DNA testing that traces the heritage of black people
Who: Dr. Rick Kittles and Gina Paige of African Ancestry Inc.
Where: Washington, DC
When: Started in 2003
As an African-American, Dr. Rick Kittles wanted to know who his ancestors were and their countries of origin. So the geneticist decided to create a database of African lineages.
After working on this database for several years, Kittles, 38, who holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology, joined forces with businesswoman Gina Paige, 38, to start a company that allows African-Americans to confidentially obtain information about their genealogy.
By using DNA technology, the company aids individuals in determining maternal or paternal ancestry. Customers go online (www.africanancestry.com) to order a $349 kit, use swabs to collect their cheek cells and then send their samples to the company via Express Mail. After the DNA is extracted from the swabs and sequenced, Kittles matches the sequence to his database of more than 25,000 African lineages and 389 ethnic groups.
Upon receiving their results, many clients feel they've received a priceless gift. "For many of [our clients], there's a sense of connectedness," says Paige, who adds they have a 95 percent success rate. "There's a sense of completion because this answers a question people thought they'd never be able to answer in their lifetimes."
African Ancestry has more than 3,000 clients, including celebrities such as actor LeVar Burton, director Spike Lee and Congresswoman Diane Watson. The company earned $300,000 in 2004, and they expect to increase sales by 50 percent in 2005. -Lori Kozlowski
What: Disposable underwear and socks for men and women
Who: Betty Hung and Teresa Williams of Break Room Concepts
Where: Santa Monica, California
When: Started in 2003
Betty Hung and Teresa Williams want their customers to throw their product away. To be more specific, the minds behind OneDerWear disposable underwear would just like customers to wear it and toss it.
The two friends came up with the idea while working in Comcast's marketing department. Hung, 33, and Williams, 35, frequently traded stories in the break room, and Hung managed to raise eyebrows when she mentioned she had to pick up some disposable underwear for her upcoming vacation abroad. "She said it was this product she used in Asia, and whenever [they] go on a trip, they take the product with them and just wear [their] underwear and throw it away. You don't have to re-pack it and bring it back," Williams says. "All of us were like, 'That is so weird.'"
But Williams became convinced of the product's convenience after she tried them out on a trip. The two began to talk about the potential of disposable, biodegradable cotton underwear and formed Break Room Concepts to bring the product to the U.S., using their marketing backgrounds and $20,000 from their parents for startup. After a trip to Taiwan to scout out a manufacturer, Hung and Williams came up with a few designs that would suit American tastes.
The two-woman operation expects 2005 sales to exceed $300,000. The products are available in 60 travel and luggage stores nationwide, and the pair plans to expand the disposable line into bras, T-shirts and pillowcases sometime next year. -James Park
Seeing the Sites
What: A marketing company that designs and hosts affordable, professional-looking websites for small businesses
Who: David Aitken, Brad Stone, Mark Strong and Leah Young of Heritage Web Solutions
Where: Provo, Utah
When: Started in 2001
How much: $1,000
"Give me $1,000, and I'll give you results." Those were the words David Aitken used to convince the owners of The Heritage Group to invest in his idea. Aitken, 30, was a call-center manager for the Utah company, which specialized in residential mortgage refinancing. Aitken knew the refinancing boom they were riding would eventually end, so he approached owners Brad Stone, 52; Mark Strong, 58; and Leah Young, 36, with a new idea: Help small-business owners develop websites to rival those of larger companies. So little capital was necessary to get started, says Strong, that investing in it was a "no-brainer."
Armed with only $1,000, Aitken hired a part-time telemarketer for $8 an hour to call business owners on a list he purchased for $250. Aitken made follow-up sales calls in his off hours. Once he started selling the $199 websites, Aitken brought on his brother Jeremy and friend Eddie Dockery to help build them. All three worked without compensation for several months, with the promise that if Heritage Web Solutions became successful, they would be guaranteed spots in the new company.
Heritage Web Solutions now has 65 employees, with Jeremy and Dockery still onboard. The Heritage Group has since ceased operations to focus on Heritage Web Solutions. The new company has grossed $1.3 million in sales to date-a figure it's on track to double by year's end. -Sarah Pierce